The 10 Most Common,
Common Cognitive Distortions

The assumptions we make about the world can lead to some pretty strange and distressing thoughts.  Therapists call this problematic assumptions cognitive distortions.  These distorted thoughts then have a direct impact on how we feel, often leading to unnecessary and avoidable emotional distress.  A portion of every adult’s work in therapy includes understanding where, how, and when their thought patterns move from healthy to distorted.

Below are listed are the 10 most common, common cognitive distortions that I see with my adult clients.  There are more if you are interested, but these are the most common ones, and the ones most easily associated with specific symptoms.and specific solutions.

1)  Black/White  Thinking:   It’s All-Or-Nothing

The key assumption here is that the world exists in sharp contrast black/white or all/nothing.  There is little or no grey, little or no nuance. 

With teens and adults this all-or-nothing assumption can present as perfectionism, procrastination, and avoidance.  I work with a lot of clients who have been crippled into a state of frozen inaction by the belief that their work (and they themselves) is either “perfect” or a “failure.”  Since “perfect” is rarely attainable, many of these clients finding themselves living in a state of constant distress and avoidance.  They don’t start their work because at some level they believe that they will never be able to finish it “perfectly.” 

Black/white thinking also leads to Depression, Anxiety, and unstable interpersonal relationships.

So What Do You Do About It?

You start by actively looking for, finding, and accepting the gray area between black and white…the space between between all and nothing…where life is actually happening.

This means accepting that doing something is almost always better than doing nothing.  It means that handing in work late is better than not handing it in at all. It means that statements that start with you never…, or I always…are rarely true.  It means that when you accept imperfections, flaws, and mistakes in yourself and others, you open the door to deeper, more honest, and more lasting relationships.

2) CATASTROPHIZING: The sky is falling, the sky is falling…

My nephew accused me of making this word up.  I thought he was right, but it turns out that a lot of clinicians use this silly word to describe something that is technically referred to as magnification:  turning a small problem into a big one. Catastrophizing turns small problems into big ones, and big problems into catastrophes. .

Catastrophizing assumes that the challenge at hand is bigger then it actually is, and that its potential consequences are too horrible to bare.

There is usually an exclamation point in there somewhere and it usually a signals a state of constant distress.  Adults who catastrophic are often too frightened by their challenges to constructively address and solve them.  They run around like poor Chicken Littles, stressing over their problems, and sometimes obsessively sharing them with others, but not taking actions necessary to solve them.

A real catastrophe is finding out that you have an incurable terminal illness when you are 20 (but not when you are 85).  A real catastrophe is being broke at 80 years old (but not when you are 20).  The problem with catastrophizers is their habit of confusing life’s every–day pains and challenges with actual real life-altering catastrophes, letting how they might feel about a challenge override what they think about it, and then not taking appropriate steps to fix  or accept the problem in front of them.

So What Do You Do About It?

My favorite tool to identify and challenge catastrophizing is my 10 point CATASTROPHE SCALE.  You can learn more about that in session.

3) OVER-FOCUS ON NEGATIVES and DISCOUNTING OF POSITIVES:  Everything sucks and if something good does happen it doesn’t really count

While many lists of problematic assumptions list these two ideas separately, I like to lump them together.  The important thing to remember is that some combination of both of these assumptions is consistent with depression.  Adults who are practiced in finding the fly in the ointment, the one grey cloud in an otherwise blue sky, the disappointing part will most likely be sad.  Adults who go out of their way to negate the positives in their lives will most likely end up suffering from Depression.

So What Do You Do About It?

The solution here is easy to say but more challenging to put into practice.  Every day, in every way, we want to actively engage in a practice of gratefulness and appropriately celebrate our success while simultaneously acknowledging and learning from our challenges.

4) FORTUNE-TELLING:  I just KNOW how this one’s going to turn out…

It might be nice to know the future.  Kids and adults who practice fortune-telling believe they can or should know the future…and that it’s going to be awful.  They assume failure. They assume catastrophe.  The other part of fortune-telling is rushing to a negative conclusion and ignoring all of the potential ways to positively impact/alter the future. 

So What Do You Do About It?

To challenge fortune telling one has to get practiced at stopping or redirecting the metaphorical boulder.  I like to start by changing the imagery.  Rather than a smooth steep downward slope, I think it’s more realistic to think of life’s “terrain” as a mixture of challenging up-hill moments, inclines, and level patches.  At each step of the way we have the opportunity to sit with the boulder and make decisions about the best way to move it forwards.

5) MIND-READING: I know what you are thinking about me and it’s really bad…

The assumption that we can tell with certainty what other people are thinking, particularly about us, is the  core problematic assumption of mind-reading.  This is the kind of thinking that is at the root of social anxiety (technically referred to as Social Phobia).  Adults with social phobia worry so much about what others might be thinking of them that they often cannot tolerate social interaction.  They assume that other people are thinking negatively about them.  Adults who mind-read too much are often lonely.  Adults who mind-read while driving are often angry and sometimes dangerous.

