cognitive therapy: the 10 distortions

this is a guest post by damien riley, whose blog i’ve been following for the last year or so, and who is also one of my twitter buddies.


drug therapy and what i call “armchair therapy” that seems to never end are not always the best way to manage neuroses. cognitive therapy, as evidenced in the work of theorists like albert ellis and david d. burns, MD, is often an effective course of action that can cure psychological afflictions.

another proof is my life. near the beginning of a career as a restaurant manager, i had some neurotic issues that had to be dealt with. it was complex, but to summarize: i felt like a failure at life. 🙂 i went to four or five sessions with a licensed clinical social worker and absolutely recovered more robust mentally than ever before. part of what i attribute to my success in therapy was learning the 10 cognitive distortions. i’d like to share those 10 distortions with you, because they really changed my life. then, i’d like to leave you with her words that even over 10 years later bring me strength and mental wellness. first, the 10 cognitive distortions (blockquote is adapted from: wikipedia):

  1. all-or-nothing thinking – thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. few aspects of human behavior are so absolute.
  2. overgeneralization – taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations.
  3. mental filter – focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the rest, like a tiny imperfection in a piece of clothing.
  4. disqualifying the positive – continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.
  5. jumping to conclusions – assuming something negative where there is no evidence to support it. two specific subtypes are also identified:
    • mind reading – assuming the intentions of others.
    • fortune telling – predicting how things will turn before they happen.
  6. magnification and minimization – inappropriately understating or exaggerating the way people or situations truly are. often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. there is one subtype of magnification:
    • catastrophizing – focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable.
  7. emotional reasoning – making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality.
  8. making should statements – concentrating on what you think “should” or ought to be rather than the actual situation you are faced with, or having rigid rules which you think should always apply no matter what the circumstances are. albert ellis termed this “musterbation”.
  9. labeling – explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unalterable terms.
  10. personalization – assuming you or others directly caused things when that may not have been the case. when applied to others this is an example of blame.

second, the quote i will never forget:

the negative image you have of yourself is based on your feelings, not facts. the fact is, your life story is an amazing success story. when you judge yourself, make sure you look at the facts, not your feelings.

i hope you got something out of the 10 cognitive distortions. now that i have been a teacher for nearly 10 years, gotten married, and become quite happy in life, i remember how powerful that social worker’s words are. cognitive therapy is the approach that got me back on the path of mental health. though as a guest-blogger on a psychologist’s blog (thank you isabella!) i am not an expert by any means, i do think as a former patient that it’s a highly effective form of psychotherapy.

what do you think of cognitive therapy and the 10 distortions?


about the guest blogger: damien riley, author, teacher and dad, keeps an eye on pop culture, the news, and humor all around us. his blog, postcards from the funny farm, covers topics including teaching, inspiration, humor, and psychology.

26 thoughts on “cognitive therapy: the 10 distortions

  1. gillian

    I saw a cognitive therapist last year and wished I had known about it years ago: it might’ve saved me years of prescription drug use. It saddens me that if you show up to your doctor depressed he/she puts you on pills and maybe gets you a referral to a psychiatrist but both of those are (usually) bandaids over a wound that won’t heal. I feel like I wasted much of my teens and 20s being a downer.

    It was only through cognitive therapy that I realized how my mood and mental health was 99% my own imagination’s responsibility and something that I needed and had the strength to change.

    It’s mostly common sense, but we can brainwash ourselves into actually believing that our thoughts are the truth and not exaggerations based on feeling. And this is something we have to arrive at, it’s not something we can be told, because it is common sense, and we think we already know all of it.

  2. Evan

    Thanks Damien.

    I think this is a really useful check-list.

    A couple need modification to make me happy.
    1. How much generalisation is over-generalisation. I think it is better to say that I am generalising and then maybe examine it (if I have the time and inclination).

    2. I have no idea what ‘objective’ reality. Roughly speaking it is what one group of people can verify. I think it is a better way to agreement to talk to others about how you see things and what you disagree about. If this can be done respectfully it usually leads to a better understanding of the situation (as far as I can tell).

    3. Should statements can be a problem, but ethics is a genuine concern. It seems to me that values is a larger category than intellect.

    The quote is great to remember. It is however an opinion – no facts are quoted. (I hasten to say that it is one that I agree with.)

    I don’t want to sound like I’m trashing cognitive approaches – they have helped lots of people. But there is some modifications needed I think.

    Evan’s last blog post..Big Benefits of a Little Exercise.

  3. Maria - Never the Same River Twice

    Thanks for introducing some CBT concepts, Damien. I’ve found a lot of CBT tools very helpful in dealing with anxiety and negativity.

    In particular I like wearing a rubber band on my wrist as a reminder to engage in positive thinking. Every time I catch myself in negative thinking I switch wrists. I don’t do this all the time, but it’s a great exercise to practice.

    Maria – Never the Same River Twice’s last blog post..Weekend SmallChange: Change Your Perspective

  4. Damien Riley

    @Maria: That’s great. Reminds me of the uncle in It’s a Wonderful Life who has all the strings tied to fingers LOL. Great comment and so true.

    @Evan: You wrote:

    Thanks Damien.

