Cognitive distortions (A detailed list)

In this post we are going to talk about Cognitive distortions, we are going to meet some mechanisms that act in all of us, that play a very important role and that often go unnoticed. We could say that they are something like perfect authors of crimes.

Cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions are erroneous interpretations of reality that lead the individual to perceive the world in a way that is not very objective, in addition to being dysfunctional. They come in the form of automatic thoughts and trigger negative emotions that lead to unwanted or maladaptive behaviors.

We are dealing with the case of a patient suffering from depressive symptoms, although she could also have reported anxious symptoms, that is the least of it. The important thing is that these symptoms are the result of a situation, an event or something that has happened to you. Or not.

We usually say that we feel in a certain way because a certain “thing” has happened to us, as if one point necessarily leads to another and we have nothing to say.

However, we tend to ignore the thoughts we have or, what is the same, those internal messages that we say to ourselves after the perception of a fact.

The role of thoughts or of our internal dialogue is essential to understand how we have come to the emotional state in which we find ourselves. Thus, our thoughts will influence how we feel as much or more than the event itself.

Putting a culinary simile, the flavor of the food will influence the composition of said food, but also, and a lot, the way in which we chew it.

Our thoughts give way to our emotions

The negative thoughts that invade our mind are the true cause of our emotions. The reverse also works, so thoughts are the starting point to consider if we want to do good emotional management.

I propose an exercise. Whenever you feel depressed about something, try to identify what thought you were having at that precise moment. Since thoughts create moods, we can change them by changing those thoughts.

Someone is probably skeptical of all this. The reason is that your negative thinking has become so integrated into your life that it has become automatic.

Many thoughts pass through the mind automatically and fleetingly, without our being aware of it. They are as obvious and natural as the way a fork is held.

It is an obvious neurological fact that before we can experience any event we must process it in our mind and give it meaning, either consciously or unconsciously. Thoughts, in general, are fed by the dialogues we have with ourselves.

Differences between rational and irrational thinking

The rational means that which is true, logical, pragmatic and based on reality (at least in this article we are going to give it that meaning). Therefore, it makes it easier for people to achieve their goals and purposes.

On the other hand, the irrational is what is false, illogical, that is not based on reality and that makes it difficult or prevents people from achieving their most basic goals and purposes (at least in this article we are also going to give it that meaning). The irrational is what interferes with our survival and happiness

Albert Ellis, a pioneer psychologist in cognitive therapy, identified a number of basic irrational ideas that existed in most people. Let’s look at some examples of irrational ideas:

  • It is an extreme necessity for the adult human being to be loved and approved by practically every significant person in his community.
  • It is tremendous and catastrophic that things are not going the way one would like them to go.
  • Misfortune originates from external causes. People have little or no ability to control their distress and disturbance.
  • Certain kinds of people are vile, evil, and infamous. They must be seriously blamed and punished for their wickedness.

There are more irrational ideas, but we are not going to expose them all because we are going to focus on cognitive distortions.

What are cognitive distortions?

We are bombarded by irrational thoughts in our culture. If we listen to songs, watch movies, soap operas, stories, we will find many irrational thoughts that we can incorporate, if we have not already done so, as part of our own beliefs.

By this I do not mean that we stop watching television or listening to music or withdraw from society. But we do question what we hear or see on television and put a question mark around these ideas before adding them to our beliefs and values.

Thus, cognitive distortions or thinking errors are distorted thoughts about the reality around us. They are often automatic and it can be difficult for us to realize that we have them. Therefore, the help of a specialized psychologist can be very useful. The next step, once we have identified them, would be to change these distortions for more “realistic” or adaptive thoughts.

Cognitive distortions, roughly, are responsible for making us feel sad, anxious, angry, etc. As we identify and change them, we will feel better.

Cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions are those wrong ways we have to process information, that is, misinterpretations of what is happening around us, generating multiple negative consequences. People with depression have a vision of reality in which cognitive distortions play a major role.

