Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions and Maladaptive Thinking Patterns

1.     Extreme Thinking

a.    Dichotomous Thinking

Viewing things in ‘all or nothing’ terms without appreciating the spectrum of possibilities between the two extremes. Things are ‘good or bad’, ‘success or failures’. Typically the negative category is more readily endorsed.

A person with this dichotomous thinking pattern typically sees things in terms of either/or. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing. Black-and-white thinking fails to acknowledge that there are almost always several shades of gray that exist between black and white. By seeing only two possible sides or outcomes to something, a person ignores the middle—and possibly more reasonable—ground.

Example: Nothing is ever going to go right for me. I can trust no one. I am a total failure.

b.    Polarized Thinking

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white” — all or nothing. We have to be perfect or we’re a complete and abject failure — there is no middle ground. A person with polarized thinking places people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and most situations. A person with black-and-white thinking sees things only in extremes.

1.     Discounting the positive

This extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking occurs when a person discounts positive information about a performance, event, or experience and sees only negative aspects. A person engaging in this type of distortion might disregard any compliments or positive reinforcement he or she receives.

Thought patterns can be changed through a process referred to in cognitive therapy as cognitive restructuring. The idea behind it is that by adjusting our automatic thoughts, we are able to influence our emotions and behaviors.

c.     Unrealistic expectations/ high standards

It must be perfect. No mistakes allowed. I must be the best.  

Examples: Unless it’s the best, it doesn’t count. I should get full marks. Mistakes are unacceptable. I must please everyone.

d.    ‘Should’ statements

Thoughts that include “should,” “ought,” or “must” are almost always related to a cognitive distortion. For example: “I should have arrived to the meeting earlier,” or, “I must lose weight to be more attractive.” This type of thinking may induce feelings of guilt or shame. “Should” statements also are common when referring to others in our lives. These thoughts may go something like, “He should have called me earlier,” or, “She ought to thank me for all the help I’ve given her.” Such thoughts can lead a person to feel frustration, anger, and bitterness when others fail to meet unrealistic expectations. No matter how hard we wish to sometimes, we cannot control the behavior of another, so thinking about what others should do serves no healthy purpose.

Should statements (“I should pick up after myself more…”) appear as a list of ironclad rules about how every person should behave. People who break the rules make a person following these should statements angry. They also feel guilty when they violate their own rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.

For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.

e.    Catastrophizing

This occurs when a person sees any unpleasant occurrence as the worst possible outcome. A person who is catastrophizing might fail an exam and immediately think he or she has likely failed the entire course. A person may not have even taken the exam yet and already believe he or she will fail—assuming the worst, or preemptively catastrophizing.

Predicting the very worst outcome, sometimes from a benign starting point. This may happen very rapidly so that it seems that the client has immediately leapt to the worst awful conclusion.

When a person engages in catastrophizing, they expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as magnifying, and can also come out in its opposite behavior, minimizing. In this distortion, a person hears about a problem and uses what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”) to imagine the absolute worst occurring.

Examples: I made a mistake; my boss will be furious; my contract won’t be renewed; I will lose my job; I will lose my home; my wife will leave me; I will be poor and lonely.

For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).

2.   Selective attention

f.      Over-generalization

Seeing a single negative event as an indication that everything is negative.

In this cognitive distortion, a person comes to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens just once, they expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.

For instance, if a student gets a poor grade on one paper in one semester, they conclude they are a horrible student and should quit school.

When overgeneralizing, a person may come to a conclusion based on one or two single events, despite the fact reality is too complex to make such generalizations. If a friend misses a lunch date, this doesn’t mean he or she will always fail to keep commitments. Overgeneralizing statements often include the words “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all.”

Examples: I have failed an interview – I’ll never get a job. This relationship is going badly – I’ll never find a partner. She let me down – I can trust no one.

g.    Labeling

In global labeling (also referred to as mislabeling), a person generalizes one or two qualities into a negative global judgment about themselves or another person. This is an extreme form of overgeneralizing. Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy universal label to themselves or others.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way — without bothering to understand any context around why — they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.”

Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “She abandons her children to strangers.”

