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6 Types of Cognitive Distortions and How to Overcome Them

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I have learnt about cognitive distortions and how to overcome them through cognitive behavioral therapy and have studied the topic in depth.

Learn about six types of cognitive distortions and how to overcome them.

Learn about six types of cognitive distortions and how to overcome them.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are simply any views, belief systems or patterns of thinking that an individual holds which are an irrational view of reality. These patterns of thinking can be overly exaggerated, and in times of difficulty, can result in a negative view of the world. This can often lead to a depressive or anxious mental state, which can also affect your physical health.

Common Cognitive Distortions

In this section, I will be exploring some of the common cognitive distortions in depth. For each distortion, I have provided an example which is a scenario that I have made up based on my expertise on the subject. Some of these scenarios are based on my personal experience facing my very own cognitive distortions. I have then provided my own personal recommendations on how you can challenge each of these distortions.

1. Mental Filtering

Mental filtering is where you focus on only the negative aspects of a particular situation instead of having a view of any positive aspects.

Challenging Mental Filtering

  • Focus on all the positives that happen and learn from any negatives
  • Make a game if you like where you weigh up and write down the positives and negatives of a scenario

Challenging this cognitive distortion will enable you to have a more balanced view of the situation.

Example: Presenting for Colleagues at a Meeting

Distorted View

You are invited to present the team meeting for your colleagues. You are nervous and anxious about how it will go. After presenting to your colleagues, you notice that the majority of them are pleased and are applauding you. You are given feedback on how certain features or content of the presentation could be improved for the future. This feedback is meant to be constructive but you forget about all the positives and only focus on the fact that you have not done a good job and really should have done better. As a result, you are thinking of never putting your name forward to present again or would rather turn down other opportunities to develop your confidence.

Balanced View

You embrace the opportunity to present for your colleagues at the meeting. You are prepared therefore are fairly confident about your presentation. After presenting you are commended by your colleagues for the good presentation. You are also given feedback on what could be improved. You are delighted that the presentation went fairly well as your colleagues seemed pleased and you are aware of where you could have improved for next time. The next time you have to present, you will know what areas to improve on so will ultimately be able to do a better job.

2. Disqualifying the Positive

Disqualifying the positive is based on ignoring or dismissing any positive experiences that we encounter in our lives. An individual may feel that these positives are not important or worthy of any recognition and may even refuse to accept them as positives.

Challenging Disqualifying the Positive

  • Accept your positives and try to embrace them.
  • Take pride in your achievements. Replace the mentality of 'I got lucky' or 'I don't deserve it' with the following: 'I worked hard', 'I was prepared'

Challenging this distortion will help to increase self-belief and your self-esteem.

Example: Cooking Food for Guests

Distorted View

You are cooking for guests and they complement how good dinner was. You may feel that they are just being formal, being nice or they want something from you instead of accepting their appreciation.

Balanced View

You cook dinner for guests and you are complemented on how good dinner was. You are pleased as you put a lot of effort into your cooking. You are also glad that everyone enjoyed the dishes you served.

3. Mind Reading

Mind reading is thinking of what someone else's intentions or thoughts are based on no clear communication or evidence. This is also commonly referred to as jumping to conclusions.

Challenging Mind Reading

  • Before coming to a conclusion, question the facts.
  • Focus on the things that are true.

Challenging this distortion will help you conserve energy and stop negative thinking.

Example: Visiting the Beautician for Makeup

Distorted View

You go to your beautician and notice that someone new is working there. They do your makeup for a party you will be attending. You look in the mirror and think that they have done a terrible job. You cannot do anything about the situation as you are already running late. You politely thank them and then leave. When arriving at the party, you meet a friend. Before greeting you formally, your friend says: "Wow, you look different".

You assume that they are saying that in a sarcastic way or a negative way without actually understanding the context as you think the beautician did a bad job. Your friend may be complementing you but you have already jumped to a conclusion that the comment was negative. You lose confidence as you enter and remain self-conscious of what others will think. You meet another friend who is hosting the party. This friend says, '"You look amazing".

