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The 15 Most Common Cognitive Distortions

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Just like optical illusions, cognitive distortions trick you into seeing something different to reality or at least an incomplete picture. Where optical illusions (such as the book image above) are interesting and fun, cognitive disorders are interesting but potentially damaging. They may cause you to see yourself, your situation, the people around you and the world in general in a more negative light than reality.

How my coaching helps clients to recognise their cognitive distortions

In my coaching I regularly hear distortions in my clients' thinking and use my training to highlight these negative patterns and beliefs. As my clients challenge their own constructions they often find that there is no evidence for their assumptions and that the distortion is giving them a false picture of their reality. We then work to replace the distortion with a more evidence-based view of the situation.

In this article I have listed 15 of the cognitive distortions that I come across most frequently during coaching calls. Do any of them sound familiar to you?

1. Mind Reading (a form of 'jumping to conclusions')

Mind Reading is when you believe that you know what another person is thinking or feeling and the reasons why they behave or have behaved in a certain way. Of course, it's possible sometimes to have an idea of what someone may be thinking, but we can never know for sure even if we ask them. This distortion refers to when you feel sure that you know conclusively what is going through someone else's mind and your interpretation is overly negative.

A drawing of a stressed and unhappy man holding his head. All around him are speech bubbles showing what he is thinking: 'He thinks I'm an idiot', 'She wants the boss to hate me', 'My partner thinks I'm disgusting', 'She's a bitch. She did that out of spite and jealousy', 'The interviewer thought I was a spoofer', He doesn't like me, he thinks I'm boring', 'They think I'm a loser'.
Mind Reading: How certain are you that they're really thinking this?

2. Fortune Telling (another form of 'jumping to conclusions')

Fortune Telling is where you believe the future is pre-ordained in some way (whether it be in studies, health, career, sport or romantic relationships) and you make negative conclusions or predictions with utter certainty based on little to no evidence e.g. "I know I'm going to die young" or "I'm destined never to find true love (because my experiences so far have been negative)"

3. Polarised Thinking (Also known as 'All-or-Nothing' or 'Black-and-White' Thinking)

Polarised Thinking is where you see things only in extremes with no nuance or shades of grey e.g. 'people are either with me or against me', a meal is either 'fantastic or a disaster', you believe you're either 'perfect or an utter failure'. This is not how the world works and such inflexibility of thought will quickly result in a mismatch between how you see things and what the world tells you. One successful sale in your new job and in your mind you're the greatest salesperson who ever lived (irritating the experienced sales people around you). The next call results in failure and now you decide that you're 'useless at selling'. Yes, I've had a client like that!

A cartoon of Santa Claus in a therapist's chair. The therapist is saying: "Your problem is caused by 'all or nothing thinking'. Why can't you just deliver toys to kids in your own neighbourhood?"
Are there more than two options? Is there something in between?

4. Overgeneralisation

Overgeneralisation is where you come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. One or two bad events are framed as part of an inevitable pattern or truth about you, certain other groups or the world. For example, someone may have a bad experience of playing sport while at school and then conclude that they're 'bad at sport' or they 'hate sport'. Overgeneralizing can lead to overly negative thoughts about yourself and the world around you based on just one or a small number of experiences.

5. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional Reasoning is where you believe that what you feel must be true. For example, if you feel stupid then that means you 'must be stupid' even if there is plenty of evidence to show that you have above average intelligence. Jealousy is often an example of emotional reasoning: 'I feel jealous, so you must be betraying me'.

6. Filtering

(Mental) filtering is where you are selective about which evidence you use to reach a pre-determined, negative conclusion. In other words, you ignore any positive information and just focus on a negative aspect. An example might be where you cook a wonderful dinner enjoyed by all your guests but all you notice is that one part was overcooked and so you label the meal as a failure. People often focus on a single remark someone says or one thoughtless habit and ignore all the nice things that person says or does.

7. Disqualifying the Positive

Disqualifying the Positive is closely related to 'mental filtering', but rather than ignoring or not seeing positive aspects of a situation or person you disqualify them. That means that you acknowledge the existence of positive experiences but then actively construct reasons why they're not valid or 'don't count'. In extreme cases people even twist positive evidence into a negative meaning, such as if someone complains that "saying I'm 'nice' means you think I'm boring" or someone buys you flowers you think it's only because they feel guilty about something or that they pity you. Disqualifying the positive is a particularly insidious distortion because it turns neutral or positive experiences into negative ones and enables ongoing negative thinking even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

an infographic showing how 'should statements' such as "I should do this", "I must do that", "He should do this" and "She must do that", often result in failure. The infographic has arrows pointing from failure to the resulting feelings of 'frustration', 'shame' and 'guilt'
Imperative thoughts, beliefs and statements beg the question 'says who?'

8. Imperatives (Should- and Must-statements)

Imperatives are common forms of generalisation that include words such as should, shouldn't and must, as well as the construction 'If X.. then Y would do Z'. These words are not always cognitive distortions, but very often they are and so we examine them closer with questions such as 'says who?'.

People who internalise such social rules may become annoyed when someone else does something they 'should not' and may feel guilty if they themselves don't do something they 'should do'. Imperative statements, thoughts and beliefs can cause you to put huge pressure on yourself, and result in feelings of guilt, impotence and a sense of defeat. Ultimately they can knock your confidence and leave you feeling unmotivated and disheartened. When directed at others they can cause similar negative feelings in others and leave you feeling frustrated and even embittered. At their most malignant, imperatives can infiltrate ideas of identity so that you create a 'perfect' image of a different you, pursue goals that aren't really your own and expect people to 'be' a certain way. Examples of this latter usage pervade ideas of gender e.g. 'a woman shouldn't put career before her kids' or 'men don't (shouldn't) cry'.

