Understanding Cognitive Distortions (Common Thinking Errors)

Blue Sparkle Brain ImageWe are always constructing reality every bit as much as we are perceiving it…

… theories suggest that a person is not ‘stimulus-bound’ – or in other words, that a person does not just reflexly respond to events and situations, instead he selectively interprets and processes the information according to his own core beliefs and perceptions

selftalkcartoonMental Filtering!
In other words, we interpret events by filtering and re-framing them so that they fit into how we think things are, not always how they actually are.  (This perception, or ‘lens we view life through’ is referred to as a ‘schema’ in psychology.)

There is a famous eyewitness testimony experiment (by Allport and Postman in the 50’s) – whereby people were shown a picture of a scruffy white man holding a razor or knife up to a smartly dressed black man – and the eyewitnesses had to pass the story on to someone else, who passed it on to someone else and so on… by the end of the line the protagonist had turned into the black man, and the victim the white man. This is thought to be because people filter according to their core beliefs/schema, and stereotypes and prejudices are very much part of them.

Theory: if our beliefs and perceptions are distorted or ‘faulty’, if the lens we view life through is ‘off’ – we’re going to mis-interpret events and cause ourselves (and perhaps the people in our lives) needless suffering and emotional disturbance…

“I have been through some terrible things in my life… some of which actually happened!” Mark Twain

The following are typical Cognitive Distortions (errors in thinking / negative thinking styles) – You will see yourself there, but don’t worry, we ALL do some of these, some of the time… but if, for you, it’s often – and causing you emotional upset and self-defeating/sabotaging behaviour – it’s time for CBT! It’s time for change…

Demand thinking: ‘Shoulds, Musts, and Ought To’s’ This is maybe the most important thing most of us learn from CBT. It is when you tell yourself that you/others/the world must and should and ought to be the way you expect them to be. Otherwise everything is awful and terrible and unfair and you can’t bear it, and/or won’t stand for it. This is unhealthy ‘demand thinking’ – and sets unrealistic and irrational expectations that cannot usually be met. The demands we make on ourselves and others and the world are the cause of a lot of our ‘upsettness’ – and we cause it ourselves! CBT will teach us to replace the demands with ‘peferences’ instead – it neutralises the demands, and teaches us how to reframe with healthy alternative thinking that will help us aim for unconditional acceptance of ourselves and others and the world.

All-or-Nothing” Thinking – Things are viewed in black-and-white categories, with no shades of grey in between. If a situation does not go perfectly, you view it as a total failure. All-or-nothing thinking is thinking in extremes. For example, “Unless I perform perfectly in this task, I am a failure”. Perfectionism is very related to this way of thinking. Perfectionists have unrealistically high expectations of themselves – and other people too!

Overgeneralisation – A single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a career setback, is viewed as a recurrent pattern of defeat. Words such as “always” or “never” tend to crop up here, for example, if a person is rejected by his girlfriend he may think “It’s ALWAYS the same. Women are ALWAYS dumping me! I will NEVER be in a loving relationship.”

Mental Filtering – this is where you view information through your own unique distorted ‘lens’ – not seeing things as they really are, but seeing them how you ‘think’ they are – and most likely coming to the wrong conclusions, and interpreting events/situations in a negative way.

Discounting the Positive – You reject positive experiences by insisting that they ‘don’t count’. For example, if you are congratulated on your presentation you may insist that `anyone could have done that’, or say to yourself that you could have done a much better job. Discounting the positives takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.

Mind-reading & Fortune Telling: Jumping to Conclusions means interpreting things in a negative manner even though there is no evidence to support your conclusion. This may involve mind-reading, where, without checking out your facts, you conclude that you know what someone else is thinking about you (“She thinks I’m an idiot”, “they all hate me”), or fortune-telling, where you predict that things will turn out badly (“This interview is going to be a disaster, I’m going to make a total show of myself”).

Emotional Reasoning – You assume that because you feel bad, the situation must be negative. For example, “I feel anxious so I must be in danger”. Or: “I feel suspicious and jealous, and I trust my intuition so that must mean there’s something to be suspicious of”. Please remember: FEELINGS ARE NOT FACTS!

