Updated: Jan 21
How to identify and challenge the negative thoughts getting in the way of your happy life
“No one would ever hire me for this job.”
“Why doesn’t anyone like me?”
“I should never have agreed to this in the first place.”
If such thoughts sound familiar, it’s because a lot of other people have them too. More often than not, our discouraging thoughts (although well-intentioned) are tricking us into believing things that aren't true. Therapists call this distorted thinking.
Cognitive distortions are negative thoughts that people have out of habit. However, they’re not based in fact, and they can lead to problems like worsening anxiety and depression.
They are also sometimes called thinking errors or thought distortions.
Such thoughts can get in the way of your goals, make life less enjoyable, and even contribute to negative physical symptoms.
(Looking for a way to teach CBT concepts like challenging thought distortions? This CBT worksheet bundle may help. Or check out our fun CBT Bingo-like game with 75 learning prompts, including common distortions.)
Patterns of Thought
Levels of Distortions
Validate the Feeling First
11 Common Cognitive Distortions
Challenging Your Own Thoughts
CBT Games and Worksheets
Patterns of Thought
Dr. Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) first noticed that many people have these negative patterns of thinking. Fortunately, he also found that they can be reversed.
Most self-critical thoughts are independent of reality. Someone who has several close friends may feel like no one likes them, while someone highly successful in their career may think they’re a fraud.
This negative thought cycle can lead to problems over time, or even self-fulfillment of the belief.
For example, the person who thinks they can’t make friends may start to push away the friends they have.
The person who’s had success at work may start to give up or sabotage themselves.
They would then likely use that as evidence that they’re right.
“See? I told you no one liked me.”
“I knew this success couldn’t last.”
Fortunately, there’s a way to reverse such patterns, through challenging the negative thoughts. Let’s take a look at how these beliefs develop, how they show up, and why they’re not true.
Levels of Thought
According to cognitive theory, negative thoughts and beliefs (along with positive ones) occur on three levels (Beck, 2021). These include the following:
Automatic thoughts. These are the surface level thoughts we might have as we go about our day. For example, a college student struggling with a new assignment might think, “I’m never going to figure this out.”
Intermediate beliefs. This goes a level deeper, and fuels the automatic thought. An example in this case would be, “I’m not smart enough for college.”
Core beliefs. These are deeper, set-in beliefs, and they are about your value and quality as a person. For this example, a core belief might be, “I’m totally incompetent.”
These three types of thoughts, or beliefs, cycle back and forth. Any or all of them can be challenged, to help you see the reality of a situation, rather than automatically viewing things as negative.
Automatic thoughts often occur in predictable patterns, which are called cognitive distortions. The categories of thinking distortions (explained below) were developed by the Drs. Beck and their colleagues.
Most people I work with are quite familiar with some or several of these thoughts, even if they don’t know what they’re called. Notice which ones affect you, or your clients, the most.
Validate the Feeling First
Before we get into the common distortions, I want to clarify an important point.
This is not a list to use to beat yourself up further, just because you have negative beliefs! Every person has cognitive distortions, at least once in a while.
It’s important to validate your own feelings and experiences, either way. Life can certainly be frustrating, overwhelming, discouraging, sad, exciting, and wonderful. Your thoughts likely reflect important feelings you have about a situation.
Remember that it’s normal, even when it’s not helpful, to think negatively sometimes. Negative thoughts are trying to protect us, get us through bad situations, and help us prepare for the future.
Although the thoughts are common to humans, they don’t seem to help us all that much. That’s why most therapists recommend you try to challenge them when you can.
Keep that in mind as you read through the list, and if you’re ready, practice questioning some of these automatic thoughts using the examples included. The more you do this, the more you will begin to think differently.
With these unhelpful thoughts out of the way, you may even be able to come up with some nice things to say to yourself!
11 Cognitive Distortions
Catastrophizing means assuming the worst about a situation, including when the worst outcome is unlikely. For example, someone running late to work for the first time might think, “I’m going to get fired!”
