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Cognitive distortion

I see the world for what it is for me, not for what it actually is Abstract

The way we think has significant implications and tremendous repercussions - both on ourselves as individuals and on our behaviours, as well as the consequences of our actions on our environment and the people around us. Our minds can sometimes fool us by distorting reality. It is so powerful that it can easily overwhelm us. These negative thoughts that distort our reality are called cognitive distortions which are involuntary thoughts that everyone experiences but becomes a problem when they start following a pattern. The phrase "the way you feel is the way you think" perfectly captures how cognitive distortions affect our emotions and behaviour. The term was coined by Aaron Beck and his student David Burns who have shown how people with depression exhibit systematic error in thinking. How it sustains the patient's conviction in the validity of his negative thoughts in the face of contradicting data. Moreover, these negative thought patterns can reduce an individual’s motivation, lower self-esteem, and contribute to issues such as anxiety, depression, and drug abuse. It's as if we've been wearing lenses that have clouded our reality, and we can't see the world for what it is. In this article, we reviewed the many types of cognitive distortions and how they influence our behaviours and emotions with real-life examples. A few suggestions on how one can change the way they think have also been discussed later in the article.

“The way we see the world is not for what the world is, it is based completely on who I am and who I am is decided by my beliefs, experiences, attitudes and the environment in which I live.” Everyone of us will have different opinions of this world, for some it may seem monotonous, for others it may be exciting. We see the world based on our filters which we have developed over time with our education, experience and environment. As we change our experiences, environment, and education, the world view keeps changing. As a result, we create meaning of the world through conscious cognition and view it through filters rather than as it is.

 Our brains are wired in such a manner that we give meaning to everything that is happening around us. However, it is also important to understand that our brain, like everything else in this world, is not perfect. While giving meaning to this world our brain, at times, takes cognitive shortcuts and delivers results that are not entirely true, resulting in various types of biases or distortions. These cognitive distortions lead to irrational or negative thoughts that contribute to unpleasant emotions and undesirable behaviours. These basically act as remote controllers, controlling our emotions, behaviours, and thoughts.

Aaron Beck coined the term "cognitive distortion" in his depression study in the 1960s. He defined it as negative thoughts that cause an individual to perceive reality inaccurately and are a part of a larger system that includes our thoughts, actions, and emotions. Such negative thoughts flood our minds which becomes the actual cause of the individual’s self-defeating emotions. While some degree of inaccuracy and irregularity in cognitions is to be expected in every individual, the depressed patients demonstrated a systematic error, namely a bias against oneself. During depressive periods, these thoughts cause the person to feel tired and inadequate. Thus, simply put cognitive distortions are systematic errors in the thinking of the depressed person that maintain the patient's belief in the validity of his negative concepts despite the presence of contradictory evidence. In 1980, one of his students David Burns expanded on the concept in his book "Feeling Good- The New Mood Therapy." He contends that ``The problem isn't you - it's the crazy lenses you're wearing!", emphasising that this unhelpful thinking style is an involuntary habit.”(Burns, 1980). He explained that if a person understands what is happening to them before they feel it, they will be able to feel better and make more informed decisions. In this article, I have tried to explain all the different types of cognitive distortions. While the original list given by Aron Beck included only 5 cognitive distortions, the list has grown substantially.

1. Mind Reading- 

mind reading

The first cognitive distortion is mind reading i.e. the assumption that you know what others are thinking. It is like you have some special powers to read people’s minds and you know what exactly is going to be their next step. While having superpowers may seem like a good thing, it actually isn’t. This is because the individual is continuously attempting to read people's minds, causing them to jump to conclusions without giving it any thought. They gradually lose control and begin to have negative thoughts. To understand this better, let us consider this example.

Aruna was on her way to the office and her colleague passed by, so she said hello to her. However, her colleague just passed by without saying hello back to her. Now Aruna starts thinking that “she doesn’t like me”, “she hates me”, etc. She is trying to read her mind and look for all possible negative possibilities of this behaviour of her colleagues. While she is ignoring more reasonable ones.

