Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A Guide To Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are skewed thought patterns that are not realistic (although not in the sense of being delusional). They are not necessarily symptoms of mental illness, although they can become much easier to get caught up in when dealing with a mental illness. 

Most people fall into these thinking traps at least some of the time. Some relate to cognitive biases, which are natural shortcuts and assumptions that our brains make to decrease the cognitive effort required to evaluate common situations. Others may be used to make the world seem more consistent with core beliefs. 

Cognitive distortions can be hard to recognize, since we’re often pretty convinced that our assessment of a situation is bang on. When you practice identifying your own cognitive distortions, it gives you a good starting point to challenge those automatic patterns that don’t accurately reflect the reality of a given situation. 


This is also known as black & white thinking, polarized thinking, dichotomous thinking, and splitting. It involves viewing things as all one way (e.g. good) or all the opposite way (e.g. bad), with no shades of grey in between. One way to challenge this type of thinking is to use a shades- of-grey ruler of sorts. One end of the ruler is black and the other is white, but take those extremes off the table entirely, and look for concrete examples to support the shade of grey that you decide to go with. 

Always being right 

This cognitive distortion involves being convinced that one's thoughts/actions are correct regardless of the situation. If you have a loud inner critic, chances are it’s often telling you that you’re doing things wrong. However, there may also be thoughts about the external world that you’re clutching onto tightly that you’re not prepared to let go of even if they’re not realistic. 


This involves blaming another person for causing one's own emotions or experiences when there is no such direct connection. We may blame others for making us feel hurt or angry, when in fact that hurt or anger was our emotional reaction to others’ behaviour. The difference may seem subtle, but blaming is a very powerless stance, while acknowledging that the reaction is your own gives you something to work with. 


As the name suggests, this cognitive distortion involves expecting that the worst possible outcome will happen - think Chicken Little the sky is falling! And while sometimes the worst possible outcome happens, most often it doesn’t. It can be useful to go back and do an inventory of similar situations in the past and consider how often catastrophic results ensued. 

Disqualifying the positive 

This involves dismissing anything positive as unimportant or meaningless. Even when there’s a whole fat pile of negative, there’s some positive floating around, and it still counts. 

Emotional reasoning 

Emotional reasoning is “I feel it, therefore it must be so" (kind of a distorted twist on "I think, therefore I am”). This isn’t a matter of your feelings being valid or invalid, but rather something along the lines of “I feel neglected, so he must have been intentionally neglecting me.” Our emotions are valid reactions to precipitating events, but the emotion doesn’t define that event. 

Fallacy of change 

This is about expecting that others will change to suit our needs if we just push them hard enough and long enough. They’re not going to change unless they’re motivated to do it themselves, and even then, it can be a crapshoot. 

Fallacy of control 

The locus of control may be seen as fully external (i.e. I don't have any control over what happens to me) or fully internal (i.e. I am responsible for everything that’s happening to me as well as to others around me). 

Fallacy of fairness 

The belief that the world is a just place can seem like a good one to hold onto. However, as nice as it may seem, it’s just not true, and it sets up unrealistic expectations. 


While disqualifying the positive minimizes the good thing, filtering (also known as selective abstraction) shuts out the positive entirely and only sees the negative. This is something that’s deeply ingrained as a survival mechanism, so it’s a very easy thought trap to fall into. 


This is a type of arbitrary inference that involves predicting how something will turn out using your non-existent crystal ball. While most of us would accept that the crystal ball type of fortune- telling is a bit ridiculous, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the past predicts the future. 

Heaven's reward fallacy 

This is the belief that if you have sacrificed/suffered then something good/ rewarding must come of it eventually. Like the fallacy of fairness, it sounds nice, but it’s just not true. 


Like fortune-telling, mind-reading is a type of arbitrary inference. It involves the belief that you can know another person's thoughts based on their behaviour. This is a very easy trap to fall into, and it’s certainly one that I struggle with. It can seem so obvious that a person’s reaction means that they’re thinking/feeling a certain thing, but the only way to actually know is if they tell us. 


This cognitive distortion is about labelling a person as a whole based on a specific behaviour. If someone snaps at you once, you might label them as a mean person, but what you might not know is that they hadn’t slept for days because of a sick toddler. Labelling can also serve as a basis for stigma. 


This involves extrapolating what happened in one situation to apply to many other situations that really aren’t related. 


This involves blaming oneself for external events when there’s no logical way that there could be that type of cause and effect relationship. 


Shoulds often encompass a few different things. Some things you truly need to do, and other things (like following the law) are essentially needs because the cost of not doing them is too high to be acceptable. Then there are things we like to do, but maybe have to do some rearranging to fit in. There are also things that may not be enjoyable at the time, but they serve a useful purpose or are consistent with our goals and values. The shoulds that are cognitive distortions revolve around expectations and unrealistic or arbitrary standards. These shoulds are often used as an excuse for self-criticism. Some people hold one very tightly to their shoulds, out of concern that they wouldn’t do things properly without them. Acceptance and commitment therapy, which incorporates concepts from CBT, would say that values are a more useful guide than shoulds. 

Reflection question 

Which cognitive distortions do you use most often, and in what types of situations do you tend to use them typically? 

Ongoing practice When distressing thoughts arise, go through this list and see if any of these cognitive distortions might apply. Consider how likely it is that the thought is distorted, and see if you can defuse some of the emotion attached to it in light of the thought that it could possibly be distorted. A thought record (coming up in the next section) can help with this.


Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

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