- All-or-Nothing Thinking:
John recently applied for a promotion in his firm. The job went to another employee with more experience. John wanted this
job badly and now feels that he will never be promoted. He feels that he is a total failure in his career.
Overgeneralization: Linda is lonely and often spends most of her time at home.
Her friends sometimes ask her to come out for dinner and meet new people. Linda feels that that is it useless to try to
meet people. No one really could like her. People are all mean and superficial anyway.
- Mental Filter: Mary is having a bad day. As she drives home, a kind gentleman waves
her to go ahead of him as she merges into traffic. Later in her trip, another driver cuts her off. She grumbles to herself
that there are nothing but rude and insensitive people in her city.
- Disqualifying the Positive: Rhonda just had her portrait made. Her friend tells her how beautiful she
looks. Rhonda brushes aside the compliment by saying that the photographer must have touched up the picture. She never looks
that good in real life, she thinks.
- Jumping to Conclusions:
Chuck is waiting for his date at a restaurant. She's now 20 minutes late. Chuck laments to himself that he must have
done something wrong and now she has stood him up. Meanwhile, across town, his date is stuck in traffic.
Magnification and Minimization: Scott is playing football. He bungles a play
that he's been practicing for weeks. He later scores the winning touchdown. His teammates compliment him. He tells them
he should have played better; the touchdown was just dumb luck.
Reasoning: Laura looks around her untidy house and feels overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning. She feels that it's
hopeless to even try to clean.
- Should Statements:
David is sitting in his doctor's waiting room. His doctor is running late. David sits stewing, thinking, "With how much
I'm paying him, he should be on time. He ought to have more consideration." He ends up feeling bitter and resentful.
- Labeling and Mislabeling: Donna just cheated on
her diet. I'm a fat, lazy pig, she thinks.
Jean's son is doing poorly in school. She feels that she must be a bad mother. She feels that it's all her fault that
he isn't studying.If you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself, then you're halfway there. Here's a homework assignment
for you: Over the next few weeks, monitor the self-defeating ways in which you respond to situations. Practice recognizing
your automatic responses. Now, we will take each of the above cognitive distortions and discuss some powerful coping strategies
that will help you dispel the blues before they even start.
John recently applied for a promotion in his firm. The job went to another employee with more experience.
John wanted this job very badly and now feels that he will never be promoted. He feels that he is a total failure in his
This type of thinking is characterized by absolute terms
like always, never, and forever. Few situations are ever this absolute. There are generally gray
areas. Eliminate these absolute terms from your vocabulary except for the cases where they truly apply. Look for a more
accurate description of the situation. Here's an example of self-talk that John could have used to cope with not getting
I wanted this job a lot, but it went to
someone with more experience. This is disappointing to me, but it doesn't mean I'm not a good employee. Other opportunities
will be available in the future. I'll keep working on my skills so that I'll be ready for them when they arrive. This one
setback does not mean my career is over. Overall, I have excelled in my work.
Linda is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends
sometimes ask her to come out for dinner and meet new people. Linda feels that that is it useless to try to meet people.
No one really could like her. People are all mean and superficial anyway.
When one overgeneralizes, one takes an isolated case or cases and assumes that all others are the same. Are people
really all mean and superficial and could never like her? What about her friends who are trying to get her to go out? Obviously
she does have someone who cares about her. The next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing, remind yourself that even
though a group of people may share something in common, they are also separate and unique individuals. No two people are
exactly the same. There may be mean and superficial people in this world. There may even be people who dislike you. But,
not every person will fit this description. By assuming that everyone doesn't like you, you are building a wall that will
prevent you from having what you crave the most -- friendship.
Mary is having a bad day. As she drives home, another driver cuts her off. She grumbles to herself that
there are nothing but rude and insensitive people in her town. Later, a kind gentleman waves her go ahead of him. She continues
on her way still angry at how rude all the people in her city are.
a person falls victim to mental filters they are mentally singling out only the bad events in their lives and overlooking
the positive. Learn to look for that silver lining in every cloud. It's all about how you choose to let events effect you.
Mary could have turned her whole day around if she had paid attention to that nice man who went out of his way to help her.
Disqualifying the Positive:
Rhonda just had her portrait made.
Her friend tells her how beautiful she looks. Rhonda brushes aside the compliment by saying that the photographer
must have touched up the picture. She says she never looks that good in real life.
We depressives are masters at taking the good in a situation and turning it into a negative. Part of this comes
from a tendency to have low self-esteem. We feel like we just don't deserve it. How to turn this around is simple. The next
time someone compliments you, resist the little voice inside that says you don't deserve it. Just say "thank you"
and smile. The more you do this, the easier it will become.
Chuck is waiting for his date at a restaurant. She's now 20 minutes late. Chuck laments to himself
that he must have done something wrong and now she has stood him up. Meanwhile, across town, his date is stuck in traffic.
Once again, we fall victim to our own insecurities. We expect the worst and begin
preparing early for the disappointment. By the time we find out that all our fears were unfounded, we've worked ourselves
into a frenzy and for what? Next time do this: Give the person the benefit of the doubt. You'll save yourself a
lot of unnecessary worry. If your fears have some basis in reality, however, drop that person from your life like a hot
Magnification and Minimization: Ever looked through a telescope from the wrong direction? Everything looks tinier than it
really is. When you look through the other end, everything looks larger. People who fall into the magnification/minimization
trap look at all their successes through the wrong end
playing football. He bungles a play that he's been practicing for weeks. He later scores the winning touchdown. His teammates
compliment him. He tells them he should have played better; the touchdown was just dumb luck.
