Have you ever experienced situations when negative thoughts seemed to take over your mind? If you have, there’s a chance that you were going through a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that lead us to perceive reality inaccurately. Most people experience them from time to time, but when these thinking patterns become habitual, they can increase anxiety, worsen depression and put a strain on our relationships. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at six common types of cognitive distortion and what you can do to overcome them.
Photo: Valeria Ushakova via Pexels
What is cognitive distortion?
Our perception of the world around us is shaped by our distinct life story and the experiences we’ve gathered. Internalised thinking patterns influence our decisions and shape our behaviour. When these patterns lead our mind to perceive reality in inaccurate, usually negative ways, we’re experiencing cognitive distortion. We tend to be oblivious to how much our thought patterns control our lives but can end up feeling anxious, sad, or frustrated without any clear cause as a result of them. To the person experiencing distorted thinking, their thoughts can appear perfectly rational and accurate, but in reality, they’re not.
Studies suggest that individuals may adopt cognitive distortions in order to cope with challenging life circumstances. Some experts even believe these patterns may have evolved as a human survival mechanism – the fight or flight response. While they may prove advantageous for immediate survival, in the long run, these thought patterns are detrimental to our mental health. Damaging thoughts can reinforce negative emotions and beliefs, intensify feelings of low self-esteem, worsen symptoms of mental health disorders, and incite self-destructive behaviours. Thus, identifying and recognising these distorted thinking patterns is essential for maintaining a healthier mindset and improving our emotional well-being.
6 common types of cognitive distortion
Black-and-white thinking is perhaps the pattern I encounter most frequently with my online counselling clients. Also known as all-or-nothing or polarised thinking, it is characterised by a tendency to think in extremes. For people engaging in polarised thinking, there is no middle ground, no nuances. Situations, events and people are seen as either entirely good or entirely bad, perfect or flawed.
For someone engaging in black-and-white thinking, a minor argument with their partner might be seen as a sign that their entire relationship is doomed, ignoring the years of happiness they’ve shared. Another typical example I often see in my online practice is the belief that unless someone is a top performer at work or a hugely successful entrepreneur, they’re a complete failure, regardless of any accomplishments and growth they have achieved.
Catastrophising is a tendency to imagine the worst-case scenario. It’s characterised by the tendency to magnify, exaggerate, or overestimate the severity of a situation or potential future events. People who catastrophise will picture the worst possible outcome in any given situation, even when it’s highly unlikely to occur. This thought pattern can lead to heightened anxiety, stress, and irrational fears.
For instance, someone might interpret a minor delay in traffic as a sign that they’ll be late for an important meeting, which could lead to them losing their job and ultimately result in their financial ruin. Or they might interpret a minor ache or pain as a sign of a life-threatening disease.
When people overgeneralise, they reach a conclusion about a situation, an event or an aspect of themself and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board. It involves taking one isolated instance and applying it as a general rule or pattern to all similar situations or experiences. For example, if someone goes on a date that doesn’t go well and concludes, “I’m always terrible at dating, and I’ll never find a partner,” they are overgeneralising. Overgeneralization can lead to negative self-perceptions and beliefs, hinder problem-solving, and contribute to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.
Mental filtering is another phenomenon I frequently observe in my online counselling clients. It is often linked to perfectionism and, ironically, often tends to affect successful people. Filtering means focusing exclusively on a negative element of a situation while excluding or minimising any positives. This supports the person’s belief that they are flawed and imperfect. Someone who experiences mental filtering might dwell on a single criticism or mistake, filtering out all the praise and positive feedback they receive. This can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem and a negative outlook on life.
Labelling involves using critical or negative language to describe oneself or others, often based on a single mistake or characteristic. It involves making extreme and often unfair judgments about someone’s character or identity (or one’s own), reducing themselves or others to a single characteristic or descriptor, such as a “failure.”
If someone makes a mistake at work, for instance, they might label themselves as “incompetent” based solely on that single event. When labelling others, someone might encounter a rude person and label them as “a horrible human being” without considering that they might be having a bad day or facing personal challenges. Labelling can lead to negative self-esteem and strain relationships because it simplifies complex individuals or situations into harsh judgments.
Another common cognitive distortion that I often encounter in my work as an online therapist is personalisation, which involves individuals wrongly attributing blame or responsibility to themselves for events beyond their control. It involves incorrectly attributing external events, especially negative ones, to oneself. Someone who experiences personalisation might believe that they are solely responsible for a friend’s bad mood, even if the friend’s mood is influenced by external factors unrelated to them. In a relationship, someone who personalises might think they are to blame for every argument or disagreement, even when the issues involve both partners. This cognitive distortion often leads to feelings of guilt and self-blame and is frequently associated with heightened anxiety and depression.
How to overcome cognitive distortions and negative thinking
Did you recognise yourself in any of these negative thinking patterns? Great! Because the first step in addressing cognitive distortions is to become aware of them. The good news is that most irrational patterns of thought can be reversed through self-awareness and some practice.
Next time you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, remind yourself that it’s not the event itself but rather your thoughts about it that are causing you distress. While you can’t always control the circumstances, you do have the ability to refocus your thoughts.
A good first step is to carefully examine the thoughts that run through your mind, looking for any familiar patterns, in order to understand what kind of distorted thinking is taking place at that moment. When you notice a negative thought, ask yourself if there’s any evidence to support (or contradict) it. Are there alternative explanations for the situation or emotion you’re experiencing? Could you be exaggerating the severity of the situation? And how would someone objective, such as a good friend, interpret the situation?
Finally, if you find it too challenging to manage your cognitive distortions on your own, consider seeking the support of a mental health professional. A therapist specialised in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can support you in identifying, interrupting, and changing your unhealthy thinking patterns.
Identifying and addressing cognitive distortions is essential for maintaining a healthier, more positive and resilient mindset and improving your overall well-being.
Did you find this post useful? Then sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I regularly share tips for improving your emotional well-being, as well as insights into my work as an online therapist.
If you’re struggling with negative feelings, you might also benefit from reading my blog post “How to let go of negative thoughts” and trying out the Hands & Thoughts exercise from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Photo: Liza Summer via Pexels