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  • Writer's pictureJesse Thornton

Thought Distortions

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a psychosocial counseling treatment for many emotional disorders, especially mood disorders involving anxiety and depression.  I wrote an earlier article on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy  about the Cognitive Triangle.  In this article, I want to focus on thought distortions that perpetuate negative moods.  First, I will explain what thought (cognitive) distortions are and then talk about some of the more common types of thought distortions.

Cognitive Distortions are thought patterns we use to view the world that are inaccurate but we believe to be true.  These distortions of our world, others, and ourselves, keep us locked in unhealthy, usually negative emotions and leave us feeling bad about ourselves.  Cognitive distortions are typically unconscious processes that change reality enough to feel negative but little enough to be believable.  Identifying and challenging distortions is an effective form of self-talk that helps manage mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.  Here are many common distortions people use:

All or Nothing Thinking (Black or White) (also Perfectionism)

With this distortion of reality we believe there is a “right” way and therefore a “wrong” way of doing things.  Additionally, this distortion believes that one mistake equates to complete failure.  Also, this distortion believes asking for less means asking for none or asking for more means asking for all.  Here are a few examples of All or Nothing thinking:

  1. Lying is always wrong

  2. Second place is first failure

  3. If it is not perfect it is trash


This distortion of reality leads people who see one example of a situation and determine all of those situations are the same.  This also leads to stereotyping and potentially some problems with racism.  Examples include:

  1. I am not good at any sports

  2. Asians are good at math

  3. I will never get married

  4. All dogs are vicious


Expecting the worst. When a person sees a small or ambiguous event and imagines the worst possible outcome from the event.  This is particularly sinister for anxiety disorders.

  1. You ignored me last night, which means you don’t love me, and you are going to leave me. Then I will be alone and destitute, unloved and uncared for the rest of my life!

  2. The economy fell last week: We are facing economic collapse and the fall of our nation, descending into anarchy and war.

  3. I witnessed a car accident on the way to work: this world is unsafe. People are dying everywhere.  I can’t even leave my house without placing my life in jeopardy.


Setting rules for oneself and others in order to be good enough sets people up for hurt feelings and failure.  When we don’t achieve our shoulds for ourselves we feel guilty and even ashamed.  When others don’t achieve our shoulds, we become angry, frustrated and resentful.

The reality is that nobody has to do anything to be good enough.  Inherent worth is something we are all born with.


Blaming oneself for every event outcome whether good or bad that are in reality out of our control.  This can be particularly painful when misused.

  1. That car wouldn’t have hit me if I wasn’t running late.

  2. Katrina happened because we as a nation are misbehaving.

  3. If only I was a better parent, my child wouldn’t have gotten cancer.


Holding others accountable for our problems and feelings.

  1. How irresponsible! Obama should have stopped that oil spill sooner!

  2. Would have gotten a better grade on my test if you wouldn’t have distracted me by turning on the TV.

  3. You are making me feel guilty just because I didn’t show up to your recital!

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

Expecting that we should be rewarded for good deeds.

  1. I waited so long for the right person, I should have a good marriage.

  2. I spent my whole life doing all the right things. Why am I so unhappy?

  3. If I volunteer every other weekend, I will be blessed.

Filtering Positive Information

When we too frequently discount positive events going on around us and selectively attend instead to the negative events, we are more likely to become depressed.

  1. I failed a test last week and I was late for class three weeks ago.  I am no good at school.  (Ignoring that you have a 3.1 GPA and have been successful in many other ways.)

  2. I lost the last sports match. I stink at this game!  Ignoring a long record of successes.

External or Internal Control Fallacy

The belief that we are not in control when we really are is an external control fallacy.  Feeling that no matter how hard I try, I can’t get a job because the market it just not hiring is an example of this fallacy.  Internal control fallacy is when you feel personally responsible for things out of your control such as blaming yourself when your spouse is in a bad mood.

Emotional Reasoning

The erroneous belief that because we feel something it must be true.

  1. I’m feeling lucky tonight! Let’s go gambling.

  2. I just don’t feel you love me, therefore you must not.

  3. I’m afraid of being rejected in a new social situation, therefore I will be.

Many people fall into habits of cognitively distorting themselves, others, and the world.  When used too often without challenge, these distortions will easily lead to emotional disorders.  The best way to manage cognitive distortions is to get help identifying cognitive patterns and working with a counselor to change them.

For more information on anxiety and depression consider:

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