Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You (+ PDF Worksheets)

Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You We tend to trust what goes on in our brains. After all, if you can’t trust your own brain, what can you trust?

Generally, this is a good thing—our brain has been wired to alert us to danger, attract us to potential mates, and find solutions to the problems we encounter every day.

However, there are some occasions when you may want to second guess what your brain is telling you. It’s not that your brain is purposely lying to you, it’s just that it may have developed some faulty or non-helpful connections over time.

It can be surprisingly easy to create faulty connections in the brain. Our brains are predisposed to making connections between thoughts, ideas, actions, and consequences, whether they are truly connected or not.

This tendency to make connections where there is no true relationship is the basis of a common problem when it comes to interpreting research: the assumption that because two variables are correlated, one causes or leads to the other. The refrain “correlation does not equal causation!” is a familiar one to any student of psychology or the social sciences.

It is all too easy to view a coincidence or a complicated relationship and make false or overly simplistic assumptions in research—just as it is easy to connect two events or thoughts that occur around the same time when there are no real ties between them.

There are many terms for this kind of mistake in social science research, complete with academic jargon and overly complicated phrasing. In the context of our thoughts and beliefs, these mistakes are referred to as “cognitive distortions.”

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with a detailed insight into Positive CBT and will give you additional tools to address cognitive distortions in your therapy or coaching.

You can download the free PDF here.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are biased perspectives we take on ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.

These patterns and systems of thought are often subtle–it’s difficult to recognize them when they are a regular feature of your day-to-day thoughts. That is why they can be so damaging since it’s hard to change what you don’t recognize as something that needs to change!

Cognitive distortions come in many forms (which we’ll cover later in this piece), but they all have some things in common.

All cognitive distortions are:

  • Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing;
  • That are false or inaccurate;
  • And have the potential to cause psychological damage.

It can be scary to admit that you may fall prey to distorted thinking. You might be thinking, “There’s no way I am holding on to any blatantly false beliefs!” While most people don’t suffer in their daily lives from these kinds of cognitive distortions, it seems that no one can completely escape these distortions.

If you’re human, you have likely fallen for a few of the numerous cognitive distortions at one time or another. The difference between those who occasionally stumble into a cognitive distortion and those who struggle with them on a more long-term basis is the ability to identify and modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking.

As with many skills and abilities in life, some are far better at this than others–but with practice, you can improve your ability to recognize and respond to these distortions.

These distortions have been shown to relate positively to symptoms of depression, meaning that where cognitive distortions abound, symptoms of depression are likely to occur as well (Burns, Shaw, & Croker, 1987).

In the words of the renowned psychiatrist and researcher David Burns:

“I suspect you will find that a great many of your negative feelings are in fact based on such thinking errors.”

Errors in thinking, or cognitive distortions, are particularly effective at provoking or exacerbating symptoms of depression. It is still a bit ambiguous as to whether these distortions cause depression or depression brings out these distortions (after all, correlation does not equal causation!) but it is clear that they frequently go hand-in-hand.

Much of the knowledge around cognitive distortions come from research by two experts: Aaron Beck and David Burns. Both are prominent in the fields of psychiatry and psychotherapy.

 

Experts in Cognitive Distortions: Aaron Beck and David Burns

If you dig any deeper into cognitive distortions and their role in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, you will find two names over and over again: Aaron Beck and David Burns.

These two psychologists literally wrote the book(s) on depression, cognitive distortions, and the treatment of these problems.

 

Aaron Beck

Cognitive Distortions
Aaron Beck. Image Retrieved by URL.

Aaron Beck began his career at Yale Medical School, where he graduated in 1946 (Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center, n.d.). His required rotations in psychiatry during his residency ignited his passion for research on depression, suicide, and effective treatment.

In 1954, he joined the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, where he still holds the position of Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry.

In addition to his prodigious catalog of publications, Beck founded the Beck Initiative to teach therapists how to conduct cognitive therapy with their patients–an endeavor that has helped cognitive therapy grow into the therapy juggernaut that it is today.

Beck also applied his knowledge as a member or consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health, an editor for several peer-reviewed journals, and lectures and visiting professorships at various academic institutions throughout the world (Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center, n.d.).

While there are clearly many honors, awards, and achievements Beck may be known for, perhaps his greatest contribution to the field of psychology is his role in the development of cognitive therapy.

Beck developed the basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, when he noticed that many of his patients struggling with depression were operating on false assumptions and distorted thinking (Good Therapy, 2015). He connected these distorted thinking patterns with his patients’ symptoms and hypothesized that changing their thinking could change their symptoms.

This is the foundation of CBT – the idea that our thought patterns and deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world around us drive our experiences. This can lead to mental health disorders when they are distorted but can be modified or changed to eliminate troublesome symptoms.

In line with his general research focus, Beck also developed two important scales that are among some of the most used scales in psychology: the Beck Depression Inventory and the Beck Hopelessness Scale. These scales are used to evaluate symptoms of depression and risk of suicide and are still applied decades after their original development (Good Therapy, 2015).

 

David Burns

Another big name in depression and treatment research, Dr. David Burns, also spent some time learning and developing his skills at the University of Pennsylvania – it seems that UPenn is particularly good at producing future leaders in psychology!

Burns graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and moved on to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where he completed his psychiatry residency and cemented his interest in the treatment of mental health disorders (Feeling Good, n.d.).

He is currently serving as a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in addition to continuing his research on treating depression and training therapists to conduct effective psychotherapy sessions (Feeling Good, n.d.). Much of his work is based on Beck’s research revealing the potential impacts of distorted thinking and suggesting ways to correct this thinking.

He is perhaps most well known outside of strictly academic circles for his worldwide best-selling book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. This book has sold more than 4 million copies within the United States alone and is often recommended by therapists to their patients struggling with depression (Summit for Clinical Excellence, n.d.).

