12 Cognitive Distortions That Can Cause Negative Thinking

Have you ever found yourself expecting the absolute worst outcomes, calling yourself mean names, or taking things way too personally? If so, you’ve fallen prey to cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are sneaky, deceptive thinking patterns that can significantly impact your daily life. These negative thoughts affect your emotions, behaviors, and overall well-being. Everybody has unhelpful […]

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on May 13, 2024

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Have you ever found yourself expecting the absolute worst outcomes, calling yourself mean names, or taking things way too personally? If so, you’ve fallen prey to cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are sneaky, deceptive thinking patterns that can significantly impact your daily life. These negative thoughts affect your emotions, behaviors, and overall well-being.

Everybody has unhelpful negative thoughts like this from time to time. After all, we don’t have complete control over our automatic thoughts. Some people may struggle with these thought patterns more than others, such as those with anxiety or depression.

Here’s what you need to know about common cognitive distortions and how to overcome them:

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

The American Psychological Association formally defines a cognitive distortion as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief.” So, what exactly does that mean? We’ll break it down for you.

“A cognitive distortion is a thinking pattern that’s usually irrational, negative, or unhelpful,” says Tahara DeBarrows, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Grow Therapy. “The distortions can make you see things in a distorted or unrealistic way, and of course, they can affect your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.”

A cognitive distortion is a thinking pattern that's usually irrational, negative, or unhelpful.

- Tahara DeBarrows, LMFT

Chances are, you’ve been a victim of these cognitive distortions for a long time without even realizing what’s happening. But if you’re not paying attention to your automatic thoughts, it’s easy to get swept away and let these biases and negative thought patterns take over.

Sometimes, the cognitive distortions you experience may develop over time. For example, some individuals may have grown up in environments where negativity was the norm, and as a result, they may have adopted these distortions as their own. Other times, cognitive distortions can be triggered by specific life events, such as a traumatic negative event or a major life change. Regardless of their origin, recognizing and addressing cognitive distortions is essential for mental and emotional well-being.

Not to mention, negative thinking can really hold you back. “Cognitive distortions are unhelpful because they tell you things that aren’t true and limit your perspective on things that can happen,” says Melody Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy.

Plus, cognitive distortions are linked to mental health conditions. These unhelpful thoughts can contribute to or worsen symptoms of conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression, making it even harder to cope with symptoms.  That’s why it’s so important to understand cognitive distortions and gain control over them.

12 Types of Common Cognitive Distortions

Take a look at these 12 examples of common cognitive distortions to better understand them.

1. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is the tendency to expect the worst possible outcome of a situation. You might blow problems out of proportion or believe that even tiny setbacks are unbearable catastrophes. Thinking takes on an extreme form.

Typically, alongside these irrational thoughts, there will be heightened stress and anxiety while imagining terrible scenarios, even when there’s no evidence that this catastrophic outcome will actually occur, DeBarrows says.

Example: “If I don’t get this job, my life is over.”

2. Jumping to conclusions

This cognitive distortion is exactly what it sounds like. You may find yourself jumping to conclusions based on limited and incomplete information, DeBarrows says. This often goes hand in hand with catastrophizing.

This can manifest in a couple of different ways. For example, you might make negative predictions about the future, also called “fortune telling.” Or, you might assume what other people are thinking without any concrete evidence. This is known as “mind-reading.”

Example:  “My boss didn’t email me back yet. They must hate me.”

3. All-or-nothing thinking

This involves looking at a situation in the most absolute, extreme terms. Also known as black-and-white thinking, this distortion involves viewing situations as either all “good” or all “bad,” with no middle ground. You are discounting the “gray area” where many other possible outcomes exist.

Additionally, all-or-nothing thinking can look like setting unrealistically high standards for yourself, DeBarrows says. For example, you may think that making a very minor mistake means you’re a complete failure, she explains.

Example:  “If I don’t get an A+ on this assignment, I’m a failure.”

4. Mental filtering or disqualifying the positives

Mental filtering is the opposite of wearing “rose-colored glasses.” This distortion entails focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation, minimizing or straight-up ignoring any positive aspects, DeBarrows says.

You might notice the positives, such as compliments or positive feedback, but you ignore them, feeling like they don’t “count.” When you filter out all of the positives or discount the positives, this creates a negative, skewed perception of reality. Ultimately, mental filtering results in all of the negative outweighing the positive, clouding your judgment.

Example: “Even though I got positive feedback on my presentation, I still made one mistake, so that means it went terribly. I ruined the whole thing.”

5. Labeling

Labeling involves giving yourself a negative, all-consuming label, based on specific behaviors or situations. You might use a single mistake to define your entire identity. You can view it as a form of all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking.

Some common labels people might give themselves are “a failure” or “a loser.” This kind of thinking can be pretty harsh and unhelpful, as it doesn’t reflect the full picture of who you are. In fact, engaging in labeling usually means you’re being pretty mean to yourself. You’re mislabeling who you truly are.

Example: “I forgot to complete this task on time. I’m such a loser.”

6. Overgeneralizing

Overgeneralization involves drawing super broad conclusions. You may have one negative experience and then overgeneralize to assume that this means everything else will go wrong, basing it on this one instance. You are incorrectly generalizing outcomes.

“It’s more or less our way to try to not get hurt or experience the same type of negative feelings again,” says Wilson. “It’s kind of an ill way to prepare for something that can happen based on your own experience or experiences.”

When you overgeneralize, you aren’t allowing for the possibility of other, more positive experiences. Plus, overgeneralizing can easily lead to catastrophizing.