So What Do You Do About It?

In my office I sometimes ask my clients to guess what number I have in my head.  No one has ever been correct. We cannot read minds. Sometimes, when you know someone really really well, you can make a good guess…but it’s still a guess. I can’t tell what you are thinking and you can’t accurately know what I am thinking either. 

The antidote to mind reading starts with accepting this basic fact.  Your therapist can help you with other strategies.

6) SHOULDS/AUGHTS/MUSTS:  This is the way it has to be, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Adults who struggle with shoulds/aughts/musts make rigid assumptions about how they or the world is supposed to function and what they believe they need to do in order to be a good or competent person in this world.  Adult SHOULDS/AUGHTS/MUSTS often revolve around social status, religious practices and/or financial success. These assumptions, because they are often both rigid, unreasonable, and unachievable,  lead to unhappiness and excessive worry.

So What Do You Do About It?

Start by catching yourself whenever you hear yourself think or say should, aught to, or must.  Take a moment to consider where this strong belief is coming from.  If it’s well grounded in your value system than run with it.  But be open to considering that it is not.  It could just be something that you were taught as a child that you really don’t believe in as an adult.

7) LABELING:  Mistaking specific events for permanent traits

I worked recently with a client who called himself “lazy,” “stupid,” and an “ungrateful little sh..t.”   More frequently I have had parents tell their children that they are “special” or “a genius.”  Either way these are labels that can be painful, burdensome and constricting.

The problem with labels, also known as name-calling, is that they limit the opportunity for growth and change

So What Do You Do About It?

We always want to be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings.  But we also want to be careful to frame them as specific acts, not permanent traits.  For example, if you don’t meet a commitment it doesn’t really help to say “I’m lazy.”  But it does really help to acknowledge where you messed up, to think hard and long about why, and to create a plan for success in the future.  Your therapist can help you with that part.

8) BLAME:  It’s always my fault/It’s never my fault…

Assumptions around blame cause a lot of unnecessary distress in the lives of the adults I work with.  At one end of the spectrum is the assumption that if there is a problem that it’s always their fault.  At the other end is the assumption that  it’s always someone else’s fault. 

The my fault people take too much responsibility for having caused a problem.  The it’s always someone else’s fault people don’t take enough.  The blame game also keeps the focus on the problem, not the potential solution.

So What Do You Do About It?

Whenever we face a problem it’s useful to first figure out what  caused the problem, and what part you may have played in it.   But it is even more important to switch focus to solving the problem.   Staying in a blame orientation leaves people feeling, sad and helpless or angry and entitled.

9) PERSONALIZING:  For better or worse (mostly worse), it’s all about me

What if everything that happened, anything that anyone at work or school said or did, was somehow a direct reflection on you.  That’s personalizing.  Personalizing assumes that if your friend, parent, or boss is angry, they are reacting to something you said or did.  Losing a job, getting cut-off on the highway, having an angry interaction with a stranger on the playground or in the supermarket.  These are all situations where taking things too personally can be both inaccurate and unnecessarily painful.  

So What Do You Do About It?

For starters I like to remind my clients that (except in middle school), when someone is looking right at you they are more likely thinking about what they are going to have for lunch than what you are wearing or what you just said.

10) UNFAIR COMPARISONS: I should be able to do or have whatever he or she does…

Clients who make unfair comparisons often ignore or discount the effort and time it took the other person to be who they are or get what they have achieved.  Unfair comparisons trigger unhelpful and often misdirected feelings of envy, anger, and sadness.

So What Do You Do About It?

The best challenge to unfair comparisons for adults is remembering that we can never really know what it took another person to get where they got.

As a clinician working with adults from marginalized populations it’s important to acknowledge that life really can be unfair. Unfairness based on class, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, age, and sexual orientation is baked into the system and is a daily reality for many patients, not merely a cognitive distortion.

Putting It All Together

Understanding and challenging cognitive distortions is just one therapeutic tool, but it can be a very powerful on that.  The process itself can also seem somewhat formulaic, which in itself can be quite comforting.

So what’s the process?

STEP 1:  Notice and name the distressing feeling.

STEP 2: Consider what possibly distorted thoughts (cognitive distortions) may be contributing to this distress.

STEP 3:  Try replacing a distorted thought with a more realistic one.  This is where your therapist can be really helpful, especially early in the process.  Keep in mind that this whole process only works if you replace a distressing thought with one that is more true, not less.  Life really is tough.  No rainbows or unicorns here.

STEP 4:  Take a few deep breaths, smile, and consider whether you are in a better place than where you started.

About

Dr. Andrew RIchlin,Licensed Psychologist
Dr. Andrew Richlin writes for Teens, 
Young Adults and Parents on the challenges and opportunities in relationships… etc. and for parents and adults 

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