This book outlines Burns’ approach to treating depression, which mostly focuses on identifying, correcting, and replacing distorted systems and patterns of thinking. If you are interested in learning more about this book, you can find it on Amazon with over 1,400 reviews to help you evaluate its effectiveness.

To hear more about Burns’ work in the treatment of depression, check out his TED talk on the subject below.

As Burns discusses in the above video, his studies of depression have also influenced the studies around joy and self-esteem. The most researched form of psychotherapy right now is covered by his book, Feeling Good, aimed at providing tools to the general public.

 

A List of the Most Common Cognitive Distortions

Beck and Burns are not the only two researchers who have dedicated their careers to learn more about depression, cognitive distortions, and treatment for these conditions.

There are many others who have picked up the torch for this research, often with their own take on cognitive distortions. As such, there are numerous cognitive distortions floating around in the literature, but we’ll limit this list to the most common sixteen.

The first eleven distortions come straight from Burns’ Feeling Good Handbook (1989).

 

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking / Polarized Thinking

Also known as “Black-and-White Thinking,” this distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. In other words, you see things in terms of extremes – something is either fantastic or awful, you believe you are either perfect or a total failure.

 

2. Overgeneralization

This sneaky distortion takes one instance or example and generalizes it to an overall pattern. For example, a student may receive a C on one test and conclude that she is stupid and a failure. Overgeneralizing can lead to overly negative thoughts about yourself and your environment based on only one or two experiences.

 

3. Mental Filter

Similar to overgeneralization, the mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative piece of information and excludes all the positive ones. An example of this distortion is one partner in a romantic relationship dwelling on a single negative comment made by the other partner and viewing the relationship as hopelessly lost, while ignoring the years of positive comments and experiences.

The mental filter can foster a decidedly pessimistic view of everything around you by focusing only on the negative.

 

4. Disqualifying the Positive

On the flip side, the “Disqualifying the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them.

For example, a person who receives a positive review at work might reject the idea that they are a competent employee and attribute the positive review to political correctness, or to their boss simply not wanting to talk about their employee’s performance problems.

This is an especially malignant distortion since it can facilitate the continuation of negative thought patterns even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

 

5. Jumping to Conclusions – Mind Reading

This “Jumping to Conclusions” distortion manifests as the inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking. Of course, it is possible to have an idea of what other people are thinking, but this distortion refers to the negative interpretations that we jump to.

Seeing a stranger with an unpleasant expression and jumping to the conclusion that they are thinking something negative about you is an example of this distortion.

 

6. Jumping to Conclusions – Fortune Telling

A sister distortion to mind reading, fortune telling refers to the tendency to make conclusions and predictions based on little to no evidence and holding them as gospel truth.

One example of fortune-telling is a young, single woman predicting that she will never find love or have a committed and happy relationship based only on the fact that she has not found it yet. There is simply no way for her to know how her life will turn out, but she sees this prediction as fact rather than one of several possible outcomes.

 

7. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

Also known as the “Binocular Trick” for its stealthy skewing of your perspective, this distortion involves exaggerating or minimizing the meaning, importance, or likelihood of things.

An athlete who is generally a good player but makes a mistake may magnify the importance of that mistake and believe that he is a terrible teammate, while an athlete who wins a coveted award in her sport may minimize the importance of the award and continue believing that she is only a mediocre player.

 

8. Emotional Reasoning

This may be one of the most surprising distortions to many readers, and it is also one of the most important to identify and address. The logic behind this distortion is not surprising to most people; rather, it is the realization that virtually all of us have bought into this distortion at one time or another.

Emotional reasoning refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions as fact. It can be described as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Just because we feel something doesn’t mean it is true; for example, we may become jealous and think our partner has feelings for someone else, but that doesn’t make it true. Of course, we know it isn’t reasonable to take our feelings as fact, but it is a common distortion nonetheless.

Relevant: What is Emotional Intelligence? + 18 Ways to Improve It

 

9. Should Statements

Another particularly damaging distortion is the tendency to make “should” statements. Should statements are statements that you make to yourself about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others, imposing a set of expectations that will likely not be met.

When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.

 

10. Labeling and Mislabeling

These tendencies are basically extreme forms of overgeneralization, in which we assign judgments of value to ourselves or to others based on one instance or experience.

For example, a student who labels herself as “an utter fool” for failing an assignment is engaging in this distortion, as is the waiter who labels a customer “a grumpy old miser” if he fails to thank the waiter for bringing his food. Mislabeling refers to the application of highly emotional, loaded, and inaccurate or unreasonable language when labeling.

 

11. Personalization

As the name implies, this distortion involves taking everything personally or assigning blame to yourself without any logical reason to believe you are to blame.

This distortion covers a wide range of situations, from assuming you are the reason a friend did not enjoy the girls’ night out, to the more severe examples of believing that you are the cause for every instance of moodiness or irritation in those around you.

In addition to these basic cognitive distortions, Beck and Burns have mentioned a few others (Beck, 1976; Burns, 1980):

 

12. Control Fallacies

A control fallacy manifests as one of two beliefs: (1) that we have no control over our lives and are helpless victims of fate, or (2) that we are in complete control of ourselves and our surroundings, giving us responsibility for the feelings of those around us. Both beliefs are damaging, and both are equally inaccurate.

No one is in complete control of what happens to them, and no one has absolutely no control over their situation. Even in extreme situations where an individual seemingly has no choice in what they do or where they go, they still have a certain amount of control over how they approach their situation mentally.

 

13. Fallacy of Fairness

While we would all probably prefer to operate in a world that is fair, the assumption of an inherently fair world is not based in reality and can foster negative feelings when we are faced with proof of life’s unfairness.