Example: “Because that date didn’t go well, every date in the future will also suck.”

7. “Should-ing”

“Should-ing” involves using the word “should” in an unhelpful way. You’re putting high, often unrealistic expectations on either yourself or others. This can lead to many negative feelings, including guilt or inadequacy.

When you “should” yourself, this can make you feel like you’re behind or that you’re supposed to be doing something else. However, Wilson says “should-ing” limits you from being open to other perspectives and possibilities in your life.

Plus, “should-ing” can invalidate your emotions and human experience. If you’re feeling negative emotions and thinking you should feel another way, this invalidates your very valid, difficult emotions, likely leading to guilt.

Example:  “I can’t feel this way; I should be grateful, and I should feel happy.”

8. Personalization

Personalization is when you think things are all about you – when, in reality, this isn’t the case. You might tend to think that everything that happens around you is somehow your doing or your fault. If something goes wrong, you think it’s because of something you did or did not do. This can cause you to feel stressed, guilty, and full of self-blame. Ultimately, this can tear down your self-worth and self-esteem.

Example: “My co-worker looked mad and upset during that meeting. It must be because I did something to make them feel that way.”

9. Emotional Reasoning

This distortion involves having your judgment clouded by emotions. Essentially, you believe that because you feel a certain way, what you’re thinking must be true. You’re basing your thoughts on emotions rather than the hard facts, limiting yourself and your views based on changeable emotions, Wilson says.

You might make decisions and judgments based solely on your emotions without considering objective evidence or facts.

Example: “I feel really scared right now, so that means that something is definitely going to go terribly wrong.”

10. Magnification and minimization

Magnification and minimization go hand in hand. When you magnify something, you are making it larger, making it seem like a much bigger deal than it actually is. On the flip side, when you minimize something, you’re not giving it the full attention and recognition that it should be getting, says Wilson.

A typical way this presents itself is by blowing your mistakes or shortcomings out of proportion (magnification) while you downplay your achievements or positive qualities (minimization). This results in a very distorted view of reality that skews negative.

Example: “I made a small mistake on that report, and now I’m convinced my boss thinks I’m incompetent and will fire me even though I’ve submitted good work in the past.”

11. Fallacy of change

The fallacy of change cognitive distortion is when you believe that people will change their behavior or personality in a way that benefits you. You might feel like your mood and success relies on other people, so you want them to change in a way that makes you feel better. For instance, you may think something like, “If X person changes X behavior, then I’ll feel better.”

Additionally, you might think the more pressure you exert on someone, the more likely they are to change. This kind of thinking leads to frustration and disappointment. No matter how hard you try, you do not have the ability to control or change other people.

Example: “If I keep telling my partner he needs to give me more attention, then he finally will be more attentive, and then I will finally be happy.”

12. Always being right

The “always being right” cognitive distortion is just what it sounds like. It is when you truly believe that you’re right all the time and refuse to accept the possibility that you could be wrong. This could refer to beliefs about yourself or about others. You might think your opinions and viewpoints are always correct, even when evidence suggests otherwise. This leaves you closed off to new ideas and perspectives.

This extreme thinking style can lead to difficulties in social or romantic relationships since you might always be rebutting peoples’ arguments or trying to prove yourself.

Example: “I don’t need to listen to anyone else’s advice about my health because I always know what’s best for myself and I’m never wrong.”

How To Overcome Cognitive Distortions

Fortunately, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that can help you overcome cognitive distortions. Psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck developed this form of therapy in the 1960s and ‘70s.

His therapy model suggested that peoples’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected. The therapeutic technique was first called cognitive therapy. Later, the name became cognitive behavioral therapy.

Today, CBT is one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy for many mental health concerns. CBT offers many practical tools and strategies to combat unhelpful, unhealthy ways of thinking.

First off, CBT will help you become more aware of your thought patterns. With your therapist’s help, you’ll learn how to recognize cognitive distortions when they occur. Having an awareness of your distorted thoughts is the first step towards overcoming them.

The next step is cognitive restructuring, a main component of CBT. Cognitive restructuring involves identifying and challenging these distorted thoughts with more realistic, constructive, healthy thoughts. You’ll look for evidence, then challenge and reframe thoughts. You’ll find that over time, with practice, ​​your negative thought patterns will begin to fade away and healthier thought patterns will be more likely to be your default.

If you’re struggling with cognitive distortions getting in the way of your well-being, Grow Therapy can help. Our platform can connect you with a therapist in your area who accepts your insurance. Use our search tool to find a provider who meets your needs today. Healthier thoughts await.


  • In the most simple terms, cognitive distortions are unhelpful, unhealthy, negative thought patterns. They are usually irrational thoughts that can contribute to negative emotions.

  • 12 types of common cognitive distortions are: 1) Catastrophizing 2) Jumping to Conclusions 3) All-or-nothing thinking 4) Mental filtering or disqualifying the positives 5) Labeling 6) Overgeneralizing 7) Should-ing 8) Personalization 9) Emotional reasoning 10) Magnification and minimization 11) Fallacy of change 12) Always being right

  • The best way to overcome them is through therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy modality is highly regarded in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. CBT will help you first gain awareness into your mind, recognizing what cognitive distortions you’re experiencing. Then, you’ll learn ways to challenge and reframe negative thoughts to be more realistic and healthy. Unhelpful, irrational thoughts will be replaced by more rational, helpful ones. This won’t be an overnight or quick fix. It takes work to challenge this type of thinking and make changes so your automatic thoughts in the future can be healthier.

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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