Our thoughts are powerful. How we think influences how we feel, and those feelings directly impact how we perceive the world around us. 

However, sometimes those perceptions can become inaccurate. For example, we may interpret a situation one way, when in actual fact the reality of the situation is different.

These interpretations may be a result of us experiencing cognitive distortions. These distortions are negative thinking patterns. 

What are cognitive distortions?

Cognitive distortions are negative patterns of thinking that lead to inaccurate, and often pessimistic, perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. 

They are built from irrational beliefs and patterns of thought that become subconsciously and unknowingly reinforced over a period of time. 

It’s often because these beliefs and thoughts are so ingrained that we find them difficult to identify and change, which is what forms the basis of the distortion. However, we are able to take control and change our patterns of thinking, as well as our self-talk, to try to see situations more objectively.

What are the most common cognitive distortions?

  1. Mental Filtering

Mental Filtering is a cognitive distortion where we filter anything – except the negative things – out of our perceptions. 

An example of mental filtering would be scoring 95% out of 100% on a test or project. Under a cognitive distortion of mental filtering we may fixate on that few missed percent and let that overrule our thoughts and feelings about our achievement.

To combat mental filtering, we can get ourselves into the habit of identifying three positives from it instead. We can address the negative “perhaps I could have obtained that extra %”, but we can also use three positives to minimise the negative so that when we looked at it objectively, we realise it isn’t worth fixating on.

  1. Jumping to Conclusions

It’s easy to jump to conclusions, and this cognitive distortion usually plays on our insecurities. We either assume something will happen (predictive thinking) or we presume we know what someone is thinking (mind reading). 

For example, under this cognitive distortion, making a minor mistake at work may lead us to jump to the conclusion that we’re about to lose our job, when in reality that outcome would be unlikely.

Because our conclusions are often based on personal worries and opinions, as opposed to facts or concrete evidence, they can have the severest impact on our mental wellbeing. To change this, we can instead mentally take a step back from a situation and assess other possible explanations or outcomes.

  1. Personalisation 

Personalisation is another cognitive distortion where we take the entirety of the blame in a difficult situation when in reality it may not rest solely on our shoulders.

For example, a relationship break down becomes entirely our fault and we blame ourselves for its failings because we see ourselves as being inadequate. 

While on one hand being able to identify our shortcomings and take responsibility for our actions and our circumstances is valuable self reflection, this can work against us if it leads us to believe self-fulfilling prophecies. To better handle personalisation, we should once again step back from a situation to identify what was our responsibility, and identify the factors that were either out of our control or not our responsibility.

  1. Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking is a cognitive distortion where we see everything as all or nothing. There is no grey area or middle ground, things are just one way or the other.

For example, viewing a convicted criminal as an inherently bad person, despite the person’s extenuating circumstances or recent patterns of behaviour showing differently.

Black and white thinking is an unhelpful cognitive distortion because it forces us to develop fixed views which prevent us from seeing balanced and unbiased perspectives. These narrow views could damage relationships and lead other people to view us in a negative way. To challenge black and white thinking we must challenge our thoughts by forcing ourselves to take into account different viewpoints and interpretations of situations so that we see things more objectively.

  1. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion which is similar to jumping to conclusions. When we catastrophize we usually jump to the very worst conclusion and blow situations out of all reasonable or logical explanations.

Catastrophizing can mean that we make minor or insignificant problems harder to overcome than they need to be, which takes us more mental energy and effort to then surpass. To counteract cognitive distortion, we must pause and take a moment to assess whether or not the situation is as dire as it seems.

  1. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion where broad assumptions and generalisations are made based on past experiences and minimal evidence.

For example, someone overgeneralising may say something like “I don’t want to sing because everyone always laughs at me”. This generalisation bases the current situation on past behaviours and experiences, where they were once laughed at, which won’t align with the present scenario.

As this cognitive distortion is based on ingrained past experiences, it can be difficult to overcome but the situation needs to be evaluated without fear of the past. Using our example, the person reluctant to sing should assess the types of people around them, and compare the likelihood of a past scenario reoccurring with this new audience.

  1. Labelling 

Labelling is a cognitive distortion that is similar again to overgeneralising. In this distortion we make general statements about ourselves or others based on prior behaviour.

For example, believing there is little to no point in trying to achieve a promotion because we have never achieved one in the past.

Labelling is a detrimental cognitive distortion because it can lead us to believing false self-fulfilling prophecies. To work through labelling, we must objectively assess our past experiences and personal opinion and identify the evidence that disproves the label we’ve set ourselves. Using our example, someone pushing for a promotion could produce positive and recognised facts about their past yearly performances to contradict their label they have given themselves regarding never getting promotions. 

  1. Shoulding and Musting

Shoulding and Musting is a cognitive distortion that sets us up for failure because it involves expecting unreasonable and unrealistic demands from ourselves and other people – similar to the phrase putting someone on a pedestal. 

For example, expecting that someone else should put the same amount of thought or effort into something because we have.

This is particularly unhelpful because it automatically places the other person in a negative light, and also prevents us from seeing the positive. When we reflect this cognitive distortion on ourselves, we also place added pressure on ourselves which increases our stress. To counteract this distortion we can view the other person objectively and consider their actions and positives, and for ourselves we can question why we believe things should be this way.

  1. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion where we view the world entirely based on how we’re feeling emotionally.

For example, waking up in an optimistic mood and viewing the world as great, or waking up in a low mood and viewing the world as depressing.

This cognitive perspective results in us reacting and interpreting things entirely based on our moods, which can be confusing for other people and detrimental for us because our reactions may be unpredictable. To combat this, we can evaluate whether our emotions are preventing us from seeing the situation clearly. 

  1. Magnification and Minimization

Magnifying and minimising is a cognitive distortion similar to filtering. Through the gaze of magnifying and minimising we exaggerate the positive aspects or achievements of another person and minimise our own, leading to feelings of inadequacy, jealousy and even resentment.

Social media is a catalyst for magnifying and minimizing cognitive distortions because it alters personal perceptions of success.

To overcome magnification and minimisation we can turn our gaze inwards to identify and celebrate our own achievements and use those as supporting reasons as to why we are just as capable and deserving as other people.