A person who judges every experience by its perceived fairness has fallen for this fallacy, and will likely feel anger, resentment, and hopelessness when they inevitably encounter a situation that is not fair.

 

14. Fallacy of Change

Another ‘fallacy’ distortion involves expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. This distortion is usually accompanied by a belief that our happiness and success rests on other people, leading us to believe that forcing those around us to change is the only way to get what we want.

A man who thinks “If I just encourage my wife to stop doing the things that irritate me, I can be a better husband and a happier person” is exhibiting the fallacy of change.

 

15. Always Being Right

Perfectionists and those struggling with Imposter Syndrome will recognize this distortion – it is the belief that we must always be right. For those struggling with this distortion, the idea that we could be wrong is absolutely unacceptable, and we will fight to the metaphorical death to prove that we are right.

For example, the internet commenters who spend hours arguing with each other over an opinion or political issue far beyond the point where reasonable individuals would conclude that they should “agree to disagree” are engaging in the “Always Being Right” distortion. To them, it is not simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it is an intellectual battle that must be won at all costs.

 

16. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

This distortion is a popular one, and it’s easy to see myriad examples of this fallacy playing out on big and small screens across the world. The “Heaven’s Reward Fallacy” manifests as a belief that one’s struggles, one’s suffering, and one’s hard work will result in a just reward.

It is obvious why this type of thinking is a distortion – how many examples can you think of, just within the realm of your personal acquaintances, where hard work and sacrifice did not pay off?

Sometimes no matter how hard we work or how much we sacrifice, we will not achieve what we hope to achieve. To think otherwise is a potentially damaging pattern of thought that can result in disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression when the awaited reward does not materialize.

 

Changing Your Thinking: Examples of Techniques to Combat Cognitive Distortions

Overthinking and Cognitive Distortions.
Cognitive Distortions. Image by Malgorzata Tomczak.

These distortions, while common and potentially extremely damaging, are not something we must simply resign ourselves to living with. Beck, Burns, and other researchers in this area have developed numerous ways to identify, challenge, minimize, or erase these distortions from our thinking.

Some of the most effective and evidence-based techniques and resources are listed below.

 

Cognitive Distortions Handout

Since you must first identify the distortions you struggle with before you can effectively challenge them, this resource is a must-have.

The Cognitive Distortions handout lists and describes several types of cognitive distortions to help you figure out which ones you might be dealing with.

The distortions listed include:

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking;
  • Overgeneralizing;
  • Discounting the Positive;
  • Jumping to Conclusions;
  • Mind Reading;
  • Fortune Telling;
  • Magnification (Catastrophizing) and Minimizing;
  • Emotional Reasoning;
  • Should Statements;
  • Labeling and Mislabeling;
  • Personalization.

The descriptions are accompanied by helpful descriptions and a couple of examples.

This information can be found in the Increasing Awareness of Cognitive Distortions exercise in the Positive Psychology Practitioner’s Toolkit.

 

Automatic Thought Record

This worksheet is an excellent tool for identifying and understanding your cognitive distortions. Our automatic, negative thoughts are often related to a distortion that we may or may not realize we have. Completing this exercise can help you to figure out where you are making inaccurate assumptions or jumping to false conclusions.

The worksheet is split into six columns:

  • Date/Time
  • Situation
  • Automatic Thoughts (ATs)
  • Emotion/s
  • Your Response
  • A More Adaptive Response

First, you note the date and time of the thought.

In the second column, you will write down the situation. Ask yourself:

  • What led to this event?
  • What caused the unpleasant feelings I am experiencing?

The third component of the worksheet directs you to write down the negative automatic thought, including any images or feelings that accompanied the thought. You will consider the thoughts and images that went through your mind, write them down, and determine how much you believed these thoughts.

After you have identified the thought, the worksheet instructs you to note the emotions that ran through your mind along with the thoughts and images identified. Ask yourself what emotions you felt at the time and how intense the emotions were on a scale from 1 (barely felt it) to 10 (completely overwhelming).

Next, you have an opportunity to come up with an adaptive response to those thoughts. This is where the real work happens, where you identify the distortions that are cropping up and challenge them.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which cognitive distortions were you employing?
  • What is the evidence that the automatic thought(s) is true, and what evidence is there that it is not true?
  • You’ve thought about the worst that can happen, but what’s the best that could happen? What’s the most realistic scenario?
  • How likely are the best-case and most realistic scenarios?

Finally, you will consider the outcome of this event. Think about how much you believe the automatic thought now that you’ve come up with an adaptive response, and rate your belief. Determine what emotion(s) you are feeling now and at what intensity you are experiencing them.

You can access the Automatic Thought Record Worksheet here.

 

Decatastrophizing

This is a particularly good tool for talking yourself out of catastrophizing a situation.

The worksheet begins with a description of cognitive distortions in general and catastrophizing in particular; catastrophizing is when you distort the importance or meaning of a problem to be much worse than it is, or you assume that the worst possible scenario is going to come to pass. It’s a reinforcing distortion, as you get more and more anxious the more you think about it, but there are ways to combat it.

First, write down your worry. Identify the issue you are catastrophizing by answering the question, “What are you worried about?”

Once you have articulated the issue that is worrying you, you can move on to thinking about how this issue will turn out.

Think about how terrible it would be if the catastrophe actually came to pass. What is the worst-case scenario? Consider whether a similar event has occurred in your past and, if so, how often it occurred. With the frequency of this catastrophe in mind, make an educated guess of how likely the worst-case scenario is to happen.

After this, think about what is most likely to happen–not the best possible outcome, not the worst possible outcome, but the most likely. Consider this scenario in detail and write it down. Note how likely you think this scenario is to happen as well.

