Cognitive Distortions

13 Common Cognitive Distortions

Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. But sometimes our thinking isn’t helpful or accurate. In this post, you’ll learn about common types of cognitive distortions and begin to identify your negative, automatic thoughts.

What are cognitive distortions?

Cognitive distortions are also known as thinking errors, thinking distortions, irrational thoughts, distorted thoughts, and negative automatic thoughts.

Cognitive distortions are ways that you twist up your thinking to see yourself, your situation, and other people in a negative light. They’re basically your mind playing tricks on you; convincing you that you’re not as good as everyone else, people don’t like you, you’re at fault, things are hopeless, or other negative beliefs. The problem is that these cognitive distortions are very convincing.

Cognitive distortions are:

  • automatic and happen without you realizing it
  • negative
  • exaggerated
  • convincing
  • not accurate reflections of reality
  • something everyone does, but are much more prevalent in people suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems
  • all serve to validate your pessimistic outlook (things are hopeless, you’re worthless or less than)

Below is a list of some of the different types of cognitive distortions. They are based on the work of Aaron Beck, M.D., Albert Ellis, Ph.D., and David Burns, M.D.

You’ll notice that some of the categories overlap or seem similar. Categorizing them as different types of distortions only serves to help you identify a cognitive distortion more easily. So, don’t get hung up on figuring out which type of distortion it is; it’s only important that you recognize that it is a distorted thought or thinking error.

13 Common Cognitive Distortions

Types of cognitive distortions or thinking distortions

  1. Overgeneralizing – You see a constant, negative pattern based on one event. “I messed up on the job interview; I’ll never get a job.”
  2. Blaming/Denying – You blame others for your problems or mistakes OR you blame yourself when it wasn’t entirely your fault. “I drink because of my ex-husband.”
  3. Shoulds – You have a rigid code of conduct dictating how you and others should behave. You criticize yourself harshly when you fail to follow these rules. “I never should have dated him.”
  4. All or nothing thinking – You see things as absolutes, no grey areas. “I’m always late.”
  5. Negativity bias – You notice all of the negatives, but fail to notice the positives. “Everything in my life sucks. I’m out of work. My car payment’s late. My pants are too tight. My cat peed on the carpet.”
  6. Catastrophizing – You expect the worst. “I was late on the rent. I’m going to be evicted.”
  7. Labeling – You label yourself negatively. “I made a mistake, therefore, I’m a failure.”
  8. Magical thinking – You think everything will be better when ____ (you’re thinner, smarter, richer, get a new job, etc). “I’ll meet a new guy as soon as I lose 20 lbs.”
  9. Over-personalizing – You make things personal when they aren’t. You believe other people’s opinions are facts. You think what other people do/say is in reaction to you. “My wife complains about the high car payment. I take this as a criticism that I paid too much.”
  10. Mind reading – You make assumptions about what others are thinking. “I didn’t get the job because I’m too old.”
  11. Double standard – You hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else. “I’m happy when my boyfriend gets a B, but I expect myself to get straight A’s.”
  12. Fallacy of fairness – You think things should work out according to what you think is fair. “If my boss valued me, he’d give me a raise.”
  13. Emotional reasoning – You think your feelings are reality. “I feel guilty for saying “no”, so I must have been wrong to set that boundary.”

As you read through the list you probably noticed that you frequently have some or all of these cognitive distortions. Awareness is the first step in change. I recommend keeping a log, in a notebook or on your phone (anything that’s convenient and always with you), of your cognitive distortions. This can be a lot of work, to begin with, but it does get easier as you become more aware and you won’t need to log them forever.

Tracking your thoughts increases awareness of these automatic thoughts and will also be very helpful in the next stage of this Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach. Stay tuned for the next post which will explain how to begin to challenge and change these thinking errors.

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Article ©2017 Sharon Martin. All rights reserved.
Originally published on

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

19 thoughts on “13 Common Cognitive Distortions”

  1. Hey Sharon, what a fantastic blog post. Even though I have been in my profession now for some 20 years, this was such a useful summary and a helpful way of pulling all of this information together – looking forward to sharing with with rehabilitation clients and coaching clients – thank you!

  2. Dr Fritz Hershey Psy D

    TEST your distortion


    Ask yourself – Is this a fact or a value. How strong is my value.
    Try to make an argument supporting your SHOULD.

    Nest ask – Is there an alternative explanation or way to look at this – reappraisal

    Repeat this process over and over, combine with breathing relaxation – should get you relief

    Dr Fritz Hershey PsyD

  3. Thank you for this very accurate list of what happens when depressed. I’ve read these before but it really made sense today. I’ve learned to recognize these distortions as a warning to myself that I’m moving into depression. It’s been difficult to explain to my loved-ones. But this list will help. I find when I do start thinking negatively at least now I know the cause. Then I make a point of doing something for myself that will improve my mood (a hot bath, a nap, reading, art project, etc). You’ve helped me today. I appreciate it.

  4. Shelley L Withem

    This is a great list. Helpful personally and for thinking through the things I see and hear on Facebook and the Internet in general. I am a high school history teacher and we will be looking at this list! Thank you.

  5. Debbie Littlefield

    Thank you for providing a “name” for my thoughts! It also helps to know “I am not the only one” !!
    Look forward to the next …

      1. I find this article very helpful.You said there are good self books on cognitive therapy and cognitive distortion. Will you name a few? Ones that are easy to understand. Everything that you write is amazing. Thx Jan

  6. Hello, thank you very much for publishing the list it’s really really helpful. I find I sometimes need a reminder of things I learnt after treatment with CBT.

  7. Thank you for this list, I never realized why I had these thoughts and why. I tried to get the pdf but it didn’t show up. Maybe you could send it to me. This will be so helpful to me.

  8. Thank you for this post, for this blog, for your book.

    I have BPD and had been misdiagnosed up until two years ago. I am now 44 and I have had these issues since I was a preteen.

    I am still learning. I am still challenging my distortions. I am still learning what it means to have BPD. I am still learning how to cope.

    These resources are a lifeline to people like me. I was going to a therapist but because of the state of the mental health crisis in our country, I had to end my therapy. I was trying desperately to follow up with what she taught me but I didn’t take notes and things were forgotten.

    I was lost and miserable before I found you. I could go on and on but I think you can see what I am trying to communicate.

    Thank you again.

  9. As far as the fallacy of fairness and the doublestandards, can these be flip flopped in that, one might hold another to a higher standard than they actually adhere to; and in doing so, justify their poor or selfish choices as fair because the other person failed to be perfect or demonstrated a flaw? I’ve been involved with an undiagnosed narcissist, possible BPD, for 7 years now and against my better judgement have tried to suggest that their resolve may be swayed via cognitive disorders of which he is totally unaware of on any conscious level. He then blameshifts and says that I am gaslighting. I know that I have zero chance of actually getting thru to him, but I am curious if he might still have cognitive issues because the features that you list all resonate with the exception that he is never flawed by such processes. Just curious…?

    1. Sure, I think it’s safe to say that narcissists have cognitive distortions. However, they are unlikely to be able to see this. Whereas, someone with anxiety or depression can usually accept that they’ve skewed things toward the negative and use cognitive therapy to rebalance their thinking.

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