Cognitive Distortions: How To Clear Your Mind Of Thoughts That Don’t Serve You

Table of Contents

Consider the following thoughts…

  • I ate two cookies, so I blew it. I might as well eat the whole box.
  • If I work hard, I’ll reach my goals.
  • When I lose weight, I’ll be happier.
  • I can tell those people don’t like me.
  • I only got that promotion because they feel sorry for me.
  • I know what’s going to happen. 
  • I can’t believe I used the wrong word. I’m so embarrassed.

Those statements are all different cognitive distortions, which are patterns of thinking that seem real, but are inaccurate and lead to anxiety, depression, and diminished self-esteem. These thoughts can lead to negative coping strategies such as binge eating. That’s why it’s really important to identify these distortions and challenge them.


In this blog, I will present 16 different cognitive distortions and then give strategies on how to create change.

1. All-or-Nothing 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’re either perfect or a total failure.

As in, “I ate two cookies so the day is ruined. I might as well have the whole box. And since I’ve already blown it, I’m going to also eat ice cream, pizza, and everything else on my forbidden foods list.”

2. Overgeneralization

This distortion takes one instance or example and generalizes it to an overall pattern. If your boss corrects your work on a project, you may conclude that you’re doing a terrible job and you’re a failure. Overgeneralizing can lead to negative thinking and decreased self-esteem based on only one or two experiences.

It's easy to jump to conclusions based on just a single incident- but it's important to remember that one moment does not define you! Overgeneralizing may lead your thoughts down a dark path, so take the time to examine why each occurrence happened and remind yourself of all your successes. Your experiences don't have to determine who YOU are – you do!

3. Mental Filter

Whereas overgeneralization takes one bad situation and applies it to everything, the mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative situation and excludes everything that’s positive. For example, imagine two people in a romantic relationship that’s going really well. One partner mentions an issue with the other person (which is part of being in a healthy relationship). If the second partner has a mental filter, they take that single moment of criticism as evidence that the relationship is falling apart. A mental filter means focusing on one bad thing and filtering out all the good.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

On the flip side, the “Disqualifying the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them. An example would be someone with a glowing review at work who decides this is because of external factors such as politeness or lack of criticism rather than an accurate reflection of their actual competency. This kind of thinking can have damaging consequences, preventing people from accepting feelings good about themselves even when there's plenty of reason for it.

This causes us to ignore evidence that should make us feel good. When faced with compliments or success in our lives, instead of celebrating and embracing them we push these away out of fear they are not true – but this way of thinking prevents us from seeing just how capable and competent we really are!

5. Mind Reading

Mind reading is an inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking. Of course, it is possible to have some idea of what other people are thinking, but this distortion refers to jumping to negative interpretations. 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. We rarely imagine that someone is thinking the best of us.

Remember, you don’t work for the psychic network. You don’t know what someone else is thinking. And often, the mind you think you’re reading is your own. If you think the worst of yourself, it’s easy to conclude that others think that, as well. When you identify and challenge your own negative views of yourself, and when you like yourself, you’ll find that any mind-reading you may do, is to think the best instead of the worst.

6. Fortune Telling

Related to this is the distortion of fortune telling, which refers to the tendency to make conclusions and predictions based on little to no evidence, but holding them as gospel truth. One example of fortune-telling is a 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.

Fortune-telling is a phenomenon we have all experienced; predicting our future based on minimal evidence and treating the prediction as a fact. In my example, think of it this way: even though one person has yet to find their ideal partner, that doesn’t mean she isn't capable – or worthy! – of having an incredibly committed and happy relationship in the future. There are countless possibilities out there for us to explore. Instead of gloomily predicting the worst, embrace optimism and keep your eyes open for new opportunities.

7. Magnification or Minimization

This distortion exaggerates or minimizes the importance or meaning of events or achievements.  It either blows things out of proportion or makes important things seem insignificant. An excellent student who gets a less-than-perfect grade may magnify that disappointment and believe she’s not that smart, after all. Or someone who wins an award may minimize the importance of the award and continue to believe that she doesn’t really deserve any accolades and chalk the success down to “fooling them.”

Sometimes a small misstep can feel like the biggest deal in our lives, while an amazing achievement can pass us by as if it weren't anything special. The reality is, no slip-up should be too big and every win deserves a celebration! 

8. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning refers to the belief that your emotions are factual. The idea is, “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” 

Emotions can be powerful, but they are feelings, not facts. Most of us have experienced the feeling that because we feel something so strongly, it must definitely be true, but that is a cognitive distortion. 

If you feel bad about yourself, you might conclude that there’s something wrong with you. If you’re afraid, there must be some kind of danger. If you’re suspicious of a partner’s fidelity, you conclude they must be cheating on you, despite having no evidence.

It’s important to distinguish between fear and facts. Fear is about something that may or may not be happening. Facts are what you know to be true in the present reality, and this reality is an effective way to combat the notion that your “feelings” about a given situation are facts. 

9. Should Statements

How often do you find yourself using the word “should”—especially when it comes to food? Maybe you often find yourself saying or thinking something along the lines of:

•   I should not do that.

•   I shouldn’t eat that.

•   I shouldn’t want that.

•   I should be better at this.

•   I should get a better job.

•   I should be married by now

Should statements are what you tell yourself that you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do? We might think that holding ourselves to high standards is a way of pushing for self-improvement, but often this can lead us down an unhelpful and even harmful path. When we’re preoccupied with what “should be”, it can result in guilt and frustration when our expectations don’t match up with reality. 