9. Universal Statements (Absolutes)

Universal statements manifest in words such as never, always, everyone, all etc., which are absolute and exclude the possibility of nuance, alternative views or ways of being e.g." He always thinks of himself first" or "people like us never get anywhere in life". We might ask 'how do you know what he is thinking?', 'are there any times when you think he puts others before himself?', 'people like us in what sense?', 'what would getting anywhere look like?', 'has anyone with the characteristic that would make them like us ever achieved anything that counts as getting somewhere?'

10. Stoppers and Limiters (Possibilities)

Stoppers and Limiters often manifest themselves as words such as can't, can, may, impossible etc., which limit possibility e.g. "I can't work for myself", prompting a coach to ask questions such as “How do you know you can’t?”, “What would happen if you could?” and “Who says you can’t?”. People often have paper-thin reasons behind their beliefs, which (to their own surprise) they have never challenged.

An example might be 'It's too late for me to switch to another course'. Their unspoken reason is that they think there is a deadline for doing so, but when challenged they realise that they haven't asked if changing would be allowed.

11. Labeling and Mislabeling

Global Labeling, this common form of cognitive distortion is where someone generalises one or two qualities or events into a negative universal judgment about themself or another person. It's an extreme version of overgeneralisation so that rather than seeing the wider context, they apply the negative label as if there is incontrovertible evidence for it e.g. "he's a narcissist" or the man who says 'I'm an idiot' because he didn't predict that his girlfriend would leave him'. A more subtle form is where the judgement is hidden in extreme language e.g. She 'abandons' her kids to an au pair/nanny. The idiom 'don't judge a book by its cover' hints at another form of labeling, such as when people assume that an attractive woman or man is stupid and label them as a 'bimbo' or 'himbo'.

12. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

Magnification and Minimisation are terms for when you exaggerate or underestimate the importance, meaning or likelihood of events or behaviours, making a situation appear worse than it really is. Some people call this the “Binocular Trick” or 'inverted binocular trick' for our ability to distort our perspective. Continuing the metaphors, we might also ask what lens is made from that we're looking through.. For example, is it a self-esteem issue that is causing the distortion or a similar experience from the past that we are generalising and applying to this new scenario?

An extreme, but pretty common, version of maximisation is Catastrophisation, where things are assumed to be completely ruined or unsolvable or where inevitable disaster is expected.

Teenagers often mistune their perspective in this way and 'blow things up out of proportion' while parents might sometimes underestimate the intricacies of teenage social value systems: "Surely it's not the end of the world if you miss one party"

13. Personalisation

Personalisation is the term for when you believe that anything negative that happens around you is your fault or the result of a failing of yours when in fact it isn't true and there's no evidence to believe it to be the case. Another permutation is where you may believe that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to you. You take virtually everything personally, even when something has nothing to do with you. A person who experiences this kind of thinking will also compare themselves to others, trying to determine who is smarter, more successful, etc.

Some examples include:

- parents who feel responsible for their children's failings even where they did everything within their control to be a good parent;

- children who believe they are responsible for their parents' divorce;

- social situations where someone leaves early and you genuinely wonder if it was something you said or did without having any idea what that might be.

14. Blaming

Blaming is a form of personalisation but rather than you taking responsibility for things beyond your control or influence, you do the opposite. Blaming is when you assign responsibility for something to someone else without any logical reason to think they caused it to happen. You blame a particular person, an unspecified person ('someone must have moved my keys'), entire groups or even everyone else but you, for something that is not (wholly or at all) their fault or indeed something that you did or were responsible for.

This distortion is about avoiding personal responsibility. Blaming is not limited to events and actions, but may also extend to feelings. We have all experienced someone who blames others for 'making them feel bad' when in fact it is how we choose to interpret something that governs how we feel (Read my blog post on 'Change the Narrative in Your Head').

15. Equalling

Equalling is conceptually similar to emotional reasoning. The term is used where two actions or events are linked together as meaning the same e.g. "you shouted at me; (which means) you don't love me". Our brains are exceptional 'meaning-makers' and as with most of the other distortions above, sometimes the 'meaning that our brain makes is not based in reality and causes us to misinterpret what is really going on (see my earlier post: Cognitive Distortions - Don't believe everything you think!). Equalling is a classic case of this, and is exemplified by superstitions: the sportsperson who believes that her first successful performance was linked to the breakfast she ate before the game and so continues to eat that same breakfast for the rest of her career or the young man who wears his lucky socks whenever he goes on a date...

Practice recognising and exploring these distortions

I hope you found this list interesting, fun and useful. We can all get better at recognising and exploring possible distortions in our thinking. Sometimes a distortion will by chance turn out to be true and sometimes what may look like a possible distortion turns out to be based in fact. Don't get too tied-up analysing every thought or statement but feel free to message me if you have a particular example that you're unsure about. I've also included a number of common cognitive distortions in my COACHING GLOSSARY if you're interested to learn more.

If you're interested in learning more about your own cognitive distortions relating to a particular situation, or in general, don't hesitate to SEND ME A MESSAGE. Alternatively go ahead and book a 'TASTER SESSION' right now.

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