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Cognitive Distortions and what to do with them

Cognitive distortions are irrational or negative thinking patterns. As a result of these negative thought patterns, you may become unmotivated and less confident; develop anxiety and depression.

One of the roles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is to help people identify and replace these cognitive distortions with more helpful, accurate thoughts.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Often called black and white thinking or polarized thinking, all-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in black and white terms. Those who think this way tend to view things in absolute terms: Everything is either black or white, good or bad, success or failure.

As a result of this type of thinking, we tend to ignore evidence to the contrary or alternatives to our thinking.

Perfectionists and people with anxiety and depression often think all-or-nothing. It's like saying there are only two options: success or failure if you give in to this type of thinking.


If you make a rule based on a single event or a series of coincidences, you are overgeneralizing. If one event plays out a certain way, you assume that all future events will be the same.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it ignores the role that chance and luck can play in different situations. This type of thinking can influence people's thinking and actions in other circumstances. It is common for people to assume that a bad experience in one situation will repeat itself in another. Various anxiety disorders can be developed and maintained through overgeneralization.

Control Fallacies

The control fallacy can appear in two ways: either you feel responsible or in control of everything in your and other people's lives, or you feel that you have no control at all.

Mental Filters

Instead of taking one small event and generalizing it inappropriately, a mental filter takes one small event (like a mistake) and focuses on it exclusively, filtering out everything else.

An example of this would be focusing on a single negative piece of feedback when most feedback is positive.

Discounting the Positive

It's similar to mental filtering, but you actively reject the positives instead of simply ignoring them. As a result, you invalidate the good that has happened to you.

If someone compliments the way you look today, you think they’re just being nice.

If your supervisor tells you how good you did on a call and you dismiss it as something anyone else could do.

Jumping to Conclusions

There are two ways of doing this:

  • Mind reading: Thinking someone will react in a certain way, or believing that they are thinking something they aren't thinking

  • Fortune telling: Predicting the outcome of an event.

Emotional Reasoning

In emotional reasoning, you evaluate yourself or your circumstances on the basis of your emotions.

According to this reasoning, a negative emotion must be an accurate reflection of reality since you are experiencing it. Feelings of guilt, for example, would lead you to assume that you are a bad person based on emotional reasoning.

"Should" Statements

"Should" statements are subjective, ironclad rules you set for yourself and others without considering the specific circumstances.

Everything should be done a certain way, no exceptions.


It involves making a judgment about yourself or someone else based on their behavior, instead of seeing it as something they did that doesn't define who they are. It fails to see the person as a whole.

It is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking because it involves placing a label on someone without allowing for anything else.

How do you stop cognitive distortions? With Practice!

  • Replace absolutes

Once you've identified a pattern in your thoughts, replace statements like "always" and "nothing" with "sometimes" or "maybe."

  • Defining yourself and others

Try labeling the behavior. Instead of labeling yourself as stupid because you said something wrong, consider this is just one event. You may have said something silly, but you cannot possibly know everything, and it does not define you.

  • Search for the positive

It might not feel natural at first, but eventually, it may become an automatic habit. Start by trying to find one positive example in each occasion.

  • Does the evidence back up your negative thought?

Ensure you have all the facts. Ask, investigate, and question yourself and others to ensure you have as much information as possible. What would you tell a friend in a similar situation?

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