This distortion, a more severe type of overgeneralization, occurs when a person labels someone or something based on one experience or event. Instead of believing that he or she made a mistake, people engaging in this type of thinking might automatically label themselves as failures.

h.    Mental Filtering

Picking out and dwelling on a single negative feature without reference to other, more benign events. Focusing on the one thing that went badly in an otherwise successful day. Forgetting achievements and compliments but dwelling on a single criticism.

Example: One of my exam marks is low-this is terrible- I’m really no good at anything.

A person engaging in mental filtering takes the negative details and magnifies those details while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted. When a cognitive filter is applied, the person sees only the negative and ignores anything positive.

This cognitive distortion, similar to discounting the positive, occurs when a person filters out information, negative or positive. For example, a person may look at his or her feedback on an assignment in school or at work and exclude positive notes to focus on one critical comment.

i.        Disqualifying the positive

Rejecting, down-grading or dismissing as unimportant any positive event.

Examples: He is only saying that to be nice. She is probably trying to get something out of me. This was a small achievement – others do better.

j.      Magnifying

Exaggerating the importance of negative events. With this type of cognitive distortion, things are exaggerated or blown out of proportion, though not quite to the extent of catastrophizing. It is the real-life version of the old saying, “Making a mountain out of a molehill.”

k.    Minimizing

Underestimating the importance of positive events. The same person who experiences the magnifying distortion may minimize positive events. These distortions sometimes occur in conjunction with each other. A person who distorts reality by minimizing may think something like, “Yes, I got a raise, but it wasn’t very big and I’m still not very good at my job.”

Example: What a mess up I made of that deal. Yes, I got the terms that my boss wanted but I didn’t handle it well.

3.   Relying on intuition

l.      Jumping to Conclusions

Making interpretations in the absence of facts to support them.

Examples of jumping to conclusions divide into two categories:

        i.            Mindreading

This type of thinker may assume the role of psychic and may think he or she knows what someone else thinks or feels. The person may think he or she knows what another person thinks despite no external confirmation that his or her assumption is true.

Example: I just know that they were all laughing at me behind their friendly faces

      ii.            Fortune telling

Without individuals saying so, a person who jumps to conclusions knows what another person is feeling and thinking — and exactly why they act the way they do. In particular, a person is able to determine how others are feeling toward the person, as though they could read their mind. Jumping to conclusions can also manifest itself as fortune-telling, where a person believes their entire future is pre-ordained (whether it be in school, work, or romantic relationships).

Example: When I meet him he will dislike me.

For example, a person may conclude that someone is holding a grudge against them, but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example involving fortune-telling is when a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly in their next relationship, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact, so why bother dating.

A fortune-telling-type thinker tends to predict the future, and usually foresees a negative outcome. Such a thinker arbitrarily predicts that things will turn out poorly. Before a concert or movie, you might hear him or her say, “I just know that all the tickets will be sold out when we get there.”

m. Predicting the future

Making conclusions about how the future will turn out based on inaccurate assumptions in the present.

n.   Emotional Reasoning

Assuming that feelings reflect fact. The distortion of emotional reasoning can be summed up by the statement, “If I feel that way, it must be true.” Whatever a person is feeling is believed to be true automatically and unconditionally. If a person feels stupid and boring, then they must be stupid and boring.

Emotions are extremely strong in people, and can overrule our rational thoughts and reasoning. Emotional reasoning is when a person’s emotions takes over our thinking entirely, blotting out all rationality and logic. The person who engages in emotional reasoning assumes that their unhealthy emotions reflect the way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

Mistaking one’s feelings for reality is emotional reasoning. If this type of thinker feels scared, there must be real danger. If this type of thinker feels stupid, then to him or her this must be true. This type of thinking can be severe and may manifest as obsessive compulsion. For example, a person may feel dirty even though he or she has showered twice within the past hour.

Examples: I feel as though I can’t cope, so I’ll have a couple of drinks first. I feel awful when I get angry, so I must be bad to get angry. I feel unattractive so I must be.

   iii.            Self-reproach

o.    Personalization

Assuming responsibility if something (perceived as) bad happens.

Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them. They literally take virtually everything personally, even when something is not meant in that way. A person who experiences this kind of thinking will also compare themselves to others, trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.

