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Recognizing and Overcoming Cognitive Distortions

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As a collective, we’ve become increasingly prone to overthinking. It makes sense, considering the increased social isolation in recent years. Combine that with the overflow of information on social media, and we’re met with a surge of cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are negatively biased thought patterns that fuel our misery, anxiety, and make us feel bad in general. These exaggerated thought patterns are irrational and don’t properly represent reality.

The commonality between these thought processes is that you often practice them without even realizing it. What you do realize is how you feel. You know that you feel exhausted, drained, and stuck. While distorted thinking isn’t a direct cause of mental health disorders, they can become a factor in developing into chronic conditions. Below are 6 of the most common cognitive distortions.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Someone who engages in an all-or-nothing mentality sees everything in black and white. There is no gray. Everything is seen through the lens of extremes. Either someone is all good, or all bad. Either you’re a success or a total failure. This is one of the most common types of distorted thought patterns and could point to a larger mental health issue.

Examples of All-or-Nothing Thinking

  • Eating a bag of chips and believing your whole diet is ruined

  • Not completing a task on your to-do list deems the entire day as unproductive


This worst-case scenario way of thinking is a belief that the situation you’re in is more dire than it is. It usually starts with a small, worried thought that escalates into larger ones, and eventually sends us into a state of panic. Habitually catastrophizing could indicate low self-esteem or an underlying mental health issue. The bottom line is, if you regularly feel a sense of doom, you’ve probably engaged in some form of catastrophic thinking.

Examples of Catastrophizing

  • “My husband is late getting home; he must have been in a crash.”
  • “I’m having the worst day. My life is a disaster”
  • “I failed that test. What if I never make it out of college?”


If you’re familiar with the phrase “stop taking everything so personally”, chances are you engage in personalization thinking. With this type of thinking, there’s a habit of blaming yourself for things that you have little to no control over. Personalization is a false belief that everything someone does or says is directly related to you. A theme with this type of thinking is believing you are a victim in most circumstances.

Examples of Personalization

  • “My friend didn’t text back. They must be mad at me.”
  • “My boss is upset. I must have done something wrong.”


Overgeneralizing involves making a broad assumption based off limited experience. If you often use words like “never”, “always”, “everything”, or “nothing”, you might be experiencing overgeneralization. These extreme words are used to make the problem seem larger. Maybe someone is rude to you, and you assume everyone else will follow suit.

Examples of Overgeneralization

  • “I never say the right thing!”

  • “I always hit every red light”

Mind Reading

The name says it all -you draw conclusions as if you know what people are thinking. This is a common distortion that can easily get confused with having empathy. The key difference between the two is that empathy is about the other person and how they’re feeling, and there’s evidence to support it. Mind-reading, on the other hand, is typically negatively biased and based on thoughts in your own mind. Relying on this way of thinking can be very harmful to our relationships and our mood. It can be useful and maybe even helpful at times, but it’s not healthy to make a habit of it. A common response to these negative thoughts is defensiveness and withdrawal.

Examples of Mind Reading

  • “He smiled at that girl. He’s in love with her!”
  • “My friend didn’t wave. They’re either mad or don’t like me anymore.”


Mental Filtering

This is when you focus on the negative aspects of a situation and disqualify the positive ones. There could even be more positives than negatives to a situation, but you will only focus on the negative.

Examples of Mental Filtering

  • Your boss gave you a great yearly review and only suggested improvement in one area. You feel hurt and disappointed and only focus on the negative comment.
  • Your partner does something you don’t like that they don’t normally do, you decide they are a waste of time.

Overcoming Cognitive Distortion

If you’ve noticed that you engage in one or many of these thought processes, that is a good thing. Recognizing our faulty thought patterns is the first step to correcting them. From there, you can begin to challenge them.

  • Identify your most common distorted thoughts

  • Challenge your assumptions

  • Examine the evidence that the thought is true

  • Practice mindfulness

  • Write in a journal

  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy

Seeking Support

It’s not uncommon to have a hard time identifying these negative thought patterns. Nonetheless, they tend to damage our mental health over time and wreak havoc in our lives. Our role as your therapist is to help you identify which types of distortions are affecting your behavior. If you are struggling with the extremes of these distortions, please do not hesitate to reach out for help.


Here at Dr. Messina and Associates, our compassionate team of professionals are qualified to help you at our Flower Mound, Texas, and Southlake, Texas, offices. Our Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Counselors specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychological testing, and medication management for a variety of emotional and behavioral health needs. All services are available in-person and online (telehealth). If you or a loved one are seeking help with mental health, we are here to help.


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Dr. Michael Messina

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