People get unhelpful thoughts from time to time, especially when experiencing unpleasant situations. For example, conflict with peers or an illness in the family. You’re probably familiar with these inaccurate thoughts (known as cognitive distortions or thinking errors in psychology):
- “I fail at everything I do.”
- “She doesn’t like me because she didn’t talk to me all day.”
- “I didn’t exercise today. Therefore, I’m lazy.”
Holding these thoughts affects every area of your life — your health, relationships, and performance in school or at work. The good news is that there’s a five-step process to change a negative outlook.
Before doing that, you need to know whether these distorted thoughts are present in your life. Here’s more about thinking errors, how to identify them, and common thinking errors that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can overcome.
What are Thinking Errors?
Thinking errors, also called cognitive distortions, describe the kind of thinking where you often view things in a negative light. All-or-nothing thinking, disqualifying the positive, and overgeneralization are some examples of thinking errors that affect people worldwide.
Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, first described these faulty thinking patterns during his research in the 1960s[*].
The problem with these ways of thinking is that they take a toll on your mental health. They lead to unpleasant feelings, anxiety, anger management issues, depression, and self-defeating behaviors[*][*].
Identifying Thinking Errors
How do you know that you’ve fallen victim to these cognitive distortions? One way to tell is to check how you’re feeling most of the time.
If you’re often stressed, anxious, or having low mood throughout the day, it could mean that you’re having these distortions. Remember that faulty thinking patterns trigger unpleasant emotions. (When your thoughts are affected, so are your emotions.)
It also helps to keep a thought record to note what you’re thinking about and the feelings resulting from those thoughts. Are these feelings positive or negative?
How Does CBT Help with Thinking Errors?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works by recognizing extreme ways of thinking that might be affecting their lives, and replacing them with more realistic and balanced thoughts.
Through the CBT triangle, a person may understand the connection between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so they can start addressing unhealthy thought patterns.
Common Thinking Errors and Tips to Manage Them
Below are the different types of irrational thinking patterns, their examples, and how you can improve them.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
This is also called black-and-white thinking. When you believe that something is either good or bad, a success or failure, you’re probably affected by this distortion. For example, telling yourself that you’re unworthy just because you made a small mistake.
To overcome an all-or-nothing thinking, a person can learn to recognize their strengths and appreciate the positives in every situation.
2. Disqualifying the Positive
This cognitive distortion is when you ignore the positive aspects of an experience and consider yourself “just lucky” or other people “just being nice to you.” You also tend to ignore compliments or praise.
Fixing this distortion requires work, but it can definitely be reversed. It’s important to appreciate your accomplishments. Make a record of all the good things you do.
Overgeneralization leads you to make a conclusion about a negative situation and apply it across the board. This commonly affects individuals with anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder[*]. People who overgeneralize tend to assume the worst and use words like “never,” “always,” and “everybody.”
Challenging the accuracy of your predictions can be helpful for managing overgeneralization. It’s also vital to remember that nothing is absolute.
A person who catastrophizes often uses “what if” statements. For example, they might say, “What if I do my best now and still fail tomorrow?” or “What if he still ignores me after I help him?”
Research shows that catastrophic thinking can worsen or aggravate the experience of chronic pain[*]. Furthermore, it leads to increased anxiety and can prevent a person from taking action. One CBT technique to prevent catastrophizing from worsening is coming up with solutions for what-if scenarios.
5. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when we form conclusions about a situation based on our feelings. For example, if you worry, then you must be in danger. Or if you feel lonely, then you must be unlovable — even when there’s no evidence to prove it.
When you find your emotions taking over, pause and consider the facts. It’s normal to feel anxious at times, but it doesn’t have to affect your view of reality.
Labeling causes a person to define themselves and others based on one event. For example, calling someone irresponsible because they were late for work. Assigning negative labels to yourself can contribute to low self-esteem and it may also affect your relationship with others if you label them negatively.
Here’s a helpful exercise: Write down the negative labels you’ve assigned yourself and others. Then find more realistic alternatives or explanations.
This unbalanced thinking pattern is when you predict a negative outcome even without evidence. Fortune-telling may lead a person to make poor decisions based on what they assume will happen. It can also affect relationships. For example, assuming that your future relationships won’t end well because of a past hurt.
To break the habit of fortune-telling, consider other possible outcomes for your thought. Practicing mindfulness techniques, such as journaling or meditation, help you stop judging your thoughts.
Personalization means taking the blame or making yourself responsible for something that was out of your control. For example, telling yourself, “This is my fault” because your child got into an accident.
When you start placing blame on yourself, think about whether you were really in control of a situation. Consider other possible factors that may have played a role.
9. Unreal Ideal
The unreal ideal cognitive distortion involves making unfair comparisons of yourself to others. Comparison is a normal behavior, but in some cases it makes you feel inadequate and have a negative outlook in life.
Instead of measuring yourself against another person’s success, focus on your own strengths. Using a gratitude journal or a strengths worksheet can keep you from falling into the comparison trap.
Another cognitive distortion is mind-reading, in which a person assumes they know what others are thinking or how they’re going to react. Without having any evidence, mind-reading can contribute to social anxiety, especially when you think that people judge you negatively.
When you catch yourself mind-reading, focus on the facts and remind yourself that you have no control over others.
Final Thoughts on Thinking Errors
Thinking errors can increase negativity in someone’s life. Whether it’s overgeneralizing, assuming the worst, or taking everything personally — unbalanced thinking often leads to mental and emotional issues.
Being aware of these unhelpful thoughts allows you to work on them, especially when combined with CBT therapy.
For more CBT resources, check out our CBT worksheets. Our worksheets provide visual and written engagement to support different modalities of learning, which can enhance traditional talk or play therapy.
- Comprehensive Clinical Psychology (Second Edition), 2022. Cognitive Triad
- Rnic K et al. Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression. 2016 August 19
- Tairi T. Associations between cognitive errors and mental health status in New Zealand adolescents. 2019 November 13
- Thome J et al. Generalization of fear in post-traumatic stress disorder. 2019 June 17
- Burns L et al. Pain catastrophizing as a risk factor for chronic pain after total knee arthroplasty: a systematic review. 2014 October 22