What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Our thoughts can define how we view a situation. There are many ways of thinking and sometimes those thoughts can be a hinderance to our day to day lives. When our thoughts convince us something that is false, that means that our thoughts are distorted. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts that are used to reinforce negative beliefs or emotions, and disguising them as being true or rational. Below we will go over the most common cognitive distortions.


Filtering is when we magnify a negative detail, and filter out all of the positive aspects of the specific situation. When doing so it may cause us to only think negatively about the situation due to us hyper focusing on the negative details. An example of filtering is that you may have been really good at penalty kicks in soccer and you have ever missed one during a game, but during practice you may have overshot it. After this event you may think that you are terrible at penalty kicks and you never want to take them. A way to combat filtering is making sure you are taking in all of the information. Try and find instances of which things are not all bad, and ask yourself if other people you know would come to the same conclusion in that situation.

Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking is when we think that there is no middle ground. It is when we put situations or people in either/or categories. An example of black and white thinking is the idea that we are going to be perfect or we are going to fail. Some verbiage used when using black and white thinking is ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘perfect,’ or ‘impossible.’ Ways to combat black and white thinking is to incorporate ‘the grey.’ An example of this is maybe when someone says “I am horrible at art,” they finish the sentence with “but I still am good at science.”


Catastrophizing is when we think that disaster is going to strike. It is the thought process of thinking that something is far worse than it actually is. An example of catastrophic thinking is, “If I fail this test, then I will fail out of school and I’ll be a failure at life.” Now we all think to ourselves ‘what if’ from time to time, but if it becomes a pattern of thought it may be detrimental. Some ways we can change our thought processes in regards to catastrophic thinking is knowing when you are thinking this way. If you are able to notice when you are thinking this way, you may be able to acknowledge that it is a cognitive distortion. Another way to tackle catastrophizing is trying to think of a more positive outcome or at least a less negative one. Using the same example above you may reframe by thinking, “If I fail this test, it may allow me to know how to better study for the next one.”


Overgeneralization is when you come to a general conclusion based off of a single incident. It is the cognitive distortion that once something happens, we expect it to continue to happen over and over again. For example let’s say that you find out your friends go out to dinner without you, it may cause you to think that you are always going to be left out of social outings. In reality, those two friends may have not seen each other in months and wanted to catch up. You may start to truly believe that this is true, which may hinder you from trying to hang out with your friends. Ways to prevent this type of thinking is try to consider alternate ways of thinking. One way is that put a friend in you situation. What would you say to them? Is it different from how you are thinking about the situation now?


Personalization is when you may believe that everything others do and say is a direct, personal reaction to what you are doing. This may also cause us to compare us to others to see who is doing ‘better.’ Personalization may cause us to blame ourselves for no logical reason. An example of personalization is thinking that you’re the reason that your friends had a bad dinner, when in reality the bad dinner was caused by many other external factors. A way to combat personalization is asking yourself if this thought is a fact or an opinion. Labeling it as such will allow you to find evidence of whether or not there is any indication that what you’re currently thinking is true or false.

Arbitrary Inference

Arbitrary inference is when you draw conclusions when there is little to no evidence. An example of this may be that you think someone does not like you, even though they may not have said anything or done anything to you. These types of thoughts can spiral into other thoughts. For example if you think someone does not like you, this may cause you to think you are a bad person, which then may cause you to think that you will lose your friends. There are ways to stop this type of thinking. You are not a mind-reader, so instead of jumping to conclusions, try and stick to the facts.

Selective Abstraction

Selective abstraction is when you draw conclusions on the basis of one of many elements in a situation. An example of this may be that you think that you are going to lose your job because you did not complete a small task for a big project, when in reality it is something that could be sent via email. These little things can cause a lot of distress and anxiety. This type of cognitive distortion may cause you got be hyper focused on the bad and not allow you to look at the big picture. You can cope with this cognitive distortion by trying to take a step back before drawing conclusions.


Magnification is when we blow things out of proportion. An example of this cognitive distortion is when you failed a quiz that is only worth 5% of your grade and you think you are going to fail the class, even though you have gotten A’s on every major exam. Again, this type of thinking may cause you a lot stress. Ways to combat this is asking yourself what are the objective facts. This may help you navigate your thought pattern and help you realize that you are blowing things out of proportion.

Ways to Restructure Your Thoughts:

Thought Record


  • Situation: Can’t finish a big project
  • Thoughts: The project is too big and I can’t finish it. I am too stupid.
  • Emotions: Inadequacy and Anxious
  • Behaviors: Procrastination
  • Alternate Thought: This project is big, but if I break it down to smaller pieces I can get it done!
  • Socratic Questioning

    • Is this thought realistic?
    • Are these thoughts based on facts or feelings?
    • What is the evidence behind this thought?
    • Am I only viewing it as black or white?
    • Is this thought a habit?

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