When I was in grad school, a professor used to say, “Don’t should on yourself!” The word “should” causes us to direct anxiety, sadness, anger, and distress toward ourselves. 

Those feelings may be so powerful that we use food to cope. Instead, be interested in your thoughts/ emotions rather than judgmental. Instead of “should-ing” yourself, be curious. The more you ask questions, the more likely you are to find answers. 

10. Labeling and Mislabeling

These are basically extreme forms of overgeneralization when we use one instance or experience as a basis for the future. If someone binges after a period of eating healthily and normally, they might label themselves as “a food addict” or “out of control” without taking into consideration any context. 

Another example is a good student who does badly on a test and labels herself “an idiot” rather than allowing for the reality that sometimes we struggle. This kind of labeling and mislabeling usually entails highly charged, loaded, and critical language.

11. Personalization

This distortion means taking everything personally and feeling responsible when bad things happen, even if there’s no logical reason to blame yourself. An example is seeing a group of people laughing and thinking that they are laughing at you. Or realizing that a friend is upset and imagining that somehow you are to blame. 

12. Control Fallacies

There are two kinds of control fallacies. The first is that we have absolutely no control over our lives and are victims of fate, with no say about what happens to us. The other is that we’re in complete control and therefore responsible for what happens to us. Both beliefs are equally wrong. We all have control over some aspects of our lives, but none of us has absolute control. Coming to terms with this reality is difficult but necessary so that we can live a balanced life.

13. Fallacy of Fairness

This cognitive distortion is based on the belief that life should be fair, so when we’re faced with life’s unfairness, it becomes extremely and inordinately upsetting. When life throws us for a loop, it can be disheartening to realize that fairness doesn't always win the day. However, believing in an unrealistically fair world only creates frustration. Instead, practice staying present and acknowledging situations as they are, and working through the anger, frustration, and helplessness of unfair situations. With this mindset, embracing difficult moments will become easier and more manageable. 

14. Fallacy of Change

Another fallacy distortion involves expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. A belief that our happiness and well-being depends on other people making changes is part of this distortion. So someone who thinks, “If I just lose weight, I’ll be happier,” or, “If I can just get my parents to see how unfair they’ve been toward me, and then everything will be great between us,” is using the fallacy of change. Any “when… then…” belief system is part of the fallacy of change, as in, When… then…

When I lose weight, I’ll be happy.

When my boyfriend stops gambling, our relationship will be solid.

When I have kids, then my life will have purpose.

Instead, focus on accepting and enjoying the life you have ‌at this moment, and accept people as they are. Living realistically ultimately brings the most satisfaction and sense of well-being.

15. Always Being Right

Most of us have been there before. In a discussion with a friend, family member, or co-worker, we become so focused on being right that we lose sight of what's actually important. We dig our heels in and refuse to budge, no matter how wrong we might be. When this is a common way of relating to others, it’s a cognitive distortion. We become inflexible and unwilling to compromise because we're afraid of looking weak or being wrong. This way of thinking leads to unnecessary conflict and can damage our relationships. 

There are a few reasons we might fall into the trap of always needing to be right. It can be a defense mechanism to protect our ego. If we're worried about being wrong, it means we're also worried about looking foolish. It can be about control. But when we're too focused on being right, it blinds us to other possibilities and perspectives. 

We become close-minded and resistant to change. This can lead to communication breakdowns, conflict, and damaged relationships. So it's important to be aware of this cognitive distortion of always needing to be right. 

The next time you find yourself in an argument, take a step back and ask yourself if you're more concerned with being right or with resolving the issue at hand. If you find that you're more focused on winning the argument than on finding a solution, be aware of this way of thinking and try not to resist changing your perspective if necessary. It could just save your relationship—or your life.

16. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

This distortion is similar to the fallacy of fairness. The basic idea of the “Heaven’s Reward” fallacy is that if you do everything right, work hard, and live with integrity, you will be rewarded in some way. Sacrifice and hard work will eventually pay off, your dreams will come true and you’ll be happy. 

The reality is that sometimes no matter how hard we work or how much we sacrifice, we don’t achieve our goals. It’s painful and upsetting to recognize that reality, leading to disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression.

Changing cognitive distortions

We can’t simply change our thinking by dropping our thoughts, ignoring them, positive thinking them away, using gratitude to neutralize them, or by symbolically stuffing them down. 

The only way to change our thinking is to identify our thoughts and then challenge them.

First, take a moment to consider which of these cognitive distortions applies to you. Consider your belief.

Then, take a moment to examine how you came to believe this thought. Perhaps in childhood, others minimized your achievements and you eventually began to minimize them as well. Maybe others shamed you for being wrong, so you had to be right no matter what. Life can feel chaotic and unpredictable, so you may have developed the idea that your hard work would be rewarded, thereby giving yourself a sense of predictability.

Look for evidence that you are wrong. That may sound harsh, but it can be effective. If you have a tendency to be a mind reader, consider the times when you thought someone was judging you or that they didn’t like you, and you found out your assumptions were wrong. This can disrupt the distortion, allowing you to challenge it more effectively.

Think about what you’d say to someone else in your position. If you minimize your achievements or disqualify the positive, what would you say to someone else in your situation? If you would not minimize or disqualify that person’s achievements, take a moment to view yourself as you would another. 

Keep in mind that you learned these ways of thinking. We, humans, have what scientists call “brain plasticity” which means the ability to learn new things. What you learned you can unlearn and then learn a new way. 

When you change your thoughts, you change your life. And, practice makes progress.

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 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.

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