What Are Cognitive Distortions?

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions (CDs) are ways of interpreting situations that make you think in the negative. CDs fuel negative core beliefs about yourself and the world around you. They create a negative self-image and low self-esteem. They can also create paranoid thoughts and invalid assumptions about others.

Cognitive distortions cause people to see the world through a negative lens. They create conflict within ourselves and with the people around us.  When we think with CDs, our expectations about the future, ourselves or others, and the outcome of challenging situations are all impacted in a negative way. CDs hold us back from living fuller and happier lives.

Types Of Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are essentially erroneous patterns in thinking. They occur out of habit, and most people experience at least 2 types of CDs on a regular basis. Typically, people do not even realizing they are thinking with CDs until they learn more about what a CD is and how it affects their thinking.

There are several different types of cognitive distortions. Below is a list of some of the most common CDs we experience:

All or none (always or never) thinking

is when a person thinks in the extremes of all or nothing.

Have you ever had something unpleasant happen and think, “Ugh! This always happens to me!” or “Jeez, I will never get this right!”…

Not very positive, right? How would it be different if we were to think, “Man, this is frustrating, but [I can do it] [it will pass] [it will be better next time] [I can learn from it].”


is when we slap a label onto someone or something that directs our assumptions, impressions, and expectations toward that label.

If we think “I am a terrible driver” will we be motivated to practice at getting better? It is more likely that we will begin to avoid the driver’s seat at all costs.

How would your expectations change if you challenge the label? Could you find the motivation to try harder at driving safely if you didn’t think of yourself as a “bad driver”?

Focusing on the negative (filtering)

is never productive when we are trying to be happier, better, etc.

If a baseball player bats 4 times, hits 3 home runs, but gets an out on second base, he still hit 3 home runs! Should he beat himself up about sliding into second too early, or should he be proud that he scored 3 points for his team?

Which is more helpful the next time he gets up to bat, the confidence from the positive or the insecurity from the negative?

The “shoulds”

are a surefire way to fuel “focusing on the negative”. How often do you hear the word “should”?

When we look at the ‘should’ we ignore what is.

If that same baseball player is thinking “I should have slid later”, what does that turn into? “I messed up, I let my team down, I should be better, I should know better”.

That’s a lot of beating himself up for something that just didn’t work out. The more we use “should”, the more we lose sight of what is: “but hey, I scored 3 points for my team! 3 home runs out of four is pretty impressive!”

The ‘shoulds’ translate to “not good enough”. Is that fair? Of course we should always shoot for healthy growth and improvement, but it becomes unhealthy when we are being too critical on ourselves.


We all know what blaming is, but have we ever really considered how it affects the situation? If we blame others for our mistakes or shortcomings, how to do we move forward?

Sometimes blaming can mask the core issue. We should look toward resolution, rather than blaming whatever is causing the problem.

If we blame the traffic every morning for being late, it is only a matter of time before we lose our jobs because we did not take proactive measures (like getting up earlier) to make it on time.

Predicting the future

When we assume the outcome of a situation we are setting ourselves up to miss out on possibilities for a better or more exciting future.

Nobody knows what the future holds. Sometimes we learn from experience that certain events have certain outcomes, but what would happen if we began to challenge those outcomes?

Cindy always wanted to be a singer and she knows she has a voice, but she gets so nervous in large crowds. She is sure she will never be a performer.

Cindy has predicted she will fail and therefore never tried. She cut herself off from the possibilities her future would have held.

Courtney practices and tries hard but has not gotten picked for the soccer team. Every year Courtney improves and maintains the attitude: “I hope I will get picked, but if I don’t I will learn from it, try harder, and maybe get picked next year”, so she has much better odds than Cindy!


is when we draw conclusions on a massive scale based on what we know about one or few instances. Have you ever known a child to be so afraid of one type of animal that whenever they see that animal they have a total meltdown?

Like when Billy starts to scream and cry whenever he sees a dog on the street? Well, Billy had a run in with the neighbor’s dog that ended up with him being bit. Because of this, Billy concluded that all dogs will hurt him, which made him afraid afraid of dogs.

Billy does not acknowledge the good dogs that have not bitten him. He just focuses on that one bad run in with a ‘mean dog’.

This can be opened to more universal concepts, like a woman who was beaten by her father as a child may grow up to believe that all men are mean and angry and will hurt you.

Mind reading

is when we assume that we know what others are thinking in reaction to what we are doing.

Fred failed his math test. When he saw his grade on his paper he immediately hid it and thought, “everyone is going to think I am stupid”. Is that a fair thing to say? Because that math test was hard and more than half the class failed, too.

Mind reading causes us to assume that others are seeing us in a negative light. This holds us back from positive interactions with others, and causes us to have a negative self-image.


The worst will happen. We must prepare for the worst.

“If I submit this paper late I will fail my class and I will be kicked out of school because I am not good enough and end up homeless with no friends”.

That went from A to Z pretty quickly, right? With catastrophizing, we expect something to not go well and assume the absolute worst will happen. “If I am so pre-occupied with being homeless on the street, how can I possibly complete my paper on cognitive distortions? My worrying about it being late will either make me finish it late or not finish it at my fullest potential! No matter what, I am going to fail and be homeless, so I should start preparing for that!”.

Emotional reasoning

No reasoning should ever be done when emotions are high because emotions are not rational. Emotions will have an effect on our conclusions because we will be seeing through the lens of the feeling.

If we feel awkward then we believe we are awkward. This fuels awkward behavior, creating a self-fulfilling image. In feeling awkward, you begin to act awkwardly, which makes you appear awkward.


is when we take something that does not have to do with us and make it about us.

Randy is speaking with Emily and Liz. Liz brings up how she does not like when people are rude, and goes into a story about a recent experience. Randy assumes this was brought up because Liz believes Randy is rude and suddenly becomes uncomfortable.

Eve sees that Stan is angry when he returns home from work. Eve instantly begins to try to figure out what she did wrong to make Stan so angry, not considering that he was just stuck in traffic for 2 hours. In reality the anger has nothing to do with her, but in Eve’s mind it has everything to do with her.

Jumping to conclusions

Have you ever assumed what someone was going to say or do and reacted to the assumption?

Have you ever ended up being wrong about what you expected will happen? When we jump to conclusions we do not let the situation have the chance to pan out naturally.

When Riley assumed her husband would have an attitude about visiting her parents she started the day with an attitude to combat the attitude she thought he’d have. Her husband actually did not mind visiting, but did get aggravated with Riley’s behavior. Riley’s behavior made him aggravated and caused them to argue.

Her jumping to conclusions prevented them both from having a good time, and Riley still thinks his frustrations were about the visit, not about her own attitude.


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