10 Cognitive Distortions That Can Cause Negative Thinking

Recognizing these thought patterns can help you overcome them

Depressed young man

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Cognitive distortions are negative or irrational patterns of thinking. These negative thought patterns can play a role in diminishing your motivation, lowering your self-esteem, and contributing to problems like anxiety, depression, and substance use.

This article discusses different cognitive distortions and how they work. It also discusses hypothetical examples to show how this kind of thinking affects behavior and what you can do to help overcome these distortions.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking is also known as black-and-white thinking or polarized thinking. This type of thinking involves viewing things in absolute terms: Situations are always black or white, everything or nothing, good or bad, success or failure.

An example of all-or-nothing thinking is dwelling on mistakes and assuming you will never be able to do well, instead of acknowledging the error and trying to move past it.

One way to overtime this cognitive distortion is to recognize that success and progress are not all-or-nothing concepts. By addressing this type of thinking and replacing self-defeating thoughts, you can feel better about your progress and recognize your strengths.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization happens when you make a rule after a single event or a series of coincidences. The words "always" or "never" frequently appear in the sentence. Because you have experience with one event playing out a certain way, you assume that all future events will have the same outcome.

For example, imagine that you made a suggestion about a work project that wasn't adopted in the final work. You might overgeneralize this and assume that no one at work ever listens to you or takes you seriously.

One way to combat overgeneralization is to focus on using realistic language. Instead of saying, "I always do that!," say something such as, "That happens sometimes, but I'll try to do better next time."

Mental Filters

A mental filter is the opposite of overgeneralization, but with the same negative outcome. Instead of taking one small event and generalizing it inappropriately, the mental filter takes one small event and focuses on it exclusively, filtering out anything else.

For example, Nathan focuses on all of the negative or hurtful things that his partner has said or done in their relationship, but he filters all the kind and thoughtful things his partner does. This thinking contributes to feelings of negativity about his partner and their relationship.

Journaling is one strategy that might help overcome mental filtering. Make an effort to intentionally shift your focus from the negative and look for more neutral or positive aspects of a situation. 

Discounting the Positive

Discounting the positive is a cognitive distortion that involves ignoring or invalidating good things that have happened to you. It is similar to mental filtering, but instead of simply ignoring the positives, you are actively rejecting them.

For example, Joel completes a project and receives an award for his outstanding work. Rather than feeling proud of his achievement, he attributes it to pure luck that has nothing to do with his talent and effort.

One way to overcome this cognitive distortion is to reframe how you attribute events. Instead of seeing positive outcomes as flukes, focus on noticing how your own strengths, skills, and efforts contributed to the outcome.

By having more faith in your abilities, you'll feel more empowered and less likely to experience learned helplessness, a phenomenon where people feel that they have no control over the outcome.

Jumping to Conclusions

There are two ways of jumping to conclusions:

  • Mind reading: When you think someone is going to react in a particular way, or you believe someone is thinking things that they aren't
  • Fortune telling: When you predict events will unfold in a particular way, often to avoid trying something difficult

For example, Jamie believes that he cannot stand life without heroin. Such beliefs hold him back from getting the treatment and help that he needs to successfully recover from substance use.

To overcome this cognitive distortion, take a moment to consider the facts before you make a decisions. Ask questions and challenge your initial assumptions.

Magnification

Magnification is exaggerating the importance of shortcomings and problems while minimizing the importance of desirable qualities. Similar to mental filtering and discounting the positive, this cognitive distortion involves magnifying your negative qualities while minimizing your positive ones. 

For example, when something bad happens, you see this as "proof" of your own failures. But when good things happen, you minimize their importance. For example, a person addicted to pain medication might magnify the importance of eliminating all pain and exaggerate how unbearable their pain is.

