Abnormal Psychology: Mental Health and Mental Illness


What are cognitive distortions?

In cognitive therapy, therapists point out how patients experience the world through the filter of cognitive distortions. These are habitual ways of thinking that contribute to a depressive mindset. Information is distorted to maintain a negative and pessimistic world view. In his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy the psychiatrist David Burns listed the following cognitive distortions.

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking: Life is seen in black and white. If you are not completely successful, you are a total failure.
  • Overgeneralization: You generalize from a single negative event to a much larger pattern. One bad experience means a lifetime of disappointment.
  • Mental Filter: You hone in on one negative detail and let that detail cloud your view of the larger picture. After giving a wonderful party, you focus on the one guest who seemed to be in a bad mood.
  • Disqualifying the Positive: You find reasons to discount positive information. You passed the test because it was easy. The cute girl next door was nice to you because she felt sorry for you. This type of cognitive distortion allows you to maintain your negative view of the world despite contradictory evidence.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: You jump to negative conclusions in the absence of any evidence.
  • Mind Reading: You assume you know what someone else is feeling or thinking about you and that their thoughts are necessarily negative.
  • Predicting the Future: You predict that things will end up badly and then treat your predictions as if they were already fact.
  • Catastrophizing or Minimizing: In catastrophic thinking, you exaggerate the negative impact or significance of an event, blowing it up into giant proportions. When minimizing, you reduce the importance of something, generally something positive.
  • Emotional Reasoning: You don’t distinguish between your emotions and outside reality. Just because you feel something, you assume it must be true.
  • Shoulding: You feel you can only motivate yourself with a constant sense of guilt or obligation. You “should”, “must”, or “ought to” do all sorts of things. You cannot trust yourself to act appropriately unless you are forced to do so.
  • Labeling: A negative event or behavior is generalized to the person’s entire character. For example, your husband is a selfish lout, you are a pathetic wreck, and your neighbor is total snob.
  • Personalization: You assume that you were the cause of something that may have had nothing to do with you. Your boss shuts himself in his office because he’s mad at you. Your best friend is depressed because you weren’t sensitive enough when she broke up with her boyfriend.


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