Cognitive Distortions: Is Your Mind Playing Tricks On You?

By Julia Thomas

Updated December 18, 2018


If you've never seen a picture of really good pavement art, you're missing out. Talented artists, using deliberate shading, color choice and contrast, the right point of view, and extreme skill, create illusions that trick us into seeing an ordinary street transforming into a raging waterfall, a mysterious cavern, a fearsome pit of fiery lava.

When looked at from the wrong angle, these sometimes terrifying and sometimes alluring deceptions are revealed for what they are. They are exquisite, beautiful drawings - but that is all they are. What looks through a camera lens like a man about to step out into an abyss, in person is exposed to be simply a man walking along a sidewalk decorated with a fabulous but otherwise flat sidewalk drawing.

There are other famous examples of optical illusions. In each of them, our eyes send signals to our brain that our brains somehow misinterpret for us, leaving us with false impressions that can be hard to detect even with scrutiny.

So, while not exactly a technical term, the answer can be considered to be yes. Yes, your mind is "playing tricks" on you. All the time. And if you accept the fact that your brain can fool you into seeing things that aren't there, or not see things that are there - and you have to, because it is a scientifically proven fact - as your brain goes about its regular business of automatically processing your environment without your ever thinking about it, it should not be a leap to assert that sometimes in your thinking you see reality through a false prism as well. This is what is being referred to by the term "cognitive distortions."

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

According to The Free Dictionary, a cognitive distortion consists of "errors in thinking that continue even when there is obvious contradictory evidence." This cognitive distortions definition is a little harsh, but the key takeaway is that sometimes we think things, we tell ourselves things, that simply isn't true. Unfortunately, we often don't realize that we are doing this. Even more, unfortunately, cognitive errors are not always as harmless as chalk drawing on the sidewalk.

Why Do Cognitive Distortions Matter?


It is almost impossible to conduct an honest and serious discussion about the existence of cognitive distortions and their impact on mental health without coming back to Dr. David D. Burns. In his groundbreaking book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy he elaborates on the idea and practices of Cognitive Therapy, originally explored by Dr. Aaron Beck from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the 1960's.

In his book, Dr. Burns asserts an idea that seems quite obvious after the fact, but somehow never occurs to many of us. According to Burns, our thoughts are directly responsible for our feelings. Therefore, when someone frequently engages in happy thoughts, they feel happy, and vice versa. However, when someone frequently indulges in negative thoughts, it follows that the person's mood will be negatively affected as well. Or, in other words, thinking unhappy thoughts leads to feeling unhappy. Those who have fallen into the rut of negative thinking often are engaging not just in negative thoughts but cognitive distortions - false negative thoughts. These types of constant, negative, cognitive distortions are not healthy and can be the cause of disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Cognitive distortions, therefore, matter because they have the power to make you sick - if not physically, mentally in a very real sense.

Common Cognitive Distortions

The good news is that once the problem has been identified - cognitive distortions - as the cause of a person's depression or anxiety, they can begin to correct it. An integral component of the healing process is learning to recognize and eliminate cognitive distortions. To that end, Burns provides a list of cognitive distortions. The following is a list, with brief explanations, of the ten cognitive distortions Burns describes:

  1. All or Nothing Thinking: This is exactly what it sounds like. Convincing yourself that you must either be perfect or you are a failure is destructive because, as they say, nobody's perfect.
  2. Overgeneralization: When you assume that because one negative thing happened, that negative occurrence will always happen in future similar situations, you are engaging in this type of thinking.
  3. Mental Filter: This is the act of filtering out all the positive to focus only on the single negative fly in the ointment.
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: Again, exactly what it sounds like. In this type of thinking, you completely discount anything that could be construed as good or positive.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions: More than the more mundane act of jumping to conclusions, you make leaps of logic that are not even suggested by objective facts. Burns provides two subcategories of this cognitive distortion which he refers to as "mind reading" and "the fortune teller." When "mindreading" you assume that every negative behavior of other people is somehow attributed to you and your behavior when there could be a myriad of other explanations for the person's actions that have nothing to do with you. When you fall into the trap of "fortune telling," you convince yourself that your future is destined to be bad.
  6. Magnification and Minimization (also known as Catastrophizing): Ever heard the expression "You're making a mountain out of a molehill"? When you catastrophize, you do just that. Conversely, you also engage in the equally harmful thought pattern of diminishing anything positive about yourself or an event.
  7. Emotional Reasoning: Perhaps the most destructive, you believe your cognitive distortions and take the negative emotions about yourself that follow as the absolute truth.
  8. Should Statements: Thinking too much about what you or others should or shouldn't cause unrealistic expectations. The inevitable failure to live up to them results in negative feelings.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling: You define yourself by your mistakes, not taking into account in the slightest that humans are all complicated creatures. The worst among us have some good qualities, and the best among us are not without fault.
  10. Personalization: When anything goes wrong, even things completely beyond your control, you consider yourself responsible.

Of course, Burns does not stop at simply providing this cognitive distortions list. His six-hundred-plus-page book goes on to provide, in addition to detailed explanations, strategies for learning to recognize when you are thinking these inherently distorted thoughts and consequently eliminating them.


Personal Applications

If, as you read the above list of cognitive distortions you began to feel the disconcerting sensation that many of them applied to you, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Well, it's not good that you are mired in negative and false thoughts. But it is good that you are becoming aware of the fact that you do so. Now you can begin the work of correcting these destructive thought patterns and consequently begin to feel better.

How can you do this? Well, you can always conduct an internet search. You'll come up with such resources as cognitive distortions pdfs, cognitive distortions worksheets, and cognitive distortions handouts. But if you are serious about tackling and eliminating the cognitive distortions that have caused you so much needless suffering, that's probably not the best way to go about it.

More productive use of your time would be to see a trained therapist or mental health professional, either in person or here at A trained therapist can guide you through the process of learning to recognize when you are spiraling into a negative emotional storm of cognitive distortions and teach you how to deal with them effectively. Through whatever therapy your therapist deems appropriate, such as cognitive therapy or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), cognitive distortions will become a thing of the past for you, and you will learn how to enjoy life again.


Regarding optical illusions, it might be appropriate to paraphrase the Marx Brothers' famous quotation -

"Who are you going to believe, science or your own lying eyes?" Sometimes it's hard to accept that something that appears obvious and self-evident is wrong. After all, what about the cliché "A picture is worth a thousand words"?

It can be even harder to accept when the misinformation is not just in our physical perceptions but stems from our very thought processes themselves. If Descartes said "I think. Therefore I am," then what does it say when we cannot rely on our thoughts? But it is that very type of thinking that is part of the problem, and that is why having access to outside and objective person in the form of a therapist can be so important to the recovery process.

Reading the above list of common cognitive distortions and finding yourself in them can be a painful yet powerful experience. Painful, because you must admit to yourself that have a problem. But powerful, because now you know there is a way to fix it.

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