To overcome magnification, focus on learning how to identify these thoughts and intentionally replacing them with more helpful, realistic ways of thinking.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is a way of judging yourself or your circumstances based on your emotions. This type of reasoning assumes that because you are experiencing a negative emotion, it must accurately reflect reality. If you feel experience feelings of guilt, for example, emotional reasoning would lead you to conclude that you are a bad person.

For instance, Jenna used emotional reasoning to conclude that she was a worthless person, which in turn led to binge eating.

While research has found that this distortion is common in people who have anxiety and depression, it is actually a very common way of thinking that many people engage in. Cognitive behavior therapy can help people recognize the signs of emotional reasoning and realize that feelings are not facts.

"Should" Statements

"Should" statements involve always thinking about things that you think you "should" or "must" do. These types of statements can make you feel worried or anxious. They can also cause you to experience guilt or a sense of failure. Because you always think you "should" be doing something, you end up feeling as if you are constantly failing.

An example: Cheryl thinks she should be able to play a song on her violin without making any mistakes. When she does make mistakes, she feels angry and upset with herself. As a result, she starts to avoid practicing her violin.

When you recognize yourself engaging in this cognitive distortion, focus on practicing self-compassion. Replace these statements with more realistic ones, and work on accepting yourself for who you are rather than who you think you should be.

Labeling

Labeling is a cognitive distortion that involves making a judgment about yourself or someone else as a person, rather than seeing the behavior as something the person did that doesn't define them as an individual.

For example, you might label yourself as a failure. You can also label other people as well. You might decide that someone is a jerk because of one interaction and continue to judge them in all future interactions through that lens with no room for redemption.

You can combat labeling by challenging the accuracy of your assumptions. Look for evidence that counters your negative thoughts. Remind yourself of the difference between opinions and facts.

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Personalization and Blame

Personalization and blame is a cognitive distortion whereby you entirely blame yourself, or someone else, for a situation that, in reality, involved many factors that were out of your control.

For example, Anna blamed herself for her daughter's bad grade in school. Instead of trying to find out why her daughter is struggling and exploring ways to help, Anna assumes it is a sign that she is a bad mother.

When you find yourself engaging in this cognitive distortion, make a conscious effort to consider other factors that might have played a role in the situation. Instead of blaming yourself for something that happened, consider external factors or other people's actions that might have also been contributing factors.

Coping With Cognitive Distortions

Once you recognize that you are experiencing cognitive distortions, there are steps you can take to change these ways of thinking. Getting help is important, because these distorted thought patterns can seriously affect mental health and well-being. To change cognitive distortions:

Become More Aware of Your Thoughts

Try to notice the thoughts that contribute to feelings of anxiety, negativity, or depression. Practices such as journaling and mindfulness may help you build better awareness of your own thoughts.

Recognize the Effect of Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions can contribute to poor decisions making, but they can also play a significant role in the onset and maintenance of mental illness and other issues. Such distortions are associated with the following:

Challenge Your Thoughts

As you recognize that distorted thoughts cause problems, it is essential to work to change them actively. It may be uncomfortable, particularly at first, but work on challenging yourself. Is there evidence that contradicts your thoughts? Are there more helpful ways of thinking about a situation?

Talk to a Professional

If cognitive distortions are contributing to feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems, consider talking to a therapist.  A therapist can utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other strategies to help you change these distorted ways of thinking.

CBT is an approach that helps people recognize these cognitive distortions and replace them with more helpful, realistic thoughts. Techniques that your therapist may utilize include cognitive reframing and cognitive restructuring.

A Word From Verywell

Cognitive distortions are the mind’s way of playing tricks on us and convincing us of something that just isn’t true. While many cognitive distortions are common, there are some that can indicate a more serious condition and take a toll on mental health, leading to an increase in symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression.

If you think that cognitive distortions may be altering your sense of reality and are concerned about how these thoughts may be negatively affecting your life, talk to your healthcare provider or therapist. Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy are helpful and can help you learn to think in ways that are more accurate and helpful.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.