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Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that are negatively biased and often inaccurate. These errors in thinking of a situation are often reflexive and habitual.

Common ways our thoughts can make us miserable


We make a board statement or rule after a single negative event. The words “always” or “never” are frequently used to frame a sentence.

All or nothing thinking

We see things in absolutes, or in extreme categories. For example, if a situation falls short of perfect, we interpret it as a total failure.

Labeling and mislabeling

Instead of describing our mistake or misfortune, we attach a negative label to ourselves. For example, if we accidentally offended someone, instead of thinking, “I misspoke” we tell ourselves, “I am such a jerk!”


A minor negative outcome gets blown way out of proportion.

Mental filter

We pick out a single negative event and dwell on it exclusively while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

Mind reading

We assume people are reacting negatively to us even though there is no definitive evidence for it.

Disqualifying the positive

We ignore or invalidate any good things that have happened. We maintain a negative belief by insisting that any good experiences that contradict our fixed beliefs “don’t count.”

Emotional reasoning

We erroneously conclude that our negative feelings reflect the way things really are. For example: “I feel like an idiot, so I really must have done a really bad job.”


We blame ourselves for things we are not entirely responsible for.

Should statements

We criticize ourselves and others with “should”, “shouldn’t”, “must”, and “ought” statements. When the thoughts are directed at ourselves, we often feel guilt. When the thoughts are directed at others, we often feel anger and frustration.

Untwist the distorted thoughts

Cognitive distortions can make us feel miserable but objective, balanced, and positive thoughts can help us feel good about ourselves and life in general. Habitual negative, and often inaccurate thoughts can be corrected over time.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change maladaptive thought patterns. Through CBT, cognitive distortions are identified, challenged, and replaced with more objective and benign thoughts.

If you feel you might benefit from this form of therapy, consult your physician and contact the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapist to find a professional in your area.


Burns, David D. The Feeling Good Handbook. Rev. ed. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Plume, 1999.

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