Recognizing Common Cognitive Distortions

By Liza Ibrahim, LPC

The human mind is an incredibly powerful machine. Because of it, we can take in new information, store it, and connect it with other information to create new ideas. Although the human mind is amazingly efficient in so many ways, it can also lack in others. Cognitive distortions are irrational or negative thoughts that can influence your emotions. Many individuals experience cognitive distortions to some extent, however others may experience these distortions at a more extreme level. These negative thought patterns or mental habits can make us exaggerate or inaccurately perceive reality in an unhealthy way. This can be damaging to our mental health, relationships, and overall wellbeing. Below is a list of some of the most common cognitive distortions we all engage in from time to time. Take a moment to read through them and take note of the ones that resonate with you:

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Thinking of people or situations in extremes or black-and-white terms. “If I don’t do it perfectly, then it’s horrible.”


Believing the outcome of a situation will be so terrible that you won’t be able to handle it. “If I lost this job, I’d just fall apart.”

Negative Filtering/Discounting Positives

Focusing on negatives while framing positives as unimportant. “I got an A on the test because it was easy, but I failed one of the quizzes, so maybe I’m not cut out for…”

Mind Reading

Assuming you know what other people think. “He thinks I’m unintelligent.”


Believing that one is responsible for events outside of their control. “My mom is always upset. It is probably my fault because I’m not doing enough to help her.”

These common thought patterns typically occur automatically in our normal day-to-day lives. This makes them difficult to recognize, as their habitual nature is wired into our brains. If the thought distortions are reinforced, often due to our habitual thinking, it can lead to an increased level of anxiety, depression, and unhealthy relationships. It is important to recognize that all cognitive distortions are:

  • Habitual patterns of thinking or beliefs
  • False, inaccurate, and often exaggerated thoughts
  • Manifest as negative emotions or feelings
  • May increase anxiety and depression

If a person can accurately identify these negative thinking errors, it allows them the opportunity to challenge and refute those negative thoughts.

By continually confronting those thoughts over and over again, the cognitive distortions will begin to diminish. Over time, your thoughts will be replaced by more rational notions.  By adjusting your automatic thoughts, you are able to influence your emotions and behaviors in a positive way and improve the quality of your life. Thought patterns can be changed through a process referred to in cognitive therapy as “cognitive restructuring.” If you find that your thoughts patterns are fitting some of the descriptions above and are having a negative impact on your life, working with a cognitve-behavioral therapist can provide you the support and guidance to set you on a path toward healthier thinking and less distress. Despite the errors we make, the power of the human brain can be harnessed to yield changes in our emotions and behaviors and ultimately help us feel better.