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Change Your Thinking and Feel Better: Learn to Identify These 10 Very Common Cognitive Distortions

Can a few weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) really help you feel better? How does it work and will it work for you?

Well, you can’t expect miracles, but if you live with anxiety, depression, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, an eating disorder, addiction and/or many other concerns there’s a good chance CBT can help you, and that you’ll start seeing the benefits of fast acting CBT almost right away.1

According to the logic of CBT, the way we think affects the way we feel and the way we feel affects the choices we make and the things we do.

So if your thinking distorts reality, and this distorted thinking causes you mental anguish…all you’ve got to do is work on spotting and correcting unhealthy thinking styles before they get a chance to bring you down.

And though this takes a little work, with training and practice you can get good at self correcting your negative thought processes within a few weeks.

So if you’re wondering if CBT might work for you, take a look at this list of 10 common cognitive distortions - and if you see something there that describes how you think at least some of the time, then CBT might be just what you need.

10 Common Cognitive Distortions


1. Black and White Thinking

Seeing things as all or nothing and forgetting about the shades of grey in between.

  • Imagine you’re struggling with sobriety and you slip and have a beer - using the twisted logic of all or nothing thinking you’re either stone sober or hard drinking - so since you had one beer you might as well have 20 more.

2. Overgeneralization

You take a single negative event as evidence that bad things ‘always’ happen to you.

  • For example, your boss doesn’t agree with one of your proposals so you decide he always hates your ideas and you don’t offer your opinions again.

3. Mental Filtering

You focus on the negatives and ignore or undervalue the positives.

  • Imagine you gave a speech and afterward most people congratulated you for a job well done but one person mentioned that you looked quite nervous while talking. With mental filtering, you’re able to discount all the compliments and beat yourself up about how nervous and pathetic you must have looked, and in the end you decide that the speech was a total failure.

4. Mind Reading

You imagine that you know what other people are thinking about you.

  • You’re at a party and you strike up a conversation with a person who excuses herself quickly. You think you know that she was feeling bored by you and so you get upset and leave. Actually, she needed to use the restroom and when she came back to find you again she was disappointed to learn that you had left the party.2

5. Fortune Telling

You feel like you’re going to fail and so you convince yourself that your ‘feelings’ are actually ‘facts’.

  • If I try to talk to that girl I bet she'll blow me off…Since I know that girl is going to reject me if I try to talk to her there’s no point in trying.

6. Labeling

When you use labeling you take black and white thinking to its most harmful extreme, tagging negatives on yourself and others based on limited and insufficient evidence.  

  • You do poorly on a test so you label yourself stupid or an idiot and decide you have no business in college.
  • Your friend doesn’t return something he borrowed from you so you label him a thoughtless jerk and stop talking to him

7. Making Should Statements

When you fail to achieve what you think you ‘should’ you feel guilt and frustration, and when others fail to act as you think they ‘should’ you feel anger, resentment and frustration.

  • You feel angry because your neighbors don’t tend to their lawn like they ‘should’. They are perfectly happy as they are but you punish yourself with negative feelings based on how you feel the world ‘ought to be’.

8. Catastrophizing  

Catastrophizing is the tendency to find and worry about the worst case scenario while ignoring the more likely outcomes.

  • Your son’s second grade teacher wants you to encourage more reading at home. Internally you blow this normal need for homework catch-up to a situation where your son will never be able to finish school or get a good job.

9. Magnifying

You make a habit of minimizing your positive attributes and focusing unduly (magnifying) on your less positive traits.

  • Imagine yourself with a pair of binoculars – you look out of the eyepieces to view (magnify) your deficiencies but you turn the binoculars around and look from the front to view (minimize) your successes and positive traits.3

10.  Emotional Reasoning

This refers to the incorrect belief that the way you feel has some influence over the way things are.

  • If I’m angry at you then you must be wrong or bad.


Correcting Cognitive Distortions

If any of the above cognitive distortions seem familiar, then you may want to explore CBT to see whether a few weeks of lessons can help you to overcome a lifetime of negative thinking habits.

After all, loads of research backs its effectiveness across a wide range of disorders and since it works fast, you’ll know quickly whether it’s of use to you or not.



  1. Beck Institute: Conditions That CBT Can Treat 
  2. CMHC: Stress Management: Styles of Distorted Thinking
  3. David M Burns; ‘The Feeling Good Handbook’. Pages 8-9, Revised Edition May 1999

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