Cognitive Distortions: Identifying and Altering our Negative Thoughts

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

Written by graduate intern, Christy Schaefer

Cognitive Distortions are errors in thinking that happen automatically and feel like fact. They are biased thoughts that make us see ourselves and our experiences in a more negative light. Cognitive distortions are normal and common to us all, but they can weigh us down and negatively affect our mental health, especially if we remain unaware of them.

Here are several common cognitive distortions:

Personalization: Assuming personal responsibility for events outside your control.

Example: My friend left the party early – it must be my fault.

Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst thing will happen, even in neutral circumstances.

Example: My boss saw the mistake I made – they are going to fire me for it.

Black and white thinking: Also known as “all or nothing thinking”, this is when you see everything as either all good or all bad, with no in-between, often favouring the bad.

Example: I can never do anything right, I always fail at everything I do.

Mental filtering: Picking out and focusing on only the negative parts of experiences and ignoring the neutral and good parts.

Example: I got a low mark on my science test – I am not a good student.

Overgeneralization: Experiencing one negative event and seeing it as proof that everything is negative.

Example: I broke up with my partner – I’ll never find someone to love.

Mind reading: Assuming that you know what another person is thinking or feeling, often with a negative bias.

Example: My coworker did not smile at me when I passed by her, she must be mad at me.

Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that one’s feelings reflect factual evidence.

Example: I feel like I cannot cope with spending an afternoon with my in-laws so I will make an excuse not to go.

Ways to alter cognitive distortions:

The first step is awareness: Identify which distortions are true or problematic for you. This can be done through reflective journaling, or getting honest feedback from a trusted friend.

Put your thoughts on trial. Gather evidence for and against the thought. What’s the evidence that indicates your thought might be true? But also, what evidence indicates your thought is not true?

For those who catastrophize, ask yourself: What is the worst-case scenario? How would you handle it? How likely is the worst-case scenario to happen? Sometimes walking ourselves through our worst fears helps us realize we can survive them, in the unlikely even they do occur.

Ask yourself questions designed to challenge cognitive distortions like: “Am I jumping to conclusions?” “Are there shades of gray to this situation?” “Am I taking this personally?” “What information am I leaving out?”

We are often much harder on ourselves than those we love. Ask yourself: What would I say to a friend in a similar situation?

When negative thoughts about ourselves or what others think of us occur, it is helpful to decenter from those thoughts: this involves taking a mental step back and observing our thoughts through a more objective lens. By decentering, we can acknowledge that our thoughts are not facts, and we are not defined by them. We have the power to change our thoughts to bring about more positive outcomes for ourselves.

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