Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are often exaggerated, irrational, and biased. These thought patterns are believed to cause people to perceive reality inaccurately. Thoughts like “I have the worst luck in the world” and “I just failed my math test, which means I’m no good at school and I should just quit” are common cognitive distortions examples. These thought patterns cause people to inaccurately understand reality and often indicate the onset of psychological issues like depression and anxiety. When you experience a cognitive distortion, you may interpret events negatively. Although it’s common to experience cognitive distortions from time to time, when they occur often enough, they can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression, cause relationship problems, and more. Keep reading to learn more about some of the most common types of cognitive distortions you should look out for.
List of Cognitive Distortions
Research shows that people develop cognitive distortions to cope with adverse situations. The more prolonged and severe these situations are, the more likely the person will experience one or more types of cognitive distortions.1 One theory suggests that people may have developed cognitive distortions as a type of evolutionary survival method that’s been passed down. All cognitive distortions examples have the same things in common: they’re thought patterns or patterns of believing, they’re false or inaccurate, and they all have the potential to cause psychological damage. Below are 15 common cognitive distortions types that you may have experienced before.
One common distorted thought pattern is mental filtering, which is the tendency to ignore the positives and focus on the negatives. People who experience mental filtering interpret circumstances in a negative light, which is not only inaccurate but is also detrimental to anxiety and depression symptoms. Research has linked cognitive distortions types like mental filtering to suicidal thoughts because hopelessness can result from viewing yourself and your future negatively.
#2: Polarized Thinking (Polarization)
Polarization or polarized thinking refers to thinking about yourself and the world in a “black or white” or “all-or-nothing” way. An example of polarized thinking would be thinking of your coworker as a saint until she ate your sandwich. Now you don’t like her. Or, if you got a B on your most recent test, you may feel as if you’ve failed as a student despite all of the other A’s you’ve received before. All-or-nothing thinking causes you to set extreme and unrealistic standards for yourself and others that could negatively impact your relationships and motivation to accomplish tasks. Polarization also sets you up for failure. For instance, if you’ve kept up a healthy eating pattern but forgot to meal prep the day before, you may eat a bacon cheeseburger that day instead. However, you may feel as if you’ve ruined your healthy eating pattern with that one burger, so you decide to stop trying altogether.
When people overgeneralize, they reach a conclusion about a particular event or situation and then incorrectly apply that conclusion to every other situation in their life. People who overgeneralize take one isolated negative event and turn it into a never-ending pattern. For instance, you may speak up at a team meeting at work and receive a negative response, so you figure, “I’m never going to speak at a team meeting again.” Another example of overgeneralization is concluding that you’re terrible at math after scoring low on one test.
Overgeneralization is associated with mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), various anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders. People who suffer from frequent cognitive distortions may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. However, without proper mental health care or inpatient drug treatment, people who fall into these categories are more likely to continue experiencing other life-impacting problems like addiction and worsening symptoms.
#4: Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading)
Also known as mind-reading, jumping to conclusions means you’re negatively interpreting an event without evidence to support your reasoning. Then, you react to your assumption. For instance, your partner comes home looking serious. Instead of asking how their day went or whether they’re okay, you automatically assume they’re mad at you. As a result, you may keep your distance from them. But in reality, your partner probably just had a tough day. This type of thinking can cause a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding and tension in a relationship of any kind.
#5: Discounting the Positive
Discounting the positive is similar to mental filtering in that it prompts someone to only focus on the negative. However, the main difference is that you dismiss the positive as something with no value when you do consider it. For instance, if someone compliments your hair, then you may think they’re just trying to be nice. Or, if your boss tells you they enjoyed your presentation, you may brush it off as something anyone else could have done.
Catastrophizing is similar to jumping to conclusions, only, in this case, you jump to the worst possible conclusion in every scenario, no matter how far-fetched it seems. Catastrophizing is often accompanied by “what if” questions. What if he hasn’t arrived because he crashed? What if she’s not responding to my text because she doesn’t want to be with me anymore?
Personalization causes you to believe that you’re responsible for events that, in reality, are completely or partially out of your control. This cognitive distortion often causes feelings of guilt and blame without considering all the factors involved. For example, if your child is in a car accident, you may blame yourself for letting them go out in the first place.
