Cognitive Distortions – Ten Forms of Self-Defeating Thoughts

All-or-nothing thinking

You see things in black and white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. A woman on a diet ate a bigger bowl of ice cream than she intended, and decided that she had completely ruined her diet. She then decided to go ahead and eat the entire carton, instead of brushing off the mistake and moving on.


You see a single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a criticism from your boss, as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.  A depressed salesman became terribly upset when he failed to meet his quota one month. He told himself that he always misses his quotas, instead of realizing this as one not-so-good month out of many good ones.

Mental filter

You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all of reality becomes darkened, like a drop of ink that discolors an entire beaker of water.  You receive many positive comments about your presentation to a group of associates at work, but one of them says something mildly critical. You obsess about his reaction for days and ignore all the positive feedback.

Discounting the positive

You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count.” Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.  If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well.

Jumping to conclusions

You interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion. There are two ways of doing this:  Mind reading–Without checking it out, you arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you. For example, you tell yourself, “He didn’t smile and say hi when he passed; he must not like me.”  Fortune telling–You predict that things will turn out badly. Before a test you may tell yourself, “I’m really going to blow it. I’ll probably flunk!” Or if you’re depressed you may tell yourself, “I’ll never get better.”

Magnification and Minimization

You exaggerate the importance of problems and shortcomings, or you understate the importance of the positive.  A friend arranges a wonderful surprise birthday party for you, but you cannot appreciate or enjoy it because you are so focused on the fact that one of your friends didn’t show up.

Emotional reasoning

You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.  “I feel terrified about flying on airplanes; therefore, it must be very dangerous to fly.” Or “I feel inferior. I must be a second-rate person.” Or “I feel angry, and this proves I’m being treated unfairly.”

“Should” statements

You tell yourself that things should be the way you hoped or expected them to be. You have rigid rules that you think should apply no matter what the circumstances.  “Should” statements that are directed against you lead to guilt and frustration: After playing a difficult piece on the piano, a gifted pianist told herself, “I should have played that better!” This made her feel so disgusted that she quit practicing for several days.  “Should” statements that are directed against other people or the world in general lead to anger and frustration: “He shouldn’t be so stubborn and argumentative.”


You explain behaviors or events merely by naming them. Rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unchangeable terms. Labels are useless abstractions that lead to anger, anxiety, frustration, and low self-esteem.  Instead of saying “I made a mistake at work today.” you tell yourself: “I’m a loser,” or “a fool,” or “a failure.”  You may also label others. When someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, you may tell yourself: “He’s a jerk.” Then you feel that the problem is with that person’s “character” or “essence” instead of with their thinking or behavior. You see them as totally bad. This makes you feel hostile and hopeless about improving things and leaves little room for constructive communication.

Personalization and blame

You hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control.  When a woman received a note that her child was having difficulties at school, she told herself, “This shows what a bad mother I am,” instead of trying to pinpoint the actual cause of the problem so that she could be helpful to her child.  Personalization leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy.  Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways that they might be contributing to the problem: “The reason I got a speeding ticket is because that cop was a jerk!” Accepting responsibility appropriately allows us to improve ourselves.