    I think this is a really useful check-list.

    A couple need modification to make me happy.
    1. How much generalisation is over-generalisation. I think it is better to say that I am generalising and then maybe examine it (if I have the time and inclination).

    2. I have no idea what ‘objective’ reality. Roughly speaking it is what one group of people can verify. I think it is a better way to agreement to talk to others about how you see things and what you disagree about. If this can be done respectfully it usually leads to a better understanding of the situation (as far as I can tell).

    3. Should statements can be a problem, but ethics is a genuine concern. It seems to me that values is a larger category than intellect.

    The quote is great to remember. It is however an opinion – no facts are quoted. (I hasten to say that it is one that I agree with.)

    I don’t want to sound like I’m trashing cognitive approaches – they have helped lots of people. But there is some modifications needed I think.

    I’ve given it some thought and here are a few short responses:

    1. How much generalisation is over-generalisation.

    To say there are no cars in a forest is an over-generalization unless you have combed the acreage and proven it true. In the same way to say: “My parents never let me finish a thought” must be backable to be fully embraced as reality. With practice and self-talk, I found these got easier to see. For me anyway.

    Should statements can be a problem.

    This isn’t really a morals issue. Rather it is a boundaries issue. Set your “shoulds” with a boundary of what is possible in a day, in a long term goal etc. In that context, shoulds are great. When we start losing our boundaries on shoulds, we are in trouble and neurosis is creeping at the door like a salivating wolf.

    The quote is an opinion:

    Yes, I’d like to think she had a high opinion of me. Still, every person must make the “rubric” through which he/she judges the value of their life. Since “the quote” I am always tweaking a refining the rubric by which I measure my success. Up to now according to my own standards I am very successful. When I measure my success to someone else standard, I fall way short or high as the standards may be. In that respect, I think it is more mathematical that opinion after all. What do you think?

    I enjoyed your comment, I hope you’ll respond or send me an email. Enjoy your day.

    Damien Riley’s last blog post..Celebrating WordPress Themes

  5. Evan

    Hi Damien,

    Thanks for your response. I think I understand what you mean about checking out generalisations.
    As to morality. My point was that cognitive therapy functions without a moral code. It seems we agree on this.

    My point about the lady was that her opinion is not a factual statement. And so may be guilty of cognitive distortions. The statement is:
    “the negative image you have of yourself is based on your feelings, not facts. the fact is, your life story is an amazing success story. when you judge yourself, make sure you look at the facts, not your feelings”.
    I would say the distortions are
    1. All or nothing thinking (only feeling not facts)
    2. Overgeneralisation (an amazing success story)
    6. Magnification (an amazing success story)
    10. Personalisation. She seems to assume we are responsible for all the negatives.

    Many of the distortions seem directed to the negative. I understand why this is: our culture’s prejudice about this is frightful and does huge amounts of damage. But there are positive distortions to (prevalent in the New Age Movement in my vies. Though I am aware there will probably be other readers who would disagree strongly with me).
    This is really just having a bit of fun with the categories used.

    My deeper concerns with cognitive therapy are its confidence in objectivity and its priveleging of the cognitive (it’s popular with academics). But these are philosophy rather than therapy (in one sense). I think cognitive therapy has helped many people and of this I am glad.

    Evan’s last blog post..Self-Improvement for Dummies.

  6. Catatonic Kid

    I wholeheartedly agree cognitive therapy can be extremely helpful!
    It’s particularly interesting to see you put this so clearly because giving the distortions a name and a shape makes them much easier to spot! They’re fairly insidious once you start to pay attention.

    One’s brain now has something else to do rather than simply go along with them: Play spot the cognitive distortion on your next car trip 😉

    Catatonic Kid’s last blog post..?Show me who you really are? – Family Communication and The Art of Mental Knots.

  7. isabella mori

    wow, i go away for a day or two and all this wonderful conversation happens. thank you SOOO much, @damien, for holding up the conversation!

    as usual, i’m intrigued by @evan’s observations – you really don’t leave too many stones unturned, do you? 🙂

    “my deeper concerns with cognitive therapy are its confidence in objectivity and its privileging of the cognitive (it’s popular with academics) … i think cognitive therapy has helped many people and of this I am glad.”

    in my view, the tools that cognitive therapy has given us are fantastic, and applicable in different areas. for example, they lend themselves fabulously to psychoeducation.

    if we forget that they are tools, we might be in trouble, though. there’s some interesting research about the effectiveness of therapy, and the effectiveness of cognitive therapy specifically. it’s often seen as the treatment of choice but it looks like once the therapists’ and researchers’ bias towards cognitive therapy is taken into account, it’s no more effective than any other treatment modality. (which of course also means it’s no less effective!)

  8. Laurie

    I think cognitive therapy is the best thing that ever happened in my life. CBT, DBT all have made a difference in my recovery.

    The program I attended actually had the list on the wall. We would have homework to help us recognize when we were using these labels. Then the program would help us create a rebuttal voice to these negative thoughts.

    I could go on and on about DBT also but obviously you know my feelings on the subject.
    It basically saved my life and even now at times I still refer back to my black book of CBT and DBT notes.

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