2. Negative Focus-

negative focus

We all engage in negative thinking from time to time but start to be mindful of it when we become anxious or depressed. Negative focus is the process of “arbitrarily jumping to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts”(Burns, 1980). David Burn explained how people who have depression engage in mental filtering. He said when someone is depressed they wear eyeglasses with special lenses that filter out anything positive. He said mental filters are “All that you allow to enter your conscious mind is negative. Because you are not aware of this 'filtering process' so you conclude that everything is negative” (Burns,1992). The technical term for this is selective abstraction. An everyday example would be how we are conditioned to respond to compliments. When someone compliments your beauty or job, you may think to yourself, "They're simply trying to be kind, they don’t really mean it”. At this moment, you are not appreciating your efforts and are discarding them all. If you keep doing this, your life will become dreary and dark because there will be no more fun for you.

Consider this another example, suppose you have applied at five universities abroad and you got into 3 of them but you are sad about being rejected from the rest of the two. Now you may think to yourself “I am not good enough”, “I got here only because of my luck and nothing else”. Again you are disqualifying all the positive things that are happening to you and accepting only the negatives. It has been found that this type of thinking is common in individuals who have been nurtured in circumstances that accentuate the flaws of each person or situation rather than virtues and assets. The person eventually adopts this style of interpreting reality, applying it to his or her daily life and perceiving only half of the glass as empty. (Burks, 2020) 

3. Overgeneralization-


It refers to a pattern of “drawing a general rule or conclusion on the basis of one or more isolated incidents and applying the concept across the board to related and unrelated situations”(Beck, 1963). In simple words, it is when a single negative event occurs and you believe that it's a pattern. While anyone can struggle with this cognitive distortion, it is more commonly seen in people with anxiety disorder or depression. David Burns explained this as the process of arbitrarily complaining that “one thing that happened to you once will occur over and over again”.Let us take the example of Nobita from the cartoon Doremon. He is a schoolboy who thinks that he can never do anything right. He once failed a maths exam, and now he tells himself, "I am a failure," "I can never get up on time," "I will never beat Gian in a fight," and "I can never be good at anything." He extrapolated his failure at one assignment to every other task in his life. As a result he feels helpless and weak. So now, whenever he has anything important to do, he gets anxious and asks doremon for help.

4. Catastrophizing-


It is related to jumping to conclusions, the person jumps to the worst possible conclusions in every scenario, no matter how important it is (Burns,1980). It often comes with the “what if” questions. For Example- the person would say, “ what if I go out and a car hits me?”, “what if I get infected with coronavirus?”. The individual makes a list of everything that can go wrong if they step out of their house. This type of an imagination where the individual thinks that they are losing control is called catastrophizing. Ambiguity or vagueness of a situation makes the person think catastrophically. The person may think about the worst case scenario because they do not know what to expect when their boss texted them “Come to my office, NOW!”. Catastrophizing may appear to be a frenzied overreaction, but people who have developed this cognitive distortion may have encountered repeated unfavourable occurrences — such as chronic pain or childhood trauma — so frequently that they dread the worst in a variety of scenarios.

5. Labelling-


Labelling, also known as mislabeling, is the process of transforming a single attribute into an absolute. This occurs when you pass judgement and then define yourself or others based on a single event. David Burns contends that labelling, or telling ourselves, "I am a [label]," is an extreme form of overgeneralization. According to him, labels are biassed because humans are fundamentally too complex to sum up with such a simple descriptor.(Burns, 1980) Typically, labels that are assigned are negative and extreme which can also be seen in people who have depression.

For Example- If your classmate does not submit a report on time, and you label them “useless”. This is an extreme case of overgeneralization in which you judge an action without considering the context. As a result, you may see yourself and others in ways that are not accurate. When one starts to label themselves out of sense of their own inadequacies, labelling doesn’t only become irrational but also self-defeating. This is because they start to equate themselves with anyone one thing they do. For Example- Adam labels himself as “a born loser” after losing a match of tennis, which he just started practising. What he does not realise is that life is as unpredictable as a coin toss in a cricket match, so one shouldn’t define themselves with such negative labels based on a single negative event.

