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11 Tricky Cognitive Distortions Getting In Your Way

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

How to identify and challenge the negative thoughts getting in the way of your happy life

Through identifying cognitive distortions you can begin to challenge them and start to feel better.

“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.)


Article Highlights

Patterns of Thought

Levels of Distortions

Validate the Feeling First

11 Common Cognitive Distortions

Challenging Your Own Thoughts

CBT Games and Worksheets

Sources

This infographic describes 11 cognitive distortions, also outlined in the article text.

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.

Beck identified automatic negative thoughts that can contribute to depression and anxiety.

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:


  1. 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.”

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.