Common Cognitive Distortions

cognitive distortions

Read Time: 5 mins

Everyone will likely have heard about the importance of positive thinking and the potential for negative thoughts to undermine mental processes.  There are common cognitive distortions in our thinking that can lead to these negative outcomes.

We have a constant chatter going on in our heads. Often, this has little to do with the real world around us but there are interactions between this inner narrative and how we behave and perform in life.

Some of this chatter is about actual happenings. Some of it about our perceptions or memories of actual events. These might be, or might not be, all that accurate.

But much of the chatter is simply noise that is made by our minds and has little, if any, connection with reality. We call this imagination. It’s a wonderful thing. Except there can be a problem.

The problem is that your body often cannot tell the difference between things that are imagined by your brain and things you actually experience.  In both cases, the sensations pass through your brain and have an impact on your body.


cognitive distortions


This problem is made particularly bad by our tendency to not stop and question our thoughts.  Often we do not even form a distinction in our brains between what is real and what is imagined.

The thoughts form and run wild. And then our emotions start to fall into line with the thoughts. And if the thoughts are negative, well, our emotions take a beating.

We become caught up in a pattern of behaviour that is based on negative thoughts leading to negative emotions and expectations.

A pessimistic outlook soon forms, and our actions fall into line with the expectations. There negative expectations are soon fulfilled and the pattern repeats.


Examples of Cognitive Distortions

You are not going to overcome this easily and your body is never going to be sure what is real and what is imagined. But you can become aware of the potential for these imaginings to form as negative thoughts.

This pattern of negative thinking is known as cognitive distortion. A number of common cognitive distortions have been identified. Here are a few of them.

All or Nothing Stance

This is a tendency to view common events in terms of extreme choices. It’s a form of perfectionism. A common expression would be to be fixated on a specific objective or outcome.

If that is not available or achievable, then the behaviour is to dismiss the best available outcome. Have you ever said something along the lines of ‘if I don’t get what I want I’m not settling for second best’?  If so, you’ve adopted a negative ‘all or nothing’ mindset.

Over Generalisation

Very often we draw wide and far reaching conclusions about events, or people, based on very little information, possibly only a single event or encounter. Have you ever tried something that didn’t work out as you hopped?

Of course you have; it happens to everyone. But did you then conclude that ‘I’ve tried that and it’s not for me’ or ‘I’m unable to do that’ or ‘My chance there has gone’?

If so, you imagined there was a general rule based only on a single incidence that is probably not typical.  But this negative conclusion caused you to give up.

Using a Biased Mental Filter

This common distortion arises from a period of adopting a negative mindset and causes us to focus only on the negative while ignoring the positives.  This justifies a negative response to an event. In fact, the positives may often outweigh the negatives.

Have you ever been required to demonstrate a skill where you are capable but are not an acknowledged expert? It happens all the time. Is your reaction afterwards ever to think back over what you did and remember the mistakes or places where you under-performed, even though you were adequate, or better, overall?

This is fine if you are learning from your experience and seeking to improve.  That’s a positive.  But it becomes a negative if you use this approach to assess your performance.

Discounting the Positives

This is often a reactive stance. Some people cannot seem to take a compliment, but this can go further. Sure, some humility is a good thing, but do you take it too far?

Have you ever received a compliment or a good report and, while you may accept it at the time, you later find a way to rationalise that what was said was not actually what was meant?

Have you ever undermined a success by reacting to a positive by forming an internal narrative that the person who complimented you had an ulterior motive? Perhaps that they felt sorry for you given you inadequacies, or that they were only trying to make you feel better given your performance was so poor?

Of course, this can work both ways and downplaying negatives can be a dangerous approach. So, a balance is required.

Creating Imagined Conclusions

Other people are busy with their own lives. You feature in their lives in discreet and fleeting periods. They may prioritize other things, even when you are focusing on them or directly in their presence.

Is this a sign that you don’t matter to them? Or that you have done something to upset them?

Almost certainly not. If this is the case let them say so.  the truth is they are simply distracted by their own lives, just as you are by yours.  But how often do you jump to the unwarranted conclusion that you were in their minds and they had taken a conscious decision to react, or not react, to you in a negative way?


‘Now I have ruined everything’. ‘If that [insert imagined outcome] happens, I will never get over it.

How often do catastrophic events happen in our lives?  Probably a handful of times over our entire lives on average. Not every day, or week.

But we are certainly capable of imagining that catastrophe is never far away and that when it strikes, as our imaginations lead us to believe it surely will, well, it will be a catastrophe for us.  In reality, most events are passing and their implications are temporary and easily reversed.

Living by What Must Be

Rules and routines make life simpler and easier for us all. But these are constructs set in stone. They are made up. Sometimes they are right or appropriate, sometimes not.

Adherence to ‘what must be’ must not be rigid. It’s almost impossible to design optimal rules for every person. It’s just as hard to design rules for every situation.

A slightly weaker version is living by what ‘Should Be’ and refusing to accept ‘what is’. This is particularly upsetting when the object is outside our control. Frustration and wasted energy results.

The future is unknown. Embrace uncertainly and be flexible.


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