Common Cognitive Distortions and How to Fight Them

By Kaylen Hagadorn, LCSW

Most of us experience cognitive distortions, which are thoughts that convince us of something that’s not true. We think they are rational, but really they just continue to make us feel bad about ourselves. 

Some common cognitive distortions are:

  • All or Nothing Thinking: Things are either black or white. We are either perfect or a failure. There is no middle ground.
  • Overgeneralization: Coming to a conclusion based on one incident or piece of evidence. One upsetting event may be seen as part of a pattern of never-ending defeat.
  • Filtering: We magnify negative details of situations while filtering out all positive aspects. A person might dwell on a single unpleasant detail so intensely that their vision of reality becomes distorted.
  • Catastrophizing: Expecting disaster to strike no matter what.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: Assuming we know how people are feeling and why without them telling us so. 
  • Personalization: Believing everything others say or do is a direct, personal reaction to us. Assigning blame to ourselves for an external event we were not responsible for. 
  • Emotional Reasoning: We assume that what we feel must be the truth.
  • Should Statements: We have rules about how we and others should behave and feel guilty or frustrated when they are violated.
  • Control Fallacies: If we see ourselves as externally controlled, we are victims of fate. If we see ourselves as internally controlled, we are responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. 
  • Blame: We hold others responsible for our pain, or we blame ourselves for every problem. There is no middle ground.

Ways to fight cognitive distortions:

  1. Identify Them: Make a list of these thoughts that cause us to feel bad about ourselves so we can examine them later.
  2. Examine the Evidence: Find evidence that contradicts these thoughts. If we are self-critical, find examples of times we were successful.
  3. Double Standard Method: Rather than harsh self-talk, talk to ourselves in the compassionate way we may talk to a friend in a similar situation.
  4. Think in Shades of Gray: Be open to considering experiences as partial successes rather than just successes or failures.
  5. Survey Method: Check with others to see if their perceptions of situations are the same as ours.
  6. Re-attribution: Identify external factors that may have contributed to problems we have been blaming ourselves for. Rather than focusing on blame, focus on coping.
  7. Cost-Benefit Analysis: List advantages and disadvantages of feelings/thoughts/behaviors. This can help us identify what we may be gaining from distorted thinking.

Kaylen Hagadorn is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.