Cognitive distortions (+Great PDF guides)

In this brief guide, we will look at some of the most common cognitive distortions with PDF worksheets and guides as well, so that you may be able to understand them better. We will also look at 10 cognitive distortions that are very common and may be found in mental illnesses fairly often.

Cognitive Distortions (PDFs and Meaning)

Cognitive distortions are defined as maladaptive ways of thinking that permeate into all the individual’s thoughts and behavior, and that cause significant distress to the individual.

Cognitive distortions, as the name suggests, are distorted ways of thinking, and these processes may be largely unconscious in nature, which is why so few people are aware of them at all.

People who have cognitive distortions can have set ways of perceiving and comprehending the world, and they may often find themselves thinking in ways that cause them harm or distress, but they may also find that they are not able to stop regardless of that negativity.

Cognitive distortions also cause thoughts that cause immense negative emotion in the individual, and these harmful ways of thinking can be the reason behind many mental illnesses like depression or anxiety.

Cognitive distortions are not unfixable, they respond very well to psychotherapy and with some effort and awareness on the part of the individual, one can find that they are able to completely eradicate these bad ways of thinking.

There are many worksheets and PDFs available online to enlighten people about cognitive distortions and help them get them under control, and some of these are linked below.

Checklist of Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions Types and Examples

Cognitive Distortions Types and Strategies to help with each type. (Cognitive Distortion Exercises)

Definitions of Cognitive Distortions

Patterns of Cognitive Distortions by David Burns

10 Cognitive Distortions

Below are discussions of 10 major and common cognitive distortions.

Personalization

Personalization is a type of cognitive distortion in which people believe that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them, which means that they read far too much into the feelings and actions of others.

While this may not seem like such a big deal, personalization becomes a cognitive distortion and maladaptive behavior pattern when people start acting on the basis of the perceived personalized comments or actions of others.

Someone with this cognitive distortion will take everything personally, even when there is no proof whatsoever that something is not meant in that way, which may cause them to be upset with people around them fairly frequently, which may annoy the others greatly.

Personalization also makes people compare themselves to others because they are thinking  of everything in such personal terms, and they may often try to determine who is smarter, better looking, and so on, maybe as a means of figuring out who is superior, or simply because their self-concept is so dependent on others.

Another very bad form of personalization is that this person may also see themselves as a cause of some bad external event that was no one’s fault or that they could not possibly have been responsible for like, “We were late to the dinner party and caused everyone to have a terrible time. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

This manifestation of this cognitive distortion can fill the person with guilt for no reason, and they may start to think everyone happens because they did something wrong, or they didn’t do something they were supposed to.

Control Fallacies

Control fallacies involve two different but related beliefs that are based in a desire to have complete control of every situation in the person’s life, and the person with this cognitive distortion may often believe, wrongly, that they are not responsible for something that no one else could possibly control.

Usually this cognitive distortion presents in the form of a two part statement, where the first part is externally controlled, and where the person sees themselves as a helpless victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.”

The other part is the part about the fallacy of internal control which may have the person assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around them. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

Fallacy of Fairness

This cognitive distortion is very similar to a social psychology concept known as the Just World Hypothesis, which is a thinking style that the world is, in essence, a fair place where people get what’s coming to them.

In the fallacy of fairness cognitive distortion, the person may continue to believe something along the lines of the Just World Hypothesis, that the world is fair and things happen because they are deserve and justified, but the truth is very far from this, and this causes the person to be disillusioned and disenchanted.

Someone with the Fallacy of Fairness style of thinking may feel resentful because they might think that they know what is fair, but they just can’t seem to get others to agree with them. 

The statement “Life isn’t always fair.” makes no sense to someone with a fallacy of fairness cognitive distortion and they may feel that there must be something they are missing, which can throw them in a loop, thinking about things they should be able to control but somehow they can’t.

Blaming

Blaming is a cognitive distortion in which a person engages holding other people responsible for their emotional pain, which may not be true at all, and they may continue to do so even when they are confronted with evidence that it is simply not true.

Someone with this cognitive distortion might find ways to externalize their emotional pain by finding someone else to pin it on, because then it becomes something that others might be able to fix for them, either by interfering with what the perceived offender is doing or simply as a means of stopping emotional pain by getting the person to stop doing it. 

Sometimes people with this cognitive distortion may also go the opposite way and instead blame themselves for every problem even if they are way outside their control.

An example of the cognitive distortion of blaming is  “You are causing my self-esteem to fall!” 

Someone with this cognitive distortion may not be able to face the fact that no one can “make” them feel any particular way as the true control over our own emotions and emotional reactions rests with us alone.

Should Statements 

Should statements have been theorized as coming from a strict superego, or they may also have their origins in a childhood that was overwrought with statements about what the responsibilities and duties of the person were, which have since been internalized as set ways of doing things that the person feels uncomfortable deviating from.

Examples of Should statements may include things like “I should pick up after myself more”, or I must lose weight” or even “I should not feel this way it isn’t right”.

Should statements may look like a list of ironclad rules about how the person should behave, and they may apply to the people around that person as much as they apply to themselves.

For instance, someone who believes in the should statement of “I should not cry”, may not just apply it to themselves and not express their pain, but they may also feel that anyone who displays emotion is weak, or they are engaging in a behavior that somehow isn’t right.