#8: Fallacy of Fairness
This type of cognitive distortion refers to measuring every behavior and situation on a “fairness” scale. However, because everyone’s scale of fairness differs, it upsets you when other people don’t agree with your idea of what’s fair and unfair. The fallacy of fairness will lead to you engaging in conflict with certain people and situations because you feel the need for everything to fall under your idea of what’s fair. However, because fairness is rarely absolute and can often be selfish or self-serving, this type of cognitive distortion can cause conflict. For instance, you may think it’s only “fair” that your partner massages your feet when they get home from work because you’ve been cooking for hours. However, they may be exhausted and only want to take a bath so they can relax from the day and enjoy the rest of it with you.
#9: Control Fallacies
Fallacy refers to an illusion or misconception. Control fallacies can go one of two ways: either you feel responsible for everything, or you feel as if you have no control over anything. For example, you may blame everyone else in the office for your failure to complete a report on time. In this case, you’re placing control of your behavior on someone else. On the other hand, you may believe that your actions impact or control the lives of others. For instance, you may automatically think someone else is unhappy because of you or something you did.
Blaming refers to placing the responsibility of your feelings on others. This kind of cognitive distortion stems from the belief that others have the power to affect your life. “You made me feel bad” is a common example of this distortion. But in reality, even when others are engaging in hurtful behaviors, you have control over your feelings in most situations.
“Should” statements are subjective and immovable rules you set up for yourself and others without taking certain circumstances into account. You tell yourself that things should be a certain way, no questions asked. As cognitive distortions, “should” statements are similar to the fallacy of fairness. Often people who experience this type of distortion set certain standards for themselves or others. For example, they may believe that independent people can never ask for help or that they always have to make their bed. When these things don’t happen, the person may feel guilty, disappointed, angry, or frustrated.
#12: Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning causes you to believe that your feelings are a reflection of reality. “I feel this way about this situation, so it must be true.” For instance, feelings of inadequacy or self-consciousness may turn into, “I don’t fit in anywhere.” This cognitive distortion can also lead you to believe that future events are dependent on your feelings. For instance, you believe that something bad will happen today because you woke up feeling anxious.
#13: Global Labeling
Global labeling or mislabeling is when people reduce themselves or others to a single – usually negative – characteristic or descriptor, like “drunk,” “failure,” or “liar,” to name a few. When people label, they define themselves or others based on a single event or action. Labeling can cause people to berate and think ill of themselves and others. It’s a dangerous and hurtful form of thinking.
#14: Fallacy of Change
The fallacy of change causes you to expect other people will change their ways to suit your own needs or expectations, especially when you pressure them enough. For instance, you may want your partner to only focus on you instead of going out, even though you know they’ve always been a social person. So every time they make plans with friends to go out, you may tell them that you don’t like it or aren’t okay with it. You know that by doing this, they may eventually change their ways and want to stay home all the time. As you can see, this can be problematic for many relationships.
#15: Always Being Right
Wanting to always be right becomes a cognitive distortion when it supersedes everything else, such as evidence and other people’s feelings. As a cognitive distortion, always being right refers to seeing your opinion as fact, which is why you’d do almost anything to prove you’re right. For instance, while you may think your parents never support you in anything, your sibling may believe it depends on the situation. You become angry because they disagree and begin to say hurtful things to them, even if they get upset.
Coping with cognitive distortions can be difficult. If you don’t attempt to control your thoughts and catch these distortions in action, then you may experience more serious issues like anxiety and depression. Mental health is sensitive and requires great care. Those who do not receive mental health treatment often turn to more destructive and dangerous forms of self-medicating, like substance abuse. This in and of itself could lead to addiction and other issues. Along with cognitive distortions, addiction can ruin relationships and other areas of a person’s life.
Our Clearbrook rehab in PA has seen cognitive distortions active in people who struggle with substance use disorders. If you or a loved one is battling addiction, we can help. Call Clearbrook Treatment Centers Pennsylvania now at 570-536-9621 to learn more about the addiction treatment services we offer.
- NCBI – Do cognitive distortions explain the longitudinal relationship between life adversity and emotional and behavioural problems in secondary school children?
- Positive Psychology – Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You
- NCBI – A Cognitive Distortions and Deficits Model of Suicide Ideation