Other examples of catastrophizing thoughts might include:
They’re probably going to break up with me
I’m going to fail this test
I’ll never be good at this job
These thoughts that assume the worst aren’t coming out of facts or evidence, but out of a tendency to assume the worst about a situation, without questioning it.
Could the worst thing happen? Sure, technically it could. However, you’ve gotten through those situations before, and often things turn out much better than you thought.
It’s more likely that the worst won’t come true. In fact, if you look back you can likely think of plenty of times when things seemed disastrous, but they turned out okay.
Mind reading is what it sounds like – believing you know what someone is thinking, which is never actually possible (unless you’re a sci-fi character).
People often mind read their boss’s mind, with thoughts like, “She looked at me funny. She must be mad at me about turning in that report late.”
Other examples include:
My friend canceled our plans because they’re mad about what I said last time
My husband is tired of me bringing up the vacation plans
This cashier is judging me for wearing these old clothes in public
Even when we know people well, we can’t always know what they’re thinking. Often we filter what we assume they’re thinking through our own insecurities.
Remember that you can never know what someone is thinking, and you’re likely way off the mark much of the time.
In reality, your friend may be caught up in their own problems, your husband might actually be stressed about taking off work and afraid to talk to you about it, and the cashier could be thinking that they really like your glasses!
3. All-or-Nothing Thinking
Life is rarely black and white. Very few things are 100% one way or 100% the other way. That goes for ourselves, and for other people.
For example, a friend may cancel your lunch plans, so you assume they don’t want to be friends with you – or that they’re a bad, unreliable friend. However, there’s likely a lot more to that situation.
Perhaps you’re partially right – they are a bit unreliable, for many possible reasons. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have other valuable qualities as a friend. You might decide to stay friends, but be a bit more cautious when you agree to plans with them.
Either way, your friend’s behavior doesn’t reflect on you. It’s very likely that they behave the same with most other people in their life. That’s because it’s about them – not you.
Examples of all-or-nothing thinking include:
I’m just bad at relationships.
He didn’t help me with what I asked for, so he doesn’t care about what I’m going through.
I had trouble in Algebra last year, so I’m likely to fail this semester.
The truth is often somewhere in between. Maybe you could use a little help with relationship skills, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get better. And many people struggle with the same issue.
Your loved one may have needed to put his own needs first this time, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to help, or doesn’t care about your situation. Maye he needs a little help too.
Many people struggle with math, but they’re able to get better, especially with help. There are likely new things you can try to change this pattern.
4. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when we create thoughts that are consistent with what we’re feeling, but the feeling actually came first. For example, you notice that you feel anxious every time you’re in the grocery store, so you think that must be because it’s a dangerous place.
Here are other examples:
I feel angry when I get to work, so it must be because I hate this job
I’m feeling sad lately, and I think it’s because I’m just never going to be happy with my life
I feel mentally exhausted – it’s because I’m so bad at being a parent
Emotional reasoning thoughts are likely to come up with depression and anxiety disorders. It can be difficult to reverse these, because the feelings can make it hard to think logically.
However, you can have a feeling and not assign any meaning to it. Notice how you’re feeling, without judging it, but don’t make any assumptions or decisions based on that right now.
Wait an hour, or a few days, and see how you feel then. Notice that your thoughts may change.
Labeling is an easy and simple way to look at the world, yourself, and others. However, it doesn’t take in the context and nuances of life.
For example, many people label themselves as “lazy.”
However, it’s never that simple. Someone who seems lazy might actually be depressed, exhausted, sick, discouraged, overwhelmed, or any other number of things. This includes situations when you call yourself lazy, which doesn’t take into account the whole story.
Other ways we might label ourselves or others include:
Just like with all or nothing thinking, there’s a lot more to this situation. One failure doesn’t make someone a failure. It’s unlikely that a situation is literally hopeless. There are probably multiple alternative steps or viewpoints to consider.