A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused everyone to have a terrible time. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

When engaging in this type of thinking, an individual tends to take things personally. He or she may attribute things that other people do as the result of his or her own actions or behaviors. This type of thinking also causes a person to blame himself or herself for external circumstances outside the person’s control.

Examples: The dinner party dod not go well: it was my fault for being tense and causing others to feel uncomfortable. Two students left my lecture early; I must have been boring.

p.    Blaming

        I.            Self-Blame

Seeing oneself as the cause of a bad event or criticizing oneself without cause.

Examples: I feel ill; I must have brought it on myself; I can’t catch up with my work; I must be stupid and lazy.

      II.            Blaming Others

When a person engages in blaming, they hold other people responsible for their emotional pain. They may also take the opposite track and instead blame themselves for every problem — even those clearly outside their own control.

For example: “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.

This is the opposite of personalization. Instead of seeing everything as your fault, all blame is put on someone or something else.

q.    Name-calling

Attaching harsh and demeaning names to oneself.

Examples: Idiot! I am so stupid. What a fool I am.

1.     Self-serving bias

A person experiencing self-serving bias may attribute all positive events to his or her personal character while seeing any negative events as outside of his or her control. This pattern of thinking may cause a person to refuse to admit mistakes or flaws and to live in a distorted reality where he or she can do no wrong.

2.   Always being ‘right’

This thinking pattern causes a person to internalize his or her opinions as facts and fails to consider the feelings of the other person in a debate or discussion. This cognitive distortion can make it difficult to form and sustain healthy relationships.

When a person engages in this distortion, they are continually putting other people on trial to prove that their own opinions and actions are the absolute correct ones. To a person engaging in “always being right,” being wrong is unthinkable — they will go to any length to demonstrate their rightness.

For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.

3.   Fallacies

r.     Falacy of change

This distortion assumes that other people must change their behavior in order for us to be happy. This way of thinking is usually considered selfish because it insists, for example, that other people change their schedule to accommodate yours or that your partner shouldn’t wear his or her favorite t-shirt because you don’t like it.

In the fallacy of change, a person expects that other people will change to suit them if they just pressure or cajole them enough. A person needs to change people because their hopes for success and happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

This distortion is often found in thinking around relationships. For example, a girlfriend who tries to get her boyfriend to improve his appearance and manners, in the belief that this boyfriend is perfect in every other way and will make them happy if they only changed these few minor things.

s.     Fallacy of fairness

This fallacy assumes that things have to be measured based on fairness and equality, when in reality things often don’t always work that way. An example of the trap this type of thinking sets is when it justifies infidelity if a person’s partner has cheated.

In the fallacy of fairness, a person feels resentful because they think that they know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with them. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel resentful, angry, and even hopelessness because of it. Because life isn’t fair — things will not always work out in a person’s favor, even when they should.

t.      Internal Control bias

Someone who sees things as internally controlled may put himself or herself at fault for events that are truly out of the person’s control, such as another person’s happiness or behavior. A person who sees things as externally controlled might blame his or her boss for poor work performance.

This distortion involves two different but related beliefs about being in complete control of every situation in a person’s life. In the first, if we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.”

The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

u.    External control bias

Others must change before I can be happy.

v.      ‘Heaven’s reward’ fallacy

In this pattern of thinking, a person may expect divine rewards for his or her sacrifices. People experiencing this distortion tend to put their interests and feelings aside in hopes that they will be rewarded for their selflessness later, but they may become bitter and angry if the reward is never presented.

The final cognitive distortion is the false belief that a person’s sacrifice and self-denial will eventually pay off, as if some global force is keeping score. This is a riff on the fallacy of fairness, because in a fair world, the people who work the hardest will get the largest reward. A person who sacrifices and works hard but doesn’t experience the expected pay off will usually feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.


Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

Burns, D. D. (2012). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.

Leahy, R.L. (2017). Cognitive Therapy Techniques, Second Edition: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Guilford Press.

McKay, M. & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-Esteem: A Proven Program of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving, and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem. New York: New Harbinger Publications.

Westbrook, D., Kennerley, H. and Kirk, J. (2014) (2nd Ed). An Introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Skills and Applications. London: Sage

Dr JC Coetzee Christian Clinical Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Centurion, Midstream, Midrand, Pretoria.