- of the telescope
and their failures through the other end.
What can you do to stay away from
this error? Remember the old saying, "He can't see the forest for the trees?" When one mistake bogs us down, we
forget to look at the overall picture. Step back and look at the forest now and then. Overall, Scott played a good game.
So what if he made a mistake?
Laura looks around her untidy house and feels overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning. She feels that it's hopeless to
even try to clean.
Laura has based her assessment of the situation
on how it makes her feel not how it really is. It may make her feel bad to think of the large task ahead of her,
but is it really hopeless? In reality, cleaning her house is a doable task. She just doesn't feel up to it. She has reached
the conclusion that it is useless to try based on the fact that it overwhelms her.
When a situation feels overwhelming, try this: Break down the task down into smaller ones. Then prioritize what
is most important to you. Now, do the first task on your list. Believe it or not, you will begin to feel better and ready
for more. The important thing is to just do something towards your goal. No matter how small, it's a start and will
break you out of feeling helpless.
David is sitting in his doctor's waiting room. His doctor is running late. David sits stewing, thinking, "With how
much I'm paying him, he should be on time. He ought to have more consideration." He ends up feeling bitter and resentful.
We all think things should be a certain way, but let's face it, they aren't.
Concentrate on what you can change and if you can't change it, accept it as part of life and go on. Your mental health is
more important than "the way things should be."
Donna just cheated on her diet. I'm a fat, lazy pig she thinks.
What Donna has done is label herself as lazy and hopeless. She most likely will
reason that since she can't lose weight, she may as well eat. She has now effectively trapped herself by living up to the
label she placed on herself. When we label ourselves, we set ourselves up to become whatever that label entails. This can
just as easily work to our advantage.
Here's what Donna could have done
to make labeling work in her favor. She could have considered the fact that up until now she has been strong. She could
then forgive herself for only being human and acknowledge that she has been working hard to lose weight and has been succeeding.
This is a temporary setback that she can overcome. Overall, she is a strong person and has proven it by her successful weight
loss. With this type of positive thinking, Donna will feel better and be back to work on her weight loss goals in no time.
Jean's son is doing poorly in school. She
feels that she must be a bad mother. It's all her fault that he isn't studying.
Jean is taking all the responsibility for how her son is doing in school. She is failing to take into consideration
that her son is an individual who is ultimately responsible for himself. She can do her best to guide him, but in the end
he controls his actions. Next time you find yourself doing this, ask yourself, "Would I take credit if this person
were doing something praiseworthy? Chances are you'd say, "No, he accomplished that by himself." So why blame yourself
when he does something not-so praiseworthy? Beating yourself up is not going to change his behavior. Only he can do that.
The solutions I've presented here are some of the common situations we find ourselves
in. Take these as examples and create your own positive solutions to your negative thoughts. Recognizing that you do it
is the first step. Then play devil's advocate and challenge yourself to find the positive. Turn your thoughts around and
your moods will follow suit. Remember, you are what you think!
David D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books : New York, NY, 1999.
What’s a cognitive distortion and why
do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t
really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves
things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
For instance, a person might tell themselves, “I always fail
when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of “black or white”
(orpolarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes — that if they fail at one thing, they
must fail at all things. If they added, “I must be a complete loser and failure” to
their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization — taking a failure at one specific
task and generalizing it their very self and identity.
Cognitive distortions are at the core of what many cognitive-behavioraland other kinds of therapists try and help a person learn to change inpsychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify this kind of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” a person can then answer the
negative thinking back, and refute it. By refuting the negative thinking over and over again, it will slowly diminish overtime
and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.
Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns was responsible for popularizing
it with common names and examples for the distortions.
take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person
may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.
2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and
polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure —
there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or
allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as
a total failure.
In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general
conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen
over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.
4. Jumping to Conclusions.
Without individuals saying so, we know what they
are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.
For example, a person may conclude that someone
is reacting negatively toward them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a
person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established
We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This
is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what ifquestions
(e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).
For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events
(such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant
events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).
practice, you can learn to answer each of these cognitive distortions.
Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some
kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better
A person engaging in
personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for.
For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I
had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”
7. Control Fallacies.
If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of
fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.”
The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around
us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”
8. Fallacy of Fairness.
We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree
with us. As our parents tell us, “Life is always fair,” and people who go through life applying a measuring ruler
against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it.
We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other
track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make”
us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.
We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People
who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying
to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.
For example, “I really should exercise. I
shouldn’t be so lazy.” Mustsand oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence
is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and
11. Emotional Reasoning.
We believe that what we feel must be true automatically.
If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things
really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
12. Fallacy of Change.
We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We
need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.
13. Global Labeling.
We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms
of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an
error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.
For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a
situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach
an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language
that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every
day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”
14. Always Being Right.
We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions
are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t
care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.”
Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion,
even loved ones.
our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.
So now that you know what cognitive distortions are, how do you go about
undoing them? Read how in Fixing Cognitive Distortions.
Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional
disorders. New York: New American Library.
D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.