Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You

Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You

Written by: Seada

“The sky is falling!”


It can be easy to create false accusations or assumptions if our perception of the world is distorted. Our brain makes sense of the world by linking our thoughts, ideas, and actions. The ingredients make up cognitive distortions.

Aaron Beck and David Burns coined the term cognitive distortions: distortions in our cognitions. They are biased perspectives that are reinforced over a constant period of time. The following 11 distortions are found to be universally shared.

The first eleven basic 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, and you are either perfect or a total failure.

  1. 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 oneself and one’s environment based on only one or two experiences.

  1. Mental Filter

The mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative and excludes the entire positive. 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.

  1. Disqualifying the Positive

Disqualifying the positive distortion acknowledges the 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 he is a competent employee and attributes the positive review to political correctness or to his boss simply not wanting to talk about his employee’s performance problems. This is an especially malignant distortion since it can facilitate the continuance of negative thought patterns even in the face of lots of evidence to the contrary.

  1. Jumping to Conclusions – Mind Reading

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 she is thinking something negative about you is an instance of this distortion.

  1. Jumping to Conclusions – Fortune Telling

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.

  1. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

This distortion involves exaggerating the importance or meaning of things or minimizing the importance or meaning 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.

  1. Emotional Reasoning

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.” Of course, we know this isn’t a reasonable belief, but it is a common one nonetheless.

  1. 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 the failure of the others to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.

  1. 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 language when labeling.

  1. Personalization

As the name implies, this distortion involves taking everything personally or assigning blame to yourself for no 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 girl’s 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.

Can you identify your cognitive distortion? If so, you are one step closer to creating flexible thinking. Stay tuned for the antidotes!


With love,




Ackerman, C. (2017). Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You.  Retrieved from:


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