Next, think about your chances of surviving in one piece. How likely is it that you’ll be okay one week from now if your fear comes true? How likely is it that you’ll be okay in one month? How about one year? For all three, write down “Yes” if you think you’d be okay and “No” if you don’t think you’d be okay.

Finally, come back to the present and think about how you feel right now. Are you still just as worried, or did the exercise help you think a little more realistically? Write down how you’re feeling about it.

This worksheet can be an excellent resource for anyone who is worrying excessively about a potentially negative event.

You can download the Decatastrophizing Worksheet here.

 

Cataloging Your Inner Rules

Cognitive distortions include assumptions and rules that we hold dearly or have decided we must live by. Sometimes these rules or assumptions help us to stick to our values or our moral code, but often they can limit and frustrate us.

This exercise can help you to think more critically about an assumption or rule that may be harmful.

First, think about a recent scenario where you felt bad about your thoughts or behavior afterward. Write down a description of the scenario and the infraction (what you did to break the rule).

Next, based on your infraction, identify the rule or assumption that was broken. What are the parameters of the rule? How does it compel you to think or act?

Once you have described the rule or assumption, think about where it came from. Consider when you acquired this rule, how you learned about it, and what was happening in your life that encouraged you to adopt it. What makes you think it’s a good rule to have?

Now that you have outlined a definition of the rule or assumption and its origins and impact on your life, you can move on to comparing its advantages and disadvantages. Every rule or assumption we follow will likely have both advantages and disadvantages.

The presence of one advantage does not mean the rule or assumption is necessarily a good one, just as the presence of one disadvantage does not automatically make the rule or assumption a bad one. This is where you must think critically about how the rule or assumption helps and/or hurts you.

Finally, you have an opportunity to think about everything you have listed and decide to either accept the rule as it is, throw it out entirely and create a new one, or modify it into a rule that would suit you better. This may be a small change or a big modification.

If you decide to change the rule or assumption, the new version should maximize the advantages of the rule, minimize or limit the disadvantages, or both. Write down this new and improved rule and consider how you can put it into practice in your daily life.

You can download the Cataloging Your Inner Rules Worksheet.

 

Facts or Opinions?

This is one of the first lessons that participants in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) learn – that facts are not opinions. As obvious as this seems, it can be difficult to remember and adhere to this fact in your day to day life.

This exercise can help you learn the difference between fact and opinion, and prepare you to distinguish between your own opinions and facts.

The worksheet lists the following fifteen statements and asks the reader to decide whether they are fact or opinion:

  • I am a failure.
  • I’m uglier than him/her.
  • I said “no” to a friend in need.
  • A friend in need said “no” to me.
  • I suck at everything.
  • I yelled at my partner.
  • I can’t do anything right.
  • He said some hurtful things to me.
  • She didn’t care about hurting me.
  • This will be an absolute disaster.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I said things I regret.
  • I’m shorter than him.
  • I am not loveable.
  • I’m selfish and uncaring.
  • Everyone is a way better person than I am.
  • Nobody could ever love me.
  • I am overweight for my height.
  • I ruined the evening.
  • I failed my exam.

Practicing making this distinction between fact and opinion can improve your ability to quickly differentiate between the two when they pop up in your own thoughts.

Here is the Facts or Opinions Worksheet.

In case you’re wondering which is which, here is the key:

  • I am a failure. False
  • I’m uglier than him/her. False
  • I said “no” to a friend in need. True
  • A friend in need said “no” to me. True
  • I suck at everything. False
  • I yelled at my partner. True
  • I can’t do anything right. False
  • He said some hurtful things to me. True
  • She didn’t care about hurting me. False
  • This will be an absolute disaster. False
  • I’m a bad person. False
  • I said things I regret. True
  • I’m shorter than him. True
  • I am not loveable. False
  • I’m selfish and uncaring. False
  • Everyone is a way better person than I am. False
  • Nobody could ever love me. False
  • I am overweight for my height. True
  • I ruined the evening. False
  • I failed my exam. True

 

Putting Thoughts on Trial

This exercise uses CBT theory and techniques to help you examine your irrational thoughts. You will act as the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge all at once, providing evidence for and against the irrational thought and evaluating the merit of the thought based on this evidence.

The worksheet begins with an explanation of the exercise and a description of the roles you will be playing.

The first box to be completed is “The Thought.” This is where you write down the irrational thought that is being put on trial.

Next, you fill out “The Defense” box with evidence that corroborates or supports the thought. Once you have listed all of the defense’s evidence, do the same for “The Prosecution” box. Write down all of the evidence calling the thought into question or instilling doubt in its accuracy.

When you have listed all of the evidence you can think of, both for and against the thought, evaluate the evidence and write down the results of your evaluation in “The Judge’s Verdict” box.

This worksheet is a fun and engaging way to think critically about your negative or irrational thoughts and make good decisions about which thoughts to modify and which to embrace.

Click here to see this worksheet for yourself.

 

A Take-Home Message

Hopefully, this piece has given you a good understanding of cognitive distortions. These sneaky, inaccurate patterns of thinking and believing are common, but their potential impact should not be underestimated.

Even if you are not struggling with depression, anxiety, or another serious mental health issue, it doesn’t hurt to evaluate your own thoughts every now and then. The sooner you catch a cognitive distortion and mount a defense against it, the less likely it is to make a negative impact on your life.

What is your experience with cognitive distortions? Which ones do you struggle with? Do you think we missed any important ones? How have you tackled them, whether in CBT or on your own?

Let us know in the comments below. We love hearing from you.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our 3 Positive CBT Exercises for free.

  • Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center. (n.d.). Aaron T. Beck, M.D. Aaron Beck Center. Retrieved from https://aaronbeckcenter.org/beck/
  • Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York, NY, US: New American Library.
  • Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY, US: New American Library.
  • Burns, D. D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York, NY, US: Morrow.
  • Burns, D. D., Shaw, B. F., & Croker, W. (1987). Thinking styles and coping strategies of depressed women: An empirical investigation. Behaviour Research and Therapy 25, 223-225. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(87)90049-0
  • Feeling Good. (n.d.). About. Feeling Good. Retrieved from https://feelinggood.com/about/
  • Good Therapy. (2015). Aaron Beck. Good Therapy LLC. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/aaron-beck.html
  • www.psychologytools.com
  • Summit for Clinical Excellence. (n.d.). David Burns, MD. Summit for Clinical Excellence Faculty Page. Retrieved from https://summitforclinicalexcellence.com/partners/faculty/david-burns/
  • www.therapistaid.com

About the Author

Courtney Ackerman, MSc., is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion.

Comments

  1. mesut cenan konal

    truly amazing. thanks for the pdfs and handouts! getting online teraphy and my mentor told me about battling “autmated thoughts” and being and english teacher here in turkey i found this.
    amazing service. thank you.

    Reply
  2. Joe

    Beautiful overview, helpful and useful, thank you.

    Reply
  3. Liscelle Brennan

    I loved this article. I especially liked “Putting Thoughts on Trial”. I deal with major depressive disorder and my cognitive distortions are frequent. To address this I actively acknowledge and adjust my negative thoughts and replace them with positive words and thoughts. To help further this endeavor, I am going to make a list of negative words and their positive word counterparts so I can incorporate them into my thoughts and language. For example, a “problem” (negative) is a “challenge” or “opportunity” (both positive).

    Reply
    • Yashraj Singh

      See these all types of things are not going to work. Even if you try for a million years its not going to happen. You need to understand this why these distortions are happening. Its simply because your intellect is identified with too many things. Once it gets identified, your perception becomes distorted & this distortion permeates every aspect of your life. The intellect is like a scalpel which is constantly cutting through everything to give you some sense of perception. If a knife has to cut tjrough anytjing effortlessly & well, its extremely important that whatever it cuts through does not stick to it. If the residue keeps sticking to it, after sometime this knife becomes useless. Once the residue of what you cut through sticks to the knife, in many ways that knife becomes more of a nuisance than a help. Or in otjer words, once your intellect identifies with something or the other, it gets chained with tje identifications. Once this happens, you have a completely distorted experience of the mind. Once your intellect identides woth something, then you get all messed up. This identity is not on one level, its on many levels. Because of this complex system of identifications, you are in a complex mess. This way your mind will just be a mess.

      Reply
    • Yashraj Singh

      See these all types of things are not going to work. Even if you try for a million years its not going to happen. I’ve tried many things like before when i didnt knew about this. You need to understand this why these distortions are happening. Its simply because your intellect is identified with too many things. Once it gets identified, your perception becomes distorted & this distortion permeates every aspect of your life. The intellect is like a scalpel which is constantly cutting through everything to give you some sense of perception. If a knife has to cut tjrough anytjing effortlessly & well, its extremely important that whatever it cuts through does not stick to it. If the residue keeps sticking to it, after sometime this knife becomes useless. Once the residue of what you cut through sticks to the knife, in many ways that knife becomes more of a nuisance than a help. Or in otjer words, once your intellect identifies with something or the other, it gets chained with tje identifications. Once this happens, you have a completely distorted experience of the mind. Once your intellect identides woth something, then you get all messed up. This identity is not on one level, its on many levels. Because of this complex system of identifications, you are in a complex mess. This way your mind will just be a mess.

      Reply
    • DeAnna Jo Nunez

      Hi Alexandra (and Courtney), I’ve been a Hypnotherapist for many years and yes, Hypnotherapy is an excellent tool for retraining cognitive distortions.

      Reply
  4. kim

    This changed my life. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. George

    Excellent overview with essential tools to get started ! I’m very impressed and grateful to have this as a means to jumpstart my clients !
    Thank you !

    Reply
  6. John Rice

    Thank you for your effort. I believe it will help me to better understand myself.

    Reply
  7. Traits Of A Selfish Man

    This is a good,common sense article.Very helpful to one who is just finding the resouces about this part.It will certainly help educate me.

    Reply
  8. Lisa

    Thank you, for the article and sharing Dr Burns Talk . Moved to the core, beautiful and informative.

    Reply
  9. Megatron

    This was awesome! Im trying to get over my fallacy of fairness. And catastrophizing . Additionally, this made me think of Jordan Peterson’s life is suffering mantra and his resultant religious beliefs as a possible response to make sense of his and his family’s own suffering. Just a thought. I really wabt to express again how much I like the fallacy of fairness because I want to give up this unfulfillable expectation.

    Reply
  10. Khadijah Umar Bandawu

    Thanks a lot;its been very helpful.

    Reply
  11. Tanaya

    Very informative article.

    Reply
  12. Alejandro

    I really like this article, very informative and helpful, thank you so much.

    Reply
  13. Carrie Zagelow

    This has completely explains one of my mother’s rental disorders & has really opened my eyes on how to deal with the negative effects from it/her.
    Thank you!!

    Reply
  14. Dr. Pooja Mehta

    Excellent write up. I am psychosocial Occupational therapist, currently pursuing clinical psychology and deeply interested in cognitive distortions. The write up helped me a lot. Thank you.

    Reply
  15. Sana Bj

    Thank you for this article. Is there any way to download it in pdf please?

    Reply
  16. Nikki

    This was a very informative and educational read. I look forward to seeing more and appreciate the effort applied in writing it. Will the accompanying hand-outs be available in the near future? Thank you

    Reply
  17. Robert

    #16 the word “obvious” is being used as a fact where it’s really a matter of opinion. I loved the article by the way. Thank you!

    Reply
    • greg s

      there are only 15 !!!