6. Should-Thinking-

shoulding and musting

It occurs when you have an overly precise idea of how others should behave, and you overestimate the repercussions of failing to satisfy these expectations. You use words like "should," "ought," and "had to." Such statements are subjective unbreakable rules you set for yourself and others without considering the specifics of a situation. You tell yourself that things should be done a certain way and that there are no exceptions. For example- Emma has a should-thinking perspective. She believes that she should be perfect at every task, be it academics or sports. This type of thinking has caused her to feel guilty or terrible whenever she is not able to perform well. Sometimes, we motivate ourselves by saying “I should get this thing right”, “I should do this” etc. Albert Ellis called this “musterbation”. However, Burns calls it the “shoudly” approach to life. He contends that attempting to motivate ourselves in this manner can, paradoxically, lead to feelings of apathy and unmotivation. Moreover, when an individual directs these statements to others, it results in frustration. This is because you are expecting them to do something as per your understanding of the situation. For Example-Your boss was late for an important meeting because he overslept and his phone's battery died so he couldn’t contact anyone. As someone who has should-thinking, you'd think he's careless and should have found another way to contact you. This may cause you to become resentful and soar. Such statements create a lot of unnecessary emotional turmoil in a person’s daily life.

7. Emotional-Reasoning-

emotional reasoning

“Emotion is as important as reason in guiding our thoughts and decisions, though it operates in a different manner.” When you believe that how you feel is evidence of or reflects reality. Any observed evidence is disregarded or dismissed in favour of the assumed “truth” of their feelings (Schrader, 2017). Superstitions in Indian households are a great example of emotional-thinking. For example, you are going for an interview and a black cat crosses your way, you may now think to yourself “I will not get this job” or you might be walking down the street and think “I feel anxious, so I know something dangerous is going to happen”. It's like we're saying to ourselves “I feel, therefore it is” - rather than looking at what real evidence there may be. For Example- ‘I am feeling guilty therefore I must have done something wrong”. Or “I am not in the mood to go out therefore, I will stay at home”. Emotional reasoning explains why people with depression are always procrastinating every task. They would avoid cleaning their room because they are feeling lousy, therefore they think that the task is impossible to do. This cognitive distortion might also lead you to believe that future events depend on how you feel. However, the person later realises that they were just fooling themselves all along and could actually do the job keeping aside their emotions.

8. Fortune-Telling-

Predicting the future becomes the cognitive distortion of fortune telling when we assume, rather than making an educated guess, that some event or events will end badly for us, that we will fail at something, or that we will be in danger.It is when you think that the future is set in stone and the outcome is sure. For Example- An individual experiencing high anxiety may say such things to themselves “I am not going to pass this exam”, or “I will pass out or go crazy”. These predictions are unrealistic because they have never once passed out in their entire life. People may predict a negative outcome without realistically considering the actual odds of that outcome. “It can almost serve as a protective response in some way. If you already decide the worst possible thing will happen, then you won’t be disappointed or let down.”(Cuzzone,2020) A person may say “I just know that they will be out of ice cream today when we go to Baskin Robbins' “.

9. Personalization-


The patient’s proclivity to relate external events to himself when there is no basis for making such a connection.(Whalley, 2019) It is when you feel personally responsible for every other thing that is going wrong in your life. David Burns called it the “mother of guilt”. The person entirely blames themselves for something even though they have very little to or nothing to do with the outcome. It causes uncertainty, worry, or impostor syndrome, and you're simply waiting for people to see that you're the problem. Burns argues that this leads to inappropriate guilt. For Example- Esha blames herself for her parents' divorce. She believes that “If I had gotten better grades” or “behaved in a less hostile manner”, my parents would not have divorced. Although she had nothing to do with their divorce. Personalization could also occur when someone feels like they are being intentionally excluded from a group when they see members interacting together without them.” This makes them wonder whether “I am a bad person”, “they hate me”, “they don’t want to be my friends anymore” etc. These statements make the person feel guilty because they see themselves as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact is not their fault. Individuals can become confused between influencing and controlling their behaviour. Individuals that have this form of distortion frequently believe that they have control over the actions of others, which is not always the case because other factors influence a person's behaviour as well. For example- A teacher may blame herself if her student is acting out and speaking rudely to his parents. Instead of finding ways to change his behaviour, she blames herself and assumes that she is a bad teacher. In this case she is blaming herself for something that isn’t her fault. Such individuals attribute others' actions to themselves which makes them feel guilty all the time.

