Recognizing your Cognitive… | Counseling | Therapy

Recognizing your Cognitive Distortions

Shannon Oliver-O'Neil , LCSW — Therapist, director of intern program, director of rhode island office

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The way we see the world has a huge impact on our mood. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be extremely effective in improving mood by focusing in on our cognitions, or thought patterns. We all have tracks that run in the back of our heads – a little voice repeating a familiar refrain that can keep us going or knock us down. Often when I work with clients experiencing anxiety or depression they report feeling like these tracks create a downward spiral. Once the track turns on, it can be hard to turn off, sending us in a downward spiral that’s hard to get out of. For instance, a small mistake at work can turn on the track “I’m such a screw up” or even “I’m a bad person.” If we don’t notice our tracks, they can keep us feeling guilty and ashamed, preventing us from noticing our successes and taking future risks.

One key way to stop this mean self-talk and the downward spiral it creates is to expose how these negative tracks are just straight up untrue. It can feel scary to do this – like sticking up for ourselves and questioning our tracks is egotistical or naieve. But the more we practice critical thinking around our self-talk tracks, the more choices we open up around how to respond to them. In fact, most of these tracks align with common cognitive distortions.


Take a minute to write down 1-2 tracks that play pretty consistently in your head when you’re feeling down on yourself. Write them as you hear them. For instance, a client once told me whenever they think about opening up to close friends, they start playing the track that goes “I’m such a burden.” So for this exercise, that client would write down “I’m such a burden” on their piece of paper.

Once you’ve written your track(s) down, put them to the side and read through this list of common cognitive distortions.

Common Cognitive Distortions:

All or Nothing Thinking: The belief that if everything isn’t going right, it must all be going wrong. This distortion makes it hard to see multiple existing truths, or the “grey areas” of life.

Example: “My date never texted me back. They must have never liked me at all.”

Overgeneralization: This distortion turns one singular event into a never-ending pattern. Overgeneralization makes it hard to distinguish exceptions from the rule.

Example: “Last time I had a panic attack I was by a grocery store. Grocery stores trigger panic attacks. I can’t go grocery shopping in person.”

Mental Filter: Like “rose colored glasses”, the mental filter colors everything we see based on one negative detail. With a negative mental filter, it can be hard to notice joyful or positive moments in life when they do occur.

Example: “Jawan gave me a compliment because he’s expecting something out of it, not because he means it.”

Jumping to Conclusions (mind reading, fortune telling): This distortion helps us assume the worst by giving us the power to know what people think or what will happen in the future based on a single event, or our own feelings. Of course, no one has the power to read minds or see the future, but when we’re feeling defeated or anxious it can be easy to conflate our experiences with “the way things are.”

Example: “I didn’t email my friend back this week, she probably thinks I hate her and am a lazy person .”

Magnification/Minimization (catastrophizing): Giving negative events more weight, discounting positive events. Similar to a negative mental filter, this distortion can make it hard to notice and appreciate positive things in our lives.

Example: “I know Bob called me yesterday, but he didn’t pick up today – he probably doesn’t want to see me ever again.”

Emotional Reasoning: This distortion could be summed up with the phrase “I feel therefore it is true.” Emotional reasoning turns our personal feelings into universal facts.

Example: “This quiz is making me feel anxious. Talking about cognitive distortions will probably be more uncomfortable than helpful.”

Should Statements: With this distortion, you’ll find yourself being held accountable to (often unrealistic or unfair) expectations. Should Statements ignore the important truth that there is no one right way to be an adult, good person, or human being.

Example: “I’m 30, I should be living on my own. That’s what a real adult should do.”

Labeling/Mislabeling: Labels can sometimes be empowering, a way to identify ourselves and build community. In the case of this distortion, we create identity based on one negative action or situation.

Example: “I made a mistake. I am a stupid person.”

Personalization: This distortion centers you as the root cause for any and all events in your life. While it can feel safe to have control of the situation, even if it only means we are to blame, this distortion forgets that the world is bigger than we are, and any given interaction or event can have many, many causes.

Example: “Sally didn’t show up for our date because I’m disgusting.”

Do you recognize any of these? Look back at the tracks you wrote down. Which distortion(s) do they match most closely with? If we accept that these tracks are not true – and for the sake of this exercise, lets! – What exactly is untrue about them?

As you match your tracks with the distortions above notice what feelings come up. Are you relieved? Irritated? Dissmissive? Do these feelings make it easier or harder to talk about your mood?

Congratulations on taking a big step towards changing your mood! Practicing critical thinking about our thoughts provides us with one of several tools necessary to make active choices about how we respond to feelings in the moment, and puts us on the path towards resiliency.

If difficult feelings are coming up, or you are looking for tools to help interrupt and re-write these tracks, call 267-324-9564 to make an appointment with a therapist.

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