      Reply
  18. Maggi Pivovar

    Thank you for this excellent article. I am an occupational therapist but very intrigued by the cognitive distortions I see in my own family. These worksheets would be great to use at home with my older kids. I also hope to write about this topic on a blog I plan to launch soon, with one of the sections “Healthy Relationships.” What sparked my interest in all of this was a phone conversation with a friend, and the anxious and upset feeling I had later. I made my own worksheet to help identify what was really going on. It was so helpful! I have also noticed the frequency in which people in my circle are offended my text messages, jumping first to negative conclusions. I definitely want to do some writing on this topic!
    Wondering if the other worksheets mentioned in the article have as coming soon have been created? Thanks!

    Reply
  19. Zoe

    When will the worksheets be available for download please?

    Reply
  20. Richard Braznell

    Excellent summary. We may personally identify with some or a lot of the distortion categories

    Reply
  21. Bex

    This was great, but the word “overweight” is an opinion no matter who is saying it. There is no perfect weight that a person can be over or under. “I am fat” or “I am thin” or “I am straight-sized” are facts. “I am overweight” is an opinion.

    Reply
    • Jarool

      Bex, seems like you should re-read cognitive distortion #15.

      Reply
    • John

      Well, optimal weight ranges can be quantified by the negative health effects that result from being over or underweight. That said, it is a range, based on a number of different variables (height, lifestyle, etc). So asking whether you’re under or overweight is a nuanced question, but it is testable.

      Reply
  22. Chris

    Dear Author,
    Thank you for your excellent writing on this topic. I have been in “CBT” for years, yet I don’t remember learning about distortions 12-16 or the worksheet techniques beyond basic thought records. I’m finally starting to peel back the layers of distortion that I’ve been experiencing, as if I finally found a loose edge that I can hold onto and start pulling from. Some cbt handouts I’ve received are so oversimplified. I seem to need explicit written elaboration of a concept to understand it well, and you’ve done that pretty well here, so thank you. I appreciate how you approach the topic of realizing you might not always be able to trust your own brain processes, because for someone whose self-image/esteem fluctuates from cognitive distortions, it’s not easy to think about distortions without falling into excessive negative ways of thinking about it. P.S. it’s also nice to have the history of the creators; it really puts a pin in any kind of rejection based on the “what’s so special about this guy” reasoning.

    Reply
  23. Mark

    I’m a Marine combat veteran, suffering from PTSD, OCD and many other issues. I will apply these techniques in hopes of releasing some of the guilt I feel on a day to day basis. Also the irrational thoughts I feel when I “have” to leave my house, which is a struggle daily…

    Reply
    • Nina

      Mark, I hope you look into EMDR and EFT as CBT doesn’t really heal trauma, in my opinion.

      Reply
      • Robert Tom

        EMDR is not a valid technique for treating trauma. Evidence doesn’t back it up. Please do not take any advice from people posting on these comments. Seek a professional therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist that is trained in these matters. Comments on the internet are a waste of time.

        Reply
    • Joy Winning

      PSTEC is a universal healing aid that can work wonders for PSTD’s as well as other struggles. PSTEC Power is a great website to learn a bit more.

      Reply
      • Michael Rush

        Yes! Please go to PSTEC.ORG if you’re suffering from traumatic thoughts. There is a free version that works well, and another version for about $25. I greatly reduced traumatic memories in under an hour and each time you do the table tapping, the traumatic thoughts go away more!!! Please try this as it works and quickly, to reduce / remove traumatic memories. It’s not EFT, you tap on a table while listening to the Psychologist speak on a “click track.” I suggest wearing headphones but your computer speakers will work fine. May those suffering from trauma be comforted and feel well again. pstec.org

        Reply
    • Dori

      Please check out The Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. It is a program to help veterans using multiple methods, regardless of a person’s ability to pay, and they treat veterans from all over the country. Here is the website:https://roadhomeprogram.org/veteran-mental-health-services/

      Reply
    • michelle.tranquilcorner@gmail.com

      Hi, I am a qualified psychotherapist and specialize in ptsd. It is correct to say (as someone else here says) that ptsd does not respond to emdr, although some practitioners will claim it. Ptsd needs specific help. I would also urge you NOT to pay attention to people who comment here when they are not qualified to do so.
      I specialized in ptsd in my training because I once had it. My husband is a 33 year UK veteran, and he also had it at once time.
      I therefore offer help to veterans with ptsd for free, if you would like to take me up on this I will gladly help you. Ptsd needs specific help and does not go away until you get that help, and the symptoms will continue to get worse until you get that help. Please do not rely on books, articles, etc to do this work, find a qualified professional who specializes in ptsd.
      p.s. there are even some people who say that ptsd cannot be ‘cured’, but this is not true, it can be.

      Reply
  24. Shawn

    My husband has most if but all these distortions and it has become unbearable to live along side of someone who is alw as us misinterpretting what I say to be something negative toward him and then responding very rudely to me. Please direct me to real hello for him. Where can I find a therapist who prescribes CBT? It’s a very serious problem.

    Reply
    • Don

      Focus on yourself

      Reply
    • Avery

      I would suggest the book “Feeling Good Together” by David Burns. Believe it or not, the unbearable-ness you are feeling is something YOU have control over, not only your husband. Start there, and then see what happens! Good luck Shawn – best wishes for your marriage and your happiness!

      Reply
    • Charles W Ryan

      Shawn, if you haven’t already found help look on Psychology Today website. You can find a therapist in your area. You can even filter it to therapists who use cognitive behavioral therapy. Ck. this link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us

      Reply
  25. Dave

    .?

    Reply
  26. Kathy Seibert

    I have thoughts that dont go with what I believe.Its actually a feeling more than a thought.Its hard to explain.

    Reply
  27. Phillip E Martin

    Great great info.cant wait to apply these techniques.