10. Owning the Truth-

When you are certain that you are right and your opinions matter. This type of cognitive distortion is sometimes also called “always being right”. People see their opinions as facts of life and so they would go to greater lengths to prove their point. They are so engrossed in proving their point that they fail to consider the feelings of other people in a debate or a discussion. For Example- Ayesha had a fight with her friend about how they haven’t supported her. She is convinced that she is right, while her friends do not agree with her.She starts speaking hurtful things to her friend and realises she is hurting them, but she continues because she needs to prove her point. For those struggling with this distortion, the idea that we could be wrong is unacceptable. This causes the person to internalise their opinions as facts.

11. Just-World Thinking- 

It is sometimes also called Fallacy of Fairness. When you assume that everything in the world will be balanced fairly. The individual measures every behaviour and situation on a scale of fairness. If other people disagree with them then the individual gets upset. This belief is essential for people to feel safe and positive and to perceive the world as a predictable and manageable place (Lerner, 1980; Dalbert, 2009; Hafer and Sutton, 2016). Amitabh Bachan's character in the film "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham'' is an excellent illustration of someone with this type of cognitive distortion. His son falls in love with a middle-class girl, and instead of celebrating their love marriage, he terminates all relationships with them and asks that they leave. According to his just world thinking people can only marry within their social class. It was obviously difficult for him to stay away from his first son, but he kept to his words until the bitter end. His skewed thinking kept him in a state of despondency and misery. It was only after 10-15 years that he realised he was mistaken.

People want to believe that they live in a world where good things happen to good people and bad things only to bad ones and where therefore everyone harvests what they sow ( Furnham, 2003; Dalbert, 2009; Hafer and Sutton, 2016). However, in reality life isn’t always fair and this causes frustration to them because they evaluate situations based on their “fairness”. Things always would not work out in a person’s favour, even when it should but it is something we all need to deal with. For example, Rahul may feel frustrated because his junior was given a promotion in the office. He felt that this wasn’t right; "I was going to get the promotion," "I am more experienced than him." In reality, his junior had many more skills and confidence than Rahul and so he was promoted.

12.Control Fallacy-

In control fallacy the individual assumes that they can control everything that is happening in their life. The word fallacy here means illusion or misconception. There are two types of control fallacy. Out of Control is the first type, it occurs when the individual places all control of their behaviour on external factors. For example- They would say that I couldn’t score well on an exam because my girlfriend took me out shopping the day before the exam. Even though they may have control over many factors. This person could have told his girlfriend that “ I am sorry but I can’t go because I have to prepare for my exam”.

Hyper control is the second type. It is based on the belief that your actions and presence have an impact on or control over the lives of others. The person thinks that their behaviour is directly going to impact how others feel. They may have a deep sense of guilt because they feel that they have failed other people. Moreover, they feel that they are so in control of the situation that whatever goes wrong is inherently their fault. For example, a mother might feel that if her child is not doing well in sports, then it is her fault because she is his mother. However, in reality he doesn’t like to play sports. He would rather spend time reading books than playing football. She needs to realise that she cannot control what he thinks about sports, nor can she force him to love sports. It is his choice, but she can encourage him to do some kind of physical activity, if not play football. Therefore, the individual expects other people to modify their behaviour to meet their expectations or demands, especially if they put enough pressure on them.

Changing the way your think

While looking at the world with these filters may seem like a common and potentially extremely damaging, it isn’t something we should embrace. Aron Beck, David Burns and other researchers have developed ways to challenge our cognitive distortions. Some of them have been discussed below:-

1. Automatic thought Record

Our negative thoughts and feelings are frequently associated with a distortion that we may or may not be aware of. Writing a diary or practising metacognition, or thinking about what you're thinking, are two ways to uncover and understand your cognitive distortions. This can help you better understand your thoughts and emotions. When you begin doing this practice on a daily basis, you will be able to identify circumstances in which you are making incorrect assumptions or overgeneralizing the scenario.