You instantly think that they are simply trying to be polite and avoid humiliating you even though they meant it in a positive manner.

Balanced View

Referring to the scenario above, a more balanced view would be that although you think the beautician has done a bad job with your makeup you may think that that is just your opinion. A more balanced view of assessing this would be to think as you leave the beautician, other people may have a different view and think that the makeup may be fine. When approaching friends at the party their comments are likely to make you feel like the makeup is fine otherwise someone would have pointed it out, they are my friends after all. You feel you would be able to trust them.

4. "All or Nothing" Thinking

"All or nothing" thinking, also commonly referred to as 'black or white' thinking, is where you either see everything as either all good or all bad. There are no areas in between—no "shades of grey." Normally, it is the negative aspect of a situation that you pay more attention to.

Challenging 'All or Nothing' Thinking

  • Try to put things into perspective. There is hardly ever an extremely positive or negative outcome with most things.
  • Look and focus on the bigger picture.

Challenging this distortion will keep you more balanced with your view of life.

Example: Getting an Exam Score of 70%

Distorted View

You may get a score of 70% in an exam. Instead of thinking that it is a good score you may feel you should have done better and gotten a better score or even 100%. You see this result as not doing well enough. You feel you have let yourself down and should have done better.

Balanced View

A more balanced view of receiving a result of 70% in the exam would be to be relatively pleased that you got that score. You might be slightly disappointed and feel you should have done better but overall you are content. You feel you won't gain anything from beating yourself over it.

5. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is thinking a particular situation is worse than it actually is, or imagining a future situation to be worse than it actually is.

Challenging Catastrophizing

  • The key to challenging catastrophizing is to try and stay positive.
  • Do not overthink and make every situation into something it is not.
  • Engaging in positive thinking it may help to decrease negative thinking.

Challenging this distortion will help you stay focused and hopeful. By responding to certain situations with panicking you are in fact more likely to make mistakes.

Example: Facing Problems With a Project

Distorted View

You have a project to complete and are slightly worried as the topic is unfamiliar to you. You start to think of the worst possible outcomes of letting your colleagues down or even losing your job. This negative thinking pattern may even lead you to think that you are not even worthy of the role.

Balanced View

You look at the bigger picture and approach the relevant people to raise concerns about your understanding of your project. You feel everything will be fine and it is important to stop thinking the worst will happen. You know that the project has not even started yet so you feel thinking that you will fail to achieve is unproductive.

6. Heaven's Reward Fallacy

Heaven's reward fallacy is having the belief that positive actions will always be rewarded equally.

Challenging Heaven's Reward Fallacy

  • Try to accept that all your positive actions may not be rewarded or equally rewarded.
  • Do not always assume that you are due a reward for doing something. The universe doesn't work like that.

Challenging this distortion will help you be more patient with yourself.

Examples of Distorted Views

  • I worked so hard but still, I don't get promoted.
  • I was kind to them so they should be friendly to me.

Examples of Balanced Views:

  • I have worked hard and shouldn't have too many expectations of getting something in return.
  • I was kind to them and shouldn't accept anything in return.

The Takeaway

Overcoming any cognitive distortions or biases you may have may help you live a happier and more peaceful life. By making peace with yourself, you can save yourself from unnecessary stress and tension. Based on my own personal experience, I have noticed that many people including myself have been able to benefit from overcoming distorted patterns of thinking.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2019 Gupi


Gupi (author) on June 21, 2019:

Hi Cynthia,

Thank you for your positive and uplifting feedback. I really appreciate it and I am glad that you found it useful.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on June 21, 2019:

Thank you for this clearly written review of the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. I will share your article! Cheers, Cynthia

Gupi (author) on June 14, 2019:

Hi Pamela,

Thank you for your feedback. I am glad that you found the structure of the article useful.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 14, 2019:

I like the way you wrote this article. Il think listing the cognitive problem, giving an example, then some actions that would help change any experience made the information very clear for everyone.