    Reply
  28. Beverly

    Thanks for the refresher. I’ve been trying to use these methods since first introduced to the idea by Burns’ book. However, your thoughts about the Heaven’s reward fallacy suffers from the Jumping to conclusions / fortune telling distortion, since by definition, Heaven comes after death and you can’t know that there is no reward. People who believe in heaven from studying the Bible are given many examples (Abraham, Isaac, all Jesus’ disciples) of people who did not receive their promised reward in their earthly lifetimes. You cannot know what happens after death, so you can’t know that it is a fallacy to believe in Heaven’s reward.

    Reply
    • Becca

      In regards to the Heaven’s Reward Fallacy, I think the term “Heaven” can be omitted to just say “Reward Fallacy”. My reasoning is that this is not talking about reward after death, but rather lack of expected reward for work completed. An example would be someone who gives up everything to try to become a famous actor in Hollywood. They bust their butts day after day, working jobs while hustling to many different auditions just for that one chance that they get selected. A lot of people might think that as long as they put in the time and effort, they should be rewarded for their labor. This could be by staring in a TV show or film, but many times, that just simply doesn’t happen. Not everyone who puts in the hours will become a famous actor, simple as that. And someone who goes into the endeavor not understanding that they could make these sacrifices and still not receive their goal of stardom, will find themselves facing a lot of “disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression when the awaited reward does not materialize,” (to quote from the author).

      Reply
  29. Courtney

    Love this! When will worksheets become available? Thank you.

    Reply
  30. WJoe Hicks

    These distortions are found in unspoken myths in the workplace also. Group norms may suffer from distortions in underlying assumptions about blaks, women, or labor at work. How would everyday employees clarify faulty group-think?

    Reply
    • Kristi

      Good question!

      Reply
  31. Florence Osara

    I love this information. this can be of help to our students.

    Reply
  32. Lulu

    I have a chronic anxiety disorder and this article is very helpful. I can not wait to start practicing. I really want to feel better and go back to normal again. A day doesn’t go by without me worrying about everything under the sun and it is debilitating : (

    Reply
  33. WESLEY

    I guess a question i have is, lets say yo don’t catch it in time and you let it run, are the negative impacts reversible? can we bounce back from them? i ask because i now find myself after reading this as an eye opener, but am wondering if its to late to apply the correction?

    Reply
  34. Andrew Shoultz

    This article has been an eye opener for me. I’m going to make the list a wall hanging or a calendar. Knowing about Congnitive distortions seem to be a beginning to clear the “cob webs” of my upbringing. I’ll try not to make thinking my purpose though.
    Thank you

    Reply
  35. Danny Ellis

    Great article, Courtney. I was looking forward to the worksheets which I don’t believe are up. I’ll hope to find/see them sometime in the near future.
    Be well.

    Reply
  36. Kris

    Thanks for this!!

    Reply
  37. Kris

    Thank you for this!!

    Reply
  38. Mrs.Smith

    Loved this! My progress in overcoming trauma-related depression sped up tenfold after reading Feeling Good. It was great to see a few more on the cognitive distortions list! Thanks for a fantastic article.

    Reply
  39. Lina Hannigan, PhD

    Thank you for a wonderful description of the fundamental tenets of CBT. As a clinical psychologist, I appreciate finding a resource with updated language and examples, with just the right amount of detail to introduce these concepts for further exploration. I especially like the cognitive distortions added after Beck’s original set. Thank you for taking the time to write this up and generously making it available online.

    Reply
  40. Heather

    The only part that saddens me is that most of the worksheets aren’t actually available. I’m looking for supplementary information for my IOP group, and otherwise this seems pretty good. 🙂

    Reply
  41. Tanya Thomas

    I too want to say “thank you” for providing such extensive information in a manner everyone can understand! As a Christian, I would modify the “heavens reward” fallacy to say that no matter how hard one works, struggles, or suffers, one’s “reward” may not come on “this side of Heaven!” Looking forward to the worksheets.

    Reply
  42. Tenneh

    Awesome article. But, where are the worksheets located? Thanks

    Reply
  43. Lisa Williams

    Great article, could you please post the worksheets? Thank you! Also, I thought of another interesting cognitive behavior that can be added to the list, called the “recency effect” which is critical especially for investors.

    Reply
  44. Jennifer Love

    Hi love the article! Could you please add the worksheets? Thank you!

    Reply
  45. Ranbir

    Thanks for the article and the solutions Courtney! It has helped a lot, keep up the good work 🙂

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      You’re welcome, Ranbir! Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  46. Effie Stillhertz

    Like some others, I am looking forward to the worksheets too. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      Thanks for letting us know, Effie! Keep checking back, hopefully we’ll have the downloads available soon!

      Reply
    • Mark

      Great information! Can you please post the worksheets to the article as well? Thank you!

      Reply
  47. Adam

    The worksheets lead me to a page that says “Not found.” Some help, please?

    Reply
    • Jessie van den Heuvel

      Hi Adam, the worksheets will be available for download soon 🙂

      Reply
  48. Jeff Ikler

    Courtney – A great piece! Lots to digest. Question: can organizations suffer from “cognitive distortions”?

    Reply
    • Lisa Derwent

      Absolutely – as can entire nations.

      Reply
  49. Audrey Foster

    This is incredible information. Where can I get the download. I need to spend more time reading.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      Hey Audrey, I’m so happy to hear you found this article useful! I’m not sure how you can download it, beyond “printing” the page to PDF. Hopefully you can find the time to make your way through the whole article soon!

      Reply
  50. Barry

    Wonderful resource. Serendipitous timing as tomorrow I again become a long-term psych inpatient.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      I’m glad the timing was right! I wish you the best of luck as you continue your journey towards mental health, Barry.