All-or-Nothing Thinking / Polarized Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking or “Black-and-White Thinking,” is another cognitive distortion that deals in absolutes like should statements, but in this case the distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. 

Humanity is full of the middle ground, but someone who has the cognitive distortion of All-or-nothing thinking may find that they are not able to stop thinking in dichotomies which are contrary, like fantastic or awful, or perfect or a total failure.

This cognitive distortion makes it very hard for this person to be happy, as they may have set definitions of what is required to be happy, and they may often not meet these criteria because they are so elusive.

Disqualifying the Positive

Someone who engages in the cognitive distortion “Disqualifying the Positive” positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them, which is also just as harmful as not noticing them at all.

An example of this may be someone who receives a positive review at work and rejects the idea that they are a competent employee and attribute the positive review to political correctness, or simply that their problems were somehow overlooked or even that someone else likely did worse.

Catastrophization

Catastrophization is a cognitive distortion very often found in Anxiety, and it refers to spiraling out of control and blowing things out of proportion.

An example of this might be a student who is studying for their exam and realizes they don’t have time to study one small topic, they may go out of control by increasing the value of that situation and think that they are going to fail because they have missed that one little thing.

This cognitive distortion is also known as Magnification.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion that refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions as fact, and this may be extremely common in people because most people find it hard to separate emotion from the automatic thought that causes it. 

People who are used to this cognitive distortion may think something like “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” which may sound like plain old gut feeling, but it may not be limited to instances where the person is trying to decide between two difficult choices.

Someone with this cognitive distortion may find it hard to believe anything that does not incite an emotional response of some kind, and this may make it hard for them to believe things that may have proof as well.

Labeling and Mislabeling

Labeling and mislabelling are cognitive distortions that refer to tendencies that may be considered somewhat overblown forms of overgeneralization, and in these cases the person may assign the judgments of value to ourselves or to others based on one instance or experience, and in the absence of adequate proof.

For example, a student who labels herself as “an utter fool” for failing an assignment is engaging in this cognitive distortion, or someone that thinks that just because they could not complete one job it means that they will not be able to complete any of that type in the future either.

Always Being Right

This cognitive distortion may be found in perfectionists and it may cause them to struggle with anything that did not come out of their thinking processes.

Always being right cognitive distortion may lead to a strongly held belief that we must always be right and the individual with this distortion may not be able to accept the idea that they could be wrong, and they may often fight to prove that they are right.

Conclusion

In this brief guide, we looked at some of the most common cognitive distortions with PDF worksheets and guides as well, so that you may be able to understand them better. We also looked at 10 cognitive distortions that are very common and may be found in mental illnesses fairly often.

Cognitive distortions are the basis for many mental disorders which makes them the crux of a lot of therapeutic techniques.

Therapists often aim to fix cognitive distortions so that the person may be able to get over their stuck thinking patterns and be able to make relevant changes in their behavior and life.

The causes of cognitive distortions can be far-reaching, well into childhood sometimes, but they are not unfixable and with the proper therapy and help, one can easily get over these maladaptive ways of thinking.

If you have any questions or comments about cognitive distortions, please feel free to reach out to us at any time without hesitation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Cognitive Distortions

What are the 10 cognitive distortions?

10 cognitive distortions usually seen in people are:

Overgeneralization. 
Mental Filters.
Discounting the Positive.
Jumping to Conclusions. 
Magnification. 
Emotional Reasoning.
Should Statements.
Minimization
All or nothing thinking
Catastrophization

What causes cognitive distortions?

The causes of cognitive distortion may vary, from environmental factors to things that we learned the wrong way in our childhoods, and they become stronger over time till they start affecting the way we think and the things we do.

Most cognitive distortions are caused by an experience of an upsetting event in our lives and the wrong ways of thinking get reinforced, which primes us to dwell in negativity and feeling bad.

How do you fix cognitive distortions?

Here are some ways you can fix your cognitive distortions:

Recognize and isolate the thought you think is the problem
Learn to notice your emotions and separate them from thoughts
Write the thought and emotion down
Try to measure the distress you feel at the thought. 
Think about the reasonability of this thought
Think about what cognitive distortion it may be
Write down a reasonable thought that could fit in place of the unreasonable one
Reevaluate your distress and repeat the process till you are able to find a thinking pattern that causes the least distress.

Is cognitive distortion a mental illness?

No, cognitive distortion is not by itself a mental illness, but they underlie a lot of mental illnesses, primarily anxiety and depression.

Cognitive distortions cause bad thoughts that cause bad emotions, which means that they can lead to some pervasive mental health issues and these may often need the intervention of professionals if they go too far.

Citations

https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/

https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/cognitive-distortions.pdf

https://positivepsychology.com/cognitive-distortions/

Divya is currently a Clinical Psychology Trainee in a Master of Philosophy program and holds a Master’s in clinical psychology. She has a special interest in Personality studies and disorders, having researched the subject before, and Neuropsychology; with an additional interest being Mood disorders. She likes to write about Psychiatric issues, having worked in multiple specialty setups during her time as a clinical psychology student, and in her free time she likes to cook and read.