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What is cognitive distortion? Signs to Watch Out For

many doors representing cognitive distortion

Key Takeaways:

  • Cognitive distortions are incorrect thought patterns that are often very negative and unhealthy.
  • Some examples of cognitive distortions include mental filtering and overgeneralization.
  • Through therapy and self-awareness, many patients find that they are able to reduce or eliminate cognitive distortion.

In general, it's pretty safe to believe what your brain is telling you about the world.

For example, when you touch a hot stove, your brain says, "Hey! That's, like, really hot." You trust it and yank your hand away.

This is usually the case for internal thought processes as well. Your brain tells you that your friends like you, and you trust it.

However, there are some people who, because of certain mental health conditions, cannot rely on their brain to be logical and correct about their internal thought processes.

These people, including those with depression, anxiety, OCD, and other mental health concerns, experience something called cognitive distortion.

Let's explore exactly what this means, and how you can determine if you may be one of the millions of Americans who experience cognitive distortion.

Common Cognitive Distortion Questions on This Page:

Am I having cognitive distortions?

Types of Cognitive Distortions

What causes cognitive distortions?

How do I stop having cognitive distortions?

What To Do If You Think You Are Having Cognitive Distortions

Am I having cognitive distortions?

Part of having a cognitive distortion is truly believing what you're telling yourself, even if it's simply not true. A distortion by definition obscures your perception of reality, so you can never fully know whether or not your reality is the reality.

This is why therapists exist. In many cases, it's very difficult to determine the state of your own mental health.

The best way to determine if you may have cognitive distortion is to read through the following descriptions of each type of cognitive distortion, along with their examples. If any of them sound like you, you may want to consider reaching out to a mental health professional.

Cognitive Distortion (Noun) (1)

Types of Cognitive Distortion

There are 12 main types of cognitive distortion, which can all be demonstrated by examples.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning refers to a distortion in rational thinking wherein you judge yourself and others based on transient or temporary emotional states.

An example of this is telling yourself that you're useless just after making a minor mistake.


Personalization happens when you falsely attribute some negative circumstance to your own actions.

For example, if you encourage your friend to ask someone out, and they get rejected, you may blame yourself for their subsequent sadness - when in reality all you did was encourage them to put themselves out there.


Catastrophizing essentially refers to assuming the worst.

A consequence often of anxiety, an example of catastrophizing is assuming that, because you gained 5 pounds over the holidays, you'll continue gaining weight forever.

Mental Filtering

Mental filtering happens with someone fails to see the positive aspects of a situation, and instead only sees the negative.

An example of this: You get a promotion at work, but all you can think about is the new level of responsibility, and not of the additional income or status.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking means thinking in extremes or absolutes.

Someone with this cognitive distortion, when they make a mistake, will attribute it to a total lack of competence instead of the true cause - a simple mistake.


Overgeneralization means extending the outcome of one event or action to all future events.

For example, if you put yourself out there and ask for a raise, and your boss refuses, you may overgeneralize and say to yourself that you will never get the raise (even though circumstances are always changing, and you might get it on the next ask.)

Should Statements

In this context, a "should" statement may be something like, "I should have gone to the gym today."

It may seem innocuous, but using that “should” phrasing with yourself creates unnecessary pressure and is not productive. Those with this cognitive distortion dwell for too long on things that have already passed, instead of making plans for future improvement.

Mind Reading

"Mind reading" refers to a cognitive distortion where you assume you know what someone is thinking. This is common in cases of social anxiety.

As an example, if you're a "mind reader" and tell a joke to someone, and they don't laugh, you may assume they are thinking, "Wow, this person is really, really weird. What a weirdo."

In reality, however, they're more likely preoccupied with coming up with something to say, or by wondering what you think of them, or by something totally unrelated ("Did I leave the oven on?")

What causes cognitive distortion?

Cognitive distortions are not caused by a single mechanic, but almost always they are either:

1.) Learned due to trauma or upbringing

2.) The result of a mental health condition

Those with depression and anxiety can experience cognitive distortions as symptoms, which then feed back into their depression or anxiety.

For example, if you feel anxious, you're more likely to assume the worst (catastrophize), which in turn will make you more anxious.

How do I stop having cognitive distortions?

Just by being self-aware and understanding that you have cognitive distortions, you can often cut them off and try to think more rationally.

Therapy with a licensed professional has also been shown to be very beneficial for those who have cognitive distortions, particularly in therapies such as CBT that focus on cognitive restructuring.

What To Do If You Think You Are Having Cognitive Distortions

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our team of licensed clinical psychologists is specially trained in cognitive distortions and CBT, giving you unparalleled access to expert therapy.

If you feel you may be experiencing cognitive distortions, please reach out to us by phone or schedule an appointment online.

Feeling better may be closer than you think.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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