      Reply
  51. Dr Vicki Hainlen

    The lessons you put together are just great! Very user friendly and adaptable for the teens and preteens that I see. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      Thank you for the praise, Dr. Vicki! I aim to make these topics as accessible as possible, so it’s great to hear I’m succeeding on that front.

      Reply
  52. Andrea Harris

    Thank you so much for the effort you put into making this available for me. I truly feel I have a grasp on beginning to understand my faulty brain. I printed out a bunch of the worksheets.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      You’re welcome, Andrea! Give your brain a break, though–it does so much that it rarely gets recognized for. It deserves a little leeway once in a while 😉

      Reply
  53. Radhika Khurana

    Whole semester we have been reading about these distortions, but no one explained us in this way. Thank you so much for this, it really made things clearer.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      You’re welcome Radhika! It’s great to hear that my article is helpful. Best of luck as your semester draws to an end!

      Reply
  54. Annonymous

    Very informative article. My ex-husband had many of these distortions which I’m just discovering the names to now. Unfortunately after he spent 10 years in weekly therapy, no therapist ever called me in to discuss or explain what the issues/problems were in our marriage. I was always kept in the dark about his counseling, confused and at my wits end with why we could not communicate, why he was making assumptions about things that were said or the face expressions I made, or twisting what I said around to an untruth. I was tired and drained of trying to figure him out and make the marriage work so I filed for divorce. Still have loving feelings for him, but I had to make the decision to start living my life.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties with your husband. It’s very tough to love someone who is struggling with depression or anxiety! It sounds like you made the best choice for your own well-being, and perhaps for his as well.

      Reply
  55. Jason Owens

    This is a brilliant article that captures the essence of CBT for a non-therapist. Thanks so much for putting this together!

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      You’re welcome, Jason! I’m so happy to hear you found it useful.

      Reply
  56. Nikunja

    Very well written. Appreciate it.
    Would love to see you writing more on the techniques.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      Hey Nikunja, thanks for the comment! I have written several others articles on topics and techniques like these–just search the blog for my name and they should pop up!

      Reply
  57. Shivani Shah

    Lovely Article.. it helps a great deal, since I’m on my path to recovery from Pure o ocd. I’m a big fan of David Burns..thx once again.

    Reply
    • Courtney E Ackerman

      David Burns is a brilliant man! You can’t go wrong following his advice. I wish you the best on your path to recovery.

      Reply
  58. Dr. Promila Singh

    Truly a nice article. Worth reading. Very informative indeed.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Thanks, Promila! I’m glad you found this piece informative.

      Reply
  59. JOHN T. SHEA

    Several links are still not working.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Oh no! I’m sorry to hear the links aren’t working. It looks like the website removed many of their free resources. We’ll keep that possibility in mind for the future, and see if we can find other links to replace the broken ones. Thanks for letting us know, and sorry for the inconvenience!

      Reply
  60. Nancy Daigle

    Great articles but I am very disappointed that most of the worksheet links are not working! Seems like they would be invaluable resources to have.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      I’m so sorry to hear the links aren’t working, Nancy. It seems the website hosting the PDFS has removed severalof their free resources. We’ll keep that possibility in mind for the future, and see if we can find other links to these worksheets and handouts. I apologize for the inconvenience. Thanks for letting us know!

      Reply
  61. Sam J.

    This is a good article. I’d like to point out something, though. If you’re struggling with depression or other mental health issues, and the symptoms are particularly strong, a lot of the techniques described in this article won’t necessarily work for you. Another way of stating this is that “a sick mind does not respond to reason.”
    Just wanted to point that out.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Hey Sam, it’s true that these techniques might not work for everyone, especially those with the strongest symptoms. After all, how do you fix a perspective or frame of mind you don’t even recognize as false or faulty?
      For anyone who is really struggling, I wholeheartedly recommend seeing a professional for guidance. Thanks for bringing up this important point.

      Reply
  62. Vidhi Pandya

    Wow its indeed amazing. Examples provide better understanding and insights. Tysm fr a wonderful piece

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      You’re welcome, Vidhi! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this piece.

      Reply
  63. Alexander

    One of the best articles I’ve read on the subject.
    Especially enjoyed the information on Aaron Beck and David Burns.
    Reading and applying the knowledge in Dr.Burns’ The feeling good handbook, was an integral part of fully curing myself of both Endogenous and Exogenous Depression during my rehab season after my failed suicide attempt back in 2008.
    The doctors and nurses in the Psych-ward highly recommended I read that book.
    Cheers.
    Xander

    Reply
    • Dominick

      Great comment.
      I haven’t cured either my endogenous or exogenous depressions, unfortunately. I’m kind of turning back to trying and using cognitive therapy…doing some and yes, doing it. Anyway, I agree that the article is wonderful — better than others I’ve read on the same topic.

      Reply
      • Courtney Ackerman

        Hang in there, Dominick! I know how difficult it can be. Try to stick with cognitive therapy and, as you say, actually do the work! It can make all the difference. Best of luck to you!

        Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Hey Xander, I’m so glad to hear you are doing better now. Beck and Burns are truly amazing men, and they’ve come up with some really excellent resources for dealing with depression. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

      Reply
  64. Mark Bishop

    Thank you for the very helpful summary information. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Thanks for the compliment, Mark! I’m so happy you found this information useful.

      Reply
  65. Justin

    Thank you very much for this article. It’s exactly what I was looking for and very helpful.

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      That’s great to hear, Justin! Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  66. Silvia Guidry

    very informative. Great work. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      I’m happy you found this piece informative, Silvia. Thanks for letting us know!

      Reply
  67. Robyn Walshe

    Such an excellent summary of some essential work. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Courtney Ackerman

      Thanks Robyn! I’m so glad that you enjoyed it.

      Reply

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