Thirteen Definitive Cognitive Distortions

Dr. Robert F. Mullen

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Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are irrational thought patterns involved in the perpetuation of depression, anxiety, and especially social anxiety disorder. Cognitive distortions cause us to perceive reality inaccurately and reinforce negative thoughts and emotions. We distort reality to avoid or validate certain behaviors or justify our inability to effectively pursue our goals and objectives. Cognitive distortions twist our thinking. They paint a false or inaccurate picture of ourselves and the world around us. We convince ourselves that these thoughts are rational when they are often very far from the objective truth.

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The number of cognitive distortions listed by various experts ranges substantially. The following thirteen are comprehensive and sufficient. You will note similarities and overlaps among these distortions, even in this abbreviated list. 

Filtering. When we engage in negative filtering, we selectively choose our facts. We filter out all the positive information about a specific situation, only allowing in the negative information. In other words, negative filtering is focusing on the negative and discounting the positive, which only aggravates our negative self-image and ability to think reasonably. We view ourselves, our life, and our future through a dark lens. Filtering increases feelings of hopelessness and helplessness because it induces a pessimistic outlook. A dozen people in your office celebrate your promotion; one ignores you. You obsess over the one and feel inadequate.

Polarized Thinking. In polarized thinking, we see things in black or white, all or nothing. We register emotionally only in extremes. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are either for us or against us; there is no middle ground. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. People with this unrealistic expectation do not see gray areas in most situations; hence, we feel frustrated, bitter, and disappointed. Polarized thinking is very detrimental to relationships; we refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. I failed my last exam; I fail at everything I try. I’m a loser.


Overgeneralization. In this cognitive distortion, we draw a broad conclusion or make a statement about something or someone unjustified by the available evidence. We make blanket claims that cannot be proved or disproved. The whole world knows Suzie is a liar. To imply that the entire world thinks Suzie is a liar is a profound exaggeration absent consensus. A few colleagues may share our opinion, but not the whole world. It is a false and irrational conclusion. Overgeneralization supports our negative self-beliefs and image without foundation. I just said something stupid. Everyone thinks I’m an idiot.

Shouldas. Statements like I ought to do this, and I should’ve done that evade a full commitment. They allow us to change our minds, procrastinate, and fail. Should, would, ought, and must are pressure words because they incur guilt and shame if we do not fulfill what we said we might do. I should start my diet means, maybe I will and maybe I won’t. (We are either on a diet or will be on a diet.) In this distortion, we operate occasionally from a list of inflexible rules about how we and other people “should” act. Rules are established by our negative intermediate beliefs. “Shoulds” and “aughts” are major contributors to anxiety. I should be happy!

Blaming. Like Control Fallacies, we see ourselves as either helpless or all-powerful. One of the most common cognitive distortions, external blaming involves holding others accountable for our actions, rather than accepting responsibility for the consequences. Internal blaming is taking responsibility for things over which we either have no control or for which we have no accountability. We perceive everything as our fault and feel shame and guilt when things go wrong.

Blaming. External blaming is when we hold other people responsible for our actions, rather than accepting responsibility for the shame, guilt, and consequences. Internal blaming is taking responsibility for things over which we either have no control or for which we have no accountability. We perceive everything as our fault and feel shame and guilt when things go wrong.

Control Fallacies. There are two ways we can distort our sense of power and control. We can see ourselves as helpless and externally controlled, or as omnipotent and responsible for everyone around us (internal control).

External control persuades us we cannot manage our own life. The world has it in for us; we are victims. We cease searching for solutions because we have given up. We blame our unsatisfactory lives on society, gender, race, sexuality, weight, age, etc., using them to avoid taking personal responsibility. There’s no point in trying, the world is against me.

Internal control tells us we are responsible for everything, even things over which we have no control. We feel responsible for everything and everybody. We carry the world on our shoulders. We must right all wrongs, fill every need, and balm each hurt. And when we invariably fail, we blame we feel guilty and self-blame.

