Reframing Negative Thinking: Recognizing Cognitive Distortions and Strategies to Change Them


cognitive distortions

Have you ever found yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, or beating yourself up for a mistake you made months ago? Have you ever convinced yourself that you’re not good enough or that things will never get better? If so, you may be experiencing cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that distort our perception of reality and contribute to negative emotions and behaviors. These thought patterns often arise automatically and can be difficult to recognize and challenge. However, by learning to identify and challenge cognitive distortions, one can begin to change thought patterns and improve mental health and well-being.

We will explore common types of cognitive distortions and how they affect our thoughts and behaviors. We will also provide practical strategies for identifying and challenging cognitive distortions, as well as tips for integrating these strategies into your daily life. Whether you’re struggling with anxiety or depression or simply want to improve your overall mental health, this article will provide the tools you need to recognize and deal with cognitive distortions.

Common Cognitive Distortions

In the 1960s and 1970s, the field of psychiatry witnessed significant contributions from Aaron Beck, who conducted pioneering research on cognitive distortions. His work led to the development of a widely-used treatment method known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is a form of psychotherapy utilized by mental health professionals to equip clients with the necessary tools to manage their emotional, physiological, and behavioral reactions to a given situation, which in turn may affect their understanding of the actual scenario. Today, CBT remains a vital approach to helping individuals tackle distorted thinking.

Over the years, researchers have identified at least 10 common distorted thinking patterns; these include:

1. All-or-nothing Thinking or Polarized Thinking

cognitive distortions

All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion that involves viewing things in absolute terms, without any middle ground or shades of grey. This type of thinking often leads to feelings of anxiety or depression because it places undue pressure on us to achieve perfection. 

  • For example, if we don’t achieve the perfect outcome, we see ourselves as a complete failure rather than recognizing the progress we’ve made. 
  • When you find yourself engaging in this thinking, challenge yourself to look for shades of gray and recognize progress, even if it’s not perfect. Practice reframing your thoughts to focus on the progress made instead of all-or-nothing outcomes.

2. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion that involves taking one negative event and extending it to all areas of our lives. Engaging in this thought process can often leave one feeling disheartened and powerless.

  • For instance, if we receive criticism at work, we may start thinking we are a failure in all aspects of our lives rather than acknowledging that we all make mistakes and failures are a natural part of life.
  • In order to overcome this thinking pattern, practice separating a specific event from other areas of your life. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and setbacks are part of learning and growing.

3. Mental Filter

mental filter is a cognitive distortion that involves focusing on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. This type of thought process can result in feelings of hopelessness and dissatisfaction. 

  • For instance, if we receive a compliment and criticism, we may only remember the criticism, overlooking the positive feedback we received.
  • Ways to combat it is to practice focusing on the positive aspects of a situation and make an effort to identify and acknowledge the positive things that are happening in your life.

4. Discounting the Positive

cognitive distortions

Discounting the positive is a cognitive distortion involving a negative thinking bias. This type of thinking leads to dismissing or ignoring positive events rather than acknowledging them as deserved or earned. 

  • People who engage in discounting the positive often explain away good outcomes as a fluke or sheer luck rather than attributing them to their own skills, smart choices, or determination. This mindset can lead to low self-esteem, reduced motivation, and a negative cycle of thinking, where only negative aspects of life are focused on, making them feel more down and unmotivated. 
  • You can practice taking credit for your successes and focusing on what went well. Remind yourself that good things don’t happen by chance but rather because of your efforts and abilities. 

5. Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions is a cognitive distortion that involves making negative assumptions about a situation without evidence. Thinking in this manner can often result in social anxiety and avoidance behavior. 

  • For instance, if someone doesn’t say hello, we may assume that they don’t like us without considering other possible explanations for their behavior.
  • Challenge your assumptions by gathering evidence and considering alternative explanations for someone’s behavior. Practice asking questions and seeking clarification to avoid misinterpretations.

6. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that involves anticipating the worst possible outcome of a situation. Feelings of fear and anxiety are often the result of catastrophizing. 

  • For example, if we believe that a negative outcome, such as getting fired from our job, will be catastrophic and ruin our lives, we may feel anxious about even going to work because it’s difficult to quell the fear of this outcome.
  • Practice realistic thinking by evaluating the probability of a negative outcome and considering alternative outcomes. Take time to identify the worst-case scenario and develop a plan.

7. Personalization


Personalization is a cognitive distortion that involves taking responsibility for events that are outside of our control. When a person has this kind of distorted thinking, it may lead to feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. 

  • For example, if we are presented with a challenging situation, such as getting rejected by our date, we may personalize the situation and think it was our fault. If a friend cancels plans, we may think it’s because of something we did rather than considering other possible explanations. This type of mindset is often fueled by bad relationships or toxic people in our lives.
  • In order to combat this thinking, start practicing identifying events that are outside of your control and avoid taking responsibility for them. Practice self-compassion and remind yourself that you are only human and that setbacks are a natural part of life.