2. Changing Roles

When you start seeing things from others perspectives you realise how wrong you were all this while. Changing roles in a circumstance may assist you in identifying various facets of a situation. For instance, someone who engages in personalization may not feel unhappy or guilty if they comprehend the scenario from the perspective of the other person. In the example taken above, Esha wouldn’t have blamed herself for her parent’s divorce if she saw things from her parents perspective. They weren’t happy together and it would have been a disaster if they had stayed together. By seeing herself in her parents' shoes, she not only understood where she was going wrong, but she also felt lighter and happier.

3. Decatastrophizing


Catastrophizing is the tendency to imagine the worst-case scenario and assume that something is far worse than it is. The individual thinks about every possible worst scenario and this makes them anxious and reinforces their distortion but this can be mitigated. One way to do this is by writing down the situation about which you are worried. Now put yourself in that situation and consider all possible outcomes. After you've generated a list of all the possible outcomes, cross out any that seem unlikely. Thereafter, evaluate whether you have ever been in a similar circumstance before, and if so, how things went for you the last time. Next, consider your possibilities of completing the assignment or surviving the situation. How probable is it that you will be okay even if the situation worsens? Lastly, when you've answered all of these questions, return to the present and consider how you're feeling right now. This practice will not only help you decatastrophize, but it will also help you relax.

4. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-

For some individuals the above techniques may work out but others may feel more comfortable in going for therapy. Aaron Beck believes that most behavioural and emotional reactions are learnt, and hence may be unlearned or modified, according to the primary idea of cognitive behavioural therapy. The purpose of CBT is to assist you in adapting and changing your thoughts and behaviour by reassessing faulty thought patterns. Unlike other psychological therapies, CBT is mostly concerned with the present feelings and events and past only matters to look for the origin of faulty thoughts.


Cognitive distortions can be defined as faulty or problematic ways of thinking about ourselves and the world that leave us feeling anxious, out of control and often helpless (Sonali Gupta, 2020). Our minds may play tricks on us and lead us to think terrible things about ourselves and the world that are not always true. The way we feel is the way we think and cognitive distortions have a direct influence on our emotions and behaviours. If left unchecked, these habitual thought patterns can become entrenched and have a detrimental impact on your ability to make sensible, logical judgments. In this article we have discussed twelve types of cognitive distortions. The first cognitive distortion is mind reading i.e. the assumption that you know what others are thinking. Negative focus is when people focus more on the negative as they try to make sense of the world. Third is overgeneralization, i.e. the tendency to make broad generalisations based on minimal evidence. Fourth, catastrophizing i.e. the tendency to blow out circumstances out of proportion by making problems larger than life. Fifth, labelling is when you make global statements about yourself or others based on situation specific behaviour. Sixth, should-statements when you have unrealistic or unreasonable expectations from others and yourself. Seventh, emotional reasoning is when one believes that the way they feel is how reality is. Eight, fortune telling involves predicting the future in a way that things turn out to be bad for them. Ninth, personalization is when the individual takes the blame for everything wrong that is happening in their life. Tenth, owning the truth is when you are certain that you are right and your opinions matter. Eleventh, just-world thinking, the person assumes that everything in the world will be balanced fairly. Lastly, control fallacy is when the individual assumes that they can control everything that is happening in their life. All of these cognitive biases filter out the good in the world and force us to focus on the bad. As a result, we must learn how to use them efficiently without allowing them to dominate us or turn us into bitter people. To change these distortions, an individual might use tactics such as journaling, decatastrophizing, changing roles, or going to therapy. It is also important to remember that “You don’t have to control your thoughts, you just have to stop letting them control you”.-Dan Millman


This article on ' Cognitive distortion ' has been contributed by Reaya Sharma, she is pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology at Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University.

Reaya  wants to pursue master's degree in criminal psychology from overseas and learn as much as I can about this discipline.

GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.

Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification 


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