Labelling (rating) – This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying “I made a mistake”, you say “I’m a complete loser”. You may label yourself a fool, a failure, hopeless. Labelling is irrational, as you are not ‘what you do’. Labelling can be applied to other people as well, which unfairly generalizes about the other person in a derogatory way. For example, “My boss is an idiot”, “she’s a loser:. These labels are just abstractions that make people feel bad about themselves or others.

Personalisation and Blame – Personalisation happens when you hold yourself responsible for something that is not entirely under your control. When a father received a report card for his son which was critical of his progress, he told himself “This shows what a bad father I’ve been”. A woman who is beaten by her husband may believe “If I was a better person he wouldn’t hit me”. People may also blame other people for their problems, for example “I beat my wife because she drives me to it”. Blame does not work because it prevents you from taking responsibility for your life. Another form of personalisation is when it’s ‘all about you’ – when you cannot see outside of yourself).

Low Frustration Tolerance -‘being highly ‘intolerant’ – . (I-can’t-stand-it-itis!) – this is when a person holds the belief that they cannot and should not have to tolerate frustrating things. This assumes that when something is irritating or difficult to tolerate that it is ‘intolerable’ or ‘unbearable’. This thinking error magnifies discomfort to an extreme and can lead to extreme behaviour. For instance, you’ve heard of the phrase ‘he doesn’t tolerate fools gladly’ which often means the person is rude and negatively selfish to the person they think is a frustrating ‘fool’. It can also be when a person is negatively selfish, knowingly at the expense of someone else, as they work on the principle ‘I want – therefore I must have, or else I can’t stand it’. Telling yourself you ‘can’t stand’ something leads you to focus more on the discomfort of it, and leads you to underestimate your ability to cope with discomfort – many things are difficult to tolerate but become even more so with this thinking.

Awfulising“, or Catastrophic Thinking – This is when people make out situations to be much worse than they actually are, and when they envision the absolute worst case scenario. For example, “I’m going to totally screw up this leaving cert. I’ll make a mess of everything. Everybody will be laughing at me. It’s not fair. I can’t bear it. It’s awful…

Key aims –

  • Try to challenge your ‘should and must and ought’ demands – neutralise by changing them to ‘preferences’ instead.
  • Don’t use emotional reasoning.
  • Don’t ‘judge’ or ‘label’ – look for evidence.
  • Don’t put yourself down. Don’t put others down to ‘big yourself up’.
  • Don’t try to impose your beliefs on persons/groups.
  • Avoid being ‘negatively selfish’ at the deliberate expense of others.
  • Don’t try to punish yourself or others because of ‘bad behaviour’ (in your view!). These choices hurt YOU!
  • Aim (at least aim) for unconditional acceptance of the self, others and the world. And you will be MUCH happier and life will be more pleasurable for you and others in your life.
  • Remember: nobody is perfect – everybody is just trying to live and deserves compassion… including you!




5 thoughts on “Understanding Cognitive Distortions (Common Thinking Errors)

  1. Hello Veronica
    I would love to use your thinking errors work sheet with a group of multi-agency practitioners. These are not mental health professionals but school teachers, social workers and early intervention staff who work with children and young people up to the age of 25. May I have your permission please? I did my training at OCTC starting in 2009 and find new and exciting things to do in CBT all the time! I have just come back from Dublin after a spot of training at UCD in computerised CBT for children. Dublin in the sunshine – glorious and I did the Viking Splash tour – so hilarious, with a friend from Kerry. I made the trip back to Herefordshire with some reluctance after such a fabulous few days.
    kind regards
    Linda Gutierrez


    • Go for it Linda!
      If you’d like to amend/add to this or any other worksheet for your practitioners, (or indeed if they wish to), just request an msword.doc copy by email and I’ll forward it on to you.
      This is all ‘best practice by the masters’ stuff, it’s designed to be shared and used and developed on. All I ask is a co-brand/mention.
      Always be paying it forward….. *does a Viking splash roar*
      – Do come back and see us again. –


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