Fallacy of Fairness is the unrealistic assumption that life should be fair. We become angry and resentful when things do not go our way, especially when they logically shouldIt’s not fair I have social anxiety disorder. The word fair is a disguise for personal preferences and wants. We all have our own ideas of how we like to be treated and feel deeply hurt when we believe we are mistreated. What we want is fair, what the other person wants is bogus. Fairness is so often subjective. In personal interactions, fairness is a subjective assessment of how much of what we expect,  need, or want is provided by the other person. The trouble is that two people seldom agree on what is fair. The fallacy of fairness is often expressed in conditional assumptions: ‘If he loved me, he’d come home right after work.”

Always Being RightWhen we engage in this distortion, we convince ourselves our opinions supersede those of others. I’m right and you’re wrong. Being right is more important than the truth or the feelings of others. I don’t care what you say, I know I’m right. I read it on the internet. In social situations, this is an irrational and nonproductive way to compensate for our perceptual lack of positive personal qualities, e.g., competence, intelligence, desirability… We aren’t interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending our own. Our opinions rarely change because we, symptomatically, have difficulty embracing new ideas and concepts that challenge our core and intermediate beliefs.

Jumping to Conclusions. These are opinions/conclusions unsubstantiated by fact. We jump to conclusions when we assume to know what another person is feeling and why they act the way they do. It’s an excellent example of how we express our ANTs. No one will like me, I’ll say something stupid, no one will talk to me. It’s irrational and self-destructible, often leading to poor or rash decisions that can be harmful. There are multiple forms of Jumping to Conclusions including: 

  • Fortune telling assumes we know exactly what will happen in the future. 
  • Mind reading assumes we accurately know what other people are thinking (especially prevalent in SAD)
  • Labeling is making assumptions about people, based on stereotypical behaviors.

Emotional Reasoning. My gut tells me…  Emotional reasoning is feeling without thinking – relying on our emotions over objective evidence. We use our mood or attitude to define what is going on around us. This emotional dependency dictates how we erroneously relate to the world. At the root of emotional reasoning is the belief that what we feel must be true. If we feel like a loser, then we must be a loser. If we feel guilty, then we must have done something wrong. All the negative things we feel about our self, others, and the world must be true because they feel true. It’s a form of Filtering because we filter out the intellectual appraisal of our emotional feeling, which leads to a polarized evaluation.

Personalization is the tendency to relate everything that happens back to ourselves. Like children, persons with SAD, lack the ability to appraise things accurately from the perspectives of others. Our fears and anxieties are so formidable, that we assume everything that happens is our fault, and everything derogatory someone says is a reference to us. We constantly compare ourselves to others’ achievements rather than taking pride in our own. When we come up short, our sense of inferiority triggers self-criticism, negativity, and anxiety.

Labeling is a cognitive distortion in which we reduce ourselves or other people to a single — usually negative — characteristic or descriptor, like “stupid” or “failure.” we generalize by taking one characteristic of an individual and applying it to the whole person. Because I failed a test, I am a failure. Because she exaggerated or embellished a story, she is a liar. As a result, we view the entire person (or ourselves) through the label and filter out information that does not fit the stereotype, which is deceptive, demeaning, and prejudicial. It is an emotional reaction rather than an intellectual evaluation. If someone is curt with you, they are a jerk. Once we have labeled someone or ourselves, we Filter out anything that does not fit the label. The person who is curt may have a serious matter to attend but we have personalized it, making a broad assumption based on one isolated piece of business, that is almost always inaccurate.

Personal labeling is creating a negative self-image or descriptor out of a sense of our own inadequacies.

Catastrophizing is an irrational belief something is far worse than it is. When we engage in catastrophizing, we anticipate (welcome) disaster. We imagine the worst and select or exaggerate the truth to support our theory. We create self-fulfilling prophecies. Catastrophizing is a good definition of our ANTs. We anticipate, sometimes days or weeks prior, that something will go wrong in a Situation, carry this anxiety into the Situation, then blow the consequences out of proportion and obsess about them after. Catastrophizing is similar to Overgeneralization as well as Polarized Thinking, generated by our self-oriented negative self-beliefs, which fall under one of the following categories. We feel:

  • Helpless (I am weak, I am incompetent)
  • Hopeless (nothing can be done about it)
  • Undesirable (no one will Ike me)
  • Worthless (I don’t deserve to be happy).

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