Cognitive distortions, automatic thoughts and difficult feelings, oh my!

Common Cognitive Distortions

     According to Dr. Judith Beck, influential cognitive therapist, there are twelve typical errors in thinking. These errors in thinking can become our automatic thoughts, the thoughts that propel us to attempt to meet our needs. Sometimes, these automatic thoughts get in the way from meeting our needs in ways that are beneficial to us. When we know about these cognitive distortions, and we practice mindfulness, we can notice these automatic thoughts, say hello to them, and then change our deeply rooted thought patterns and learn to ways of thinking that are more beneficial to us. No one wants to think things like ‘I’m not good enough’ and when we learn to challenge these thoughts, we also learn how to become better friends with ourselves! Would you enjoy some freedom from negative thinking? Keep reading…

1~ All-or-nothing thinking

This type of thinking is polarizing or dichotomous – it locks us into believing that a situation can “only” be viewed in two categories (rather than in shades of gray).  Example: “If I’m not a total success, I am a failure.”

2~ Catastrophizing

This occurs when we believe that we can “magically” predict the future without considering other, more probable, outcomes.  Example: “I’ll be so upset, I won’t be able to function at all.”

3~ Discounting the positive

When we engage in this type of cognitive distortion, we unreasonably tell ourselves that positive events, attributes, or facts simply do not count.  Example: “I may have done that well, but that doesn’t mean I’m smart; I just got lucky.”

4~ Emotional reasoning

This is a common cognitive distortion wherein we believe in the validity of something because we “feel” it is true so strongly that we ignore evidence to the contrary.  Example: “I know I do a lot of things well, but I still feel like a failure.”

5~ Labeling

This distortion occurs when we put a fixed generalized label on ourselves or others without considering that available evidence may lead to a less disastrous conclusion.  Example: “I’m a loser” or “He’s a bad person.”

6~ Magnification / minimization

We engage in this distortion when we evaluate ourselves, others, or a situation while unreasonably magnifying or minimizing the positive.  Example: “Getting a low grade proves how stupid I am” or “Just because I did well, it doesn’t mean I’m smart.”

7~ Mental filter

This is also sometimes referred to as selective abstraction.  When we think this way, we pay undue attention to one negative detail rather than seeing the big picture.  Example: “Since that one part of the date didn’t go well, it means the whole thing was a failure.”

8~ Mind reading

We employ distorted thinking in this way when we believe that we somehow know what others are thinking – failing to consider other, more likely, possibilities.  Example: “I can tell she’s thinking that she doesn’t like me.”

9~ Overgeneralization

We overgeneralize when we make sweeping negative conclusions that extend far beyond the scope of the present situation.  Example: “Because I felt nervous at that party, I just don’t have what it takes to make friends.”

10~ Personalization

This is when we believe that others are acting negatively because of us, without considering other, more plausible, causes for their behavior.  Example: “She didn’t smile at me in the hallway because I did something wrong.”

11~ “Should” & “must” statements

This type of distortion is also referred to as imperatives.  It is when we have precise fixed ideas about how we or others should behave, overestimating how bad it would be if these expectations are not met.  Example: “It’s awful that I made a mistake.  I should always do my very best.”

12~ Tunnel vision

This common cognitive distortion occurs when we are only able to see the negative aspects of a situation.  Example: “He just can’t do anything right.  He’s so critical and insensitive.”




~Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York, NY: Guilford Press.


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