Overgeneralizing often leads to negative thoughts about the future. It may involve applying things to a situation that haven’t happened yet. For example, if your last relationship ended badly, you might assume that your next one will too.
By assuming the worst, some people may actually experience what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is when they inadvertently create the thing they feared would happen.
Instead, try looking at what’s different about this situation, and what’s different about yourself. Have you learned new things from the past? Can you make different decisions now that will influence the outcome? Are the other people involved different than before?
7. Should Statements
Have you ever heard of the expression, “Don’t should all over yourself?” I know, it sounds like something John Tesh would say on his radio show.
Should-ing is a problem because it’s inherently judgmental. It makes us feel ashamed and frozen, and doesn’t do much to change a situation.
For example, someone might think, “I should have already done the dishes by now,” or “I shouldn’t have said that in class.”
Like with the other distortions, these statements don’t take into account the big picture. If you’re avoiding the dishes, there’s probably a reason for it. You may be exhausted, discouraged, or much too busy.
Practice being more flexible with yourself. If you want to change things, that’s great – just be nice to yourself first. That will actually make you more likely to be able to make the changes you want.
Do you know someone who tends to blow things out of proportion? Or do you sometimes do that? This is called magnification. It’s when we take one part of a situation, and assume the worst, or fail to see the full context of what’s going on.
A simple example might be spilling your drink on the way to work. Many people will then focus on this one thing, letting it set the tone and ruin their whole day. In reality, spilling your drink has no connection to anything else in your life; it’s an isolated incident.
Likewise, minimization is when you discount the positive things in life. Perhaps you spilled your drink when you picked up your breakfast, and a nice woman helped you clean everything up. Or perhaps the cashier got you a new drink for no charge.
See if you can see the positive side of a frustrating situation. Neither of those people had to help you - could they represent some actual good in the world? Could this actually be interpreted as a good day?
10. Mental Filtering
Mental filtering is similar to the magnification and minimization distortions. Someone may already have an idea in their mind, and may filter in or out anything that supports that idea.
For example, if they think that they’re going to have a bad day, they might look for everything that supports that theory, overlooking anything that contradicts it.
11. Fortune Telling
Fortune telling involves predicting the future, when there's no way of knowing what will happen. Even if negative things have happened in the past, it doesn't mean they will happen that way again.
People tend to assume the worst, maybe in a way to prepare them for the future. In reality, we really can't say if good or bad things are ahead. It's usually a combination of both.
Instead of focusing on the future, which you can't control, look for small things you can control in this moment. That will make you feel more empowered and less discouraged about what's ahead.
Challenging Your Own Thoughts
I find that most of the thinking errors, or distortions, are quite similar. Ultimately, they’re about your own history or tendencies getting in the way of seeing a situation objectively.
If you struggle with one or more of these, step back and think of yourself as a detective in the situation. What are the facts, and what do you really know (or not know)?
If you are going to think in a way that skews the facts, try to spin it in a positive way.
“They would be lucky to have me in this job.”
“I’m pretty awesome!”
“I’m doing the best I can in a difficult situation.”
CBT Games and Worksheets
Looking for a fun way to teach concepts like cognitive distortions, or CBT skills? We’ve got you covered. Check out these tools:
CBT worksheet bundle. The CBT worksheet bundle includes 20 worksheets covering negative thinking, challenging thoughts, dealing with anxiety, and more. Check it out here.
Our CBT Bingo-like game. “CBT Lingo” is a real, playable game, with 75 interactive prompts to help you teach CBT concepts and keep your class or clients engaged. You can download and use it today. See what’s included here.
Jennie Lannette, LCSW, is a licensed, practicing therapist in Missouri, specializing in trauma, anxiety, and related mental health issues.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. https://beckinstitute.org/
Judith S. Beck, 2021. Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Third Edition: Basics and Beyond.