8. Emotional Reasoning

It is a cognitive distortion that involves believing that our emotions accurately reflect reality, without questioning or analyzing them objectively. This type of thinking can lead to false beliefs, negative thought patterns, and misinterpretation of situations. 

  • For example, if we feel anxious about a situation, we may assume something terrible will happen, even if there is no evidence to support this belief. Similarly, if we feel guilty, we may assume that we have done something wrong, even if there is no reason to feel guilty. 
  • In order to overcome this, start practicing recognizing when your emotions may not accurately reflect reality and challenge them with evidence. Practice self-awareness and identify when emotional reasoning may be taking over.

9. Labeling

Labeling is a cognitive distortion that involves making global, negative judgments about ourselves or others based on a single behavior. This type of thinking often leads to feelings of shame and self-doubt. For example, if we make a mistake, we may label ourselves as a failure rather than recognizing that mistakes are a normal part of learning. 

  • When you see your new colleague applying makeup before a meeting, you label them as shallow. Or when someone doesn’t submit a report on time, you call them useless.
  • When you find yourself engaging in this thinking, practice focusing on behaviors rather than labeling individuals. Recognize that labeling can lead to shame and self-doubt and practice empathy and understanding.

10. Should Statements

Should Statements

Should statements refer to rigid and unrealistic expectations that individuals impose on themselves or others. They involve using words like “should,” “ought to,” “must,” and “have to” to describe how things should be. These statements can create unnecessary pressure, guilt, and negative emotions.

  • For example, if we don’t meet a self-imposed deadline, we may think that we “should have” done better rather than recognizing that our expectations were unrealistic.
  • Practice setting realistic expectations for yourself and others. Avoid placing rigid and unrealistic expectations and remind yourself that progress is more important than perfection.

Strategies for Changing Cognitive Distortions

No matter how useless, dangerous, or negative your cognitive distortions may seem, they are just that – distortions. By changing the way you think, you can also change the way you feel. It may take some time and practice, but with consistent commitment, you can learn to recognize and overcome these thinking errors.

1. Recognize the cognitive distortion

The first step in changing a cognitive distortion is to become aware of it. Pay attention to your thoughts and notice when you engage in any of the cognitive distortions listed above.

2. Challenge the thought

Once you have identified the cognitive distortion, challenge the thought by questioning the evidence that supports it. Ask yourself if there is any evidence to the contrary or if there are alternative explanations for the situation.

3. Reframe the thought

Reframe the thought by replacing it with a more accurate and realistic one. For example, instead of thinking, “I am a failure because I made a mistake,” reframe it as “Making mistakes is a normal part of learning, and I can learn from this experience.”

4. Perform a cost-benefit analysis

The cost-benefit analysis involves weighing the pros and cons of a situation to gain a more realistic perspective. By considering the potential positive and negative outcomes of a situation, you can make more balanced and rational decisions.

Here’s an exercise to help you identify and evaluate your automatic thoughts. Think of a recent situation where you felt hurt by someone’s actions or words. Identify the automatic thoughts that came to your mind in response, such as “I’m so inconsiderate. No wonder she’s mad at me.” Then, write down the potential advantages of holding on to that thought. For example, did it provide a sense of control or understanding of the situation? Did it motivate you to do better or be more considerate in the future?

Next, consider the potential disadvantages of holding on to that thought. Did it cause unnecessary stress or anxiety that distracted you from important tasks or activities? Did it lower your self-confidence and self-esteem, leading you to doubt your abilities and worth? By weighing both the advantages and disadvantages of your automatic thought, you can gain a more balanced and rational perspective on the situation and make more deliberate and effective choices in the future.

5. Practice self-compassion

Be kind and gentle with yourself as you work to change cognitive distortions. Remember that changing long-held thought patterns takes time and effort, and it’s okay to make mistakes along the way.

6. Seek support

seek support

Talk to a trusted friend or mental health professional for support in changing cognitive distortions. They can provide guidance and perspective to help you challenge and reframe negative thinking patterns.

When you consult a mental health professional, a technique called Cognitive Therapy is applied. It is a type of talk therapy that helps people manage their emotions by changing how they think and act. Therapy through self-help books and other materials is also a recommended option to help treat cognitive distortions. Here at Hanei Health Solutions, we have a team of mental health professionals who have vast experience in cognitive therapies and specialize in helping patients with cognitive distortions, especially mood disorders, eating disorders, suicide, and sexual abuse.

Final Thoughts

Cognitive distortions can lead to unhealthy and unhelpful thinking patterns that can have a significant impact on our well-being. Recognizing and understanding these distortions is the first step to changing them. It is important to challenge our thinking and reframe the way we interpret situations. Practicing self-compassion and using healthy coping skills can be beneficial in overcoming these cognitive distortions.

If you are in need of professional care, Hanei Health Solutions offers Cognitive Therapy treatment to help individuals manage cognitive distortions, mental illnesses, and addictions. Learn more about our therapy by calling us at 443-978-1330.

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