To a greater or lesser extent, we can all present at some time, some kind of cognitive distortion. Knowing how to detect and analyze them will help us to have a clearer mind, developing more realistic and above all positive attitudes. We present below which are the most important cognitive distortions:


Personalization refers to when people feel 100% responsible for events in which they have hardly participated or even those in which they have not participated at all.

For example, Ana’s son has taken an exam and failed. Ana thinks that she has failed in her son’s education, that she has made a mistake because if she had done well her son would have approved.

Selective abstraction or filtering

Selective abstraction or filtering consists of focusing attention on those negative and inappropriate aspects, according to our schemes and ignoring or barely taking into account the rest of the information.

The negative is filtered, the positive is forgotten. Maria has made a cheesecake for her birthday, and has invited nine friends. Almost everyone likes Maria’s cake, except Laura who says that the jam that covers it is not too good. Maria feels bad and thinks the cake is a disaster. (She has only kept the negative, he has totally omitted the positive aspects).


Overgeneralization is the tendency to believe that if something has ever happened, it will happen many times. For example, Pedro has been left by Sonia after two and a half years of relationship. Pedro thinks “no one else will love me”, “I will never find anyone who wants to be with me”.

Maximization and minimization

The cognitive distortion known as Maximization and Minimization consists of magnifying your own mistakes and the successes of others, and minimizing your own successes and the mistakes of others. For example: “I don’t care about the successes you have achieved in the past, they no longer matter. What matters now is that I have made that grave mistake. “

Polarized thinking

Polarized thinking consists of evaluating events in an extreme way, without taking into account the intermediate aspects. See things black or white, true or false.

For example, “If I can’t get this job to be perfect, the effort will have been useless, it will be a disaster” or a person who can’t find a job who thinks “I’m incompetent and useless.” It is one of the cognitive distortions most used in discussions with others when we use terms such as “always”, “never”, “all” or “nothing”.

Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning refers to the assumption by people that their emotions reflect the way things are. Believing that what you feel emotionally is necessarily true.

If a person is irritated, it is because someone has done something to irritate her. “I feel incompetent, therefore I am incompetent” or “I feel that way, therefore it has to be true.”

Affirmations of “should”, “have to”

The “shoulds” or “haves” are rigid and inflexible beliefs about what one or the others should be like. Demands centered on oneself, favor self-criticism, while those directed towards others favor rage, anger and aggressiveness.

Some examples might be, “I should have been more attentive to my husband and so he wouldn’t have left me”, “I must not make mistakes”, “others should act well with me” or “I have to like everyone.

Arbitrary inference

Another type of cognitive distortion is arbitrary inference, which consists of taking certain assumptions for granted, although there is no evidence for it. There are two ways to do it:

  • Thought divination. Believing you know what other people think and why they behave the way they do. “What she wants is to make me nervous”, “What she wants is to laugh at me”, “Feel sorry for me” or “She is with you for your money”.
  • Divination of the future. Expecting things to go wrong, without allowing yourself the possibility that they are neutral or positive. “I’m going to suspend.”


Pejorative “labels” for describing oneself, rather than accurately describing facts or qualities is also another wrong way of thinking. For example, “I am useless” instead of “I have made a mistake but sometimes I don’t.” Now that you know them, working with them is the most important thing. Go ahead!

FAQS: Cognitive distortions 

What causes cognitive distortions?

Behind negative feelings (anxiety, anger, depression …) there are irrational thoughts that provoke them. They are the so-called cognitive distortions. These thoughts hide, ignore or disguise reality and will make our efforts to achieve what we want to do in vain.

Is cognitive distortion a mental illness?

Cognitive distortions are common in depression and mood anxiety. And if they can be one of the causes, it does not always mean that you have a mental illness.

How do you get rid of cognitive distortions?

Therefore, when something like this happens to us, we have to put the following technique into practice: ABCDE technique. In this case the columns of the table would be the following:

A: The event

B: Evaluation we make of what has happened

C: Emotion that generates us and what we do

D: Question irrational thoughts

E: New rational thinking

Should statements cognitive distortion?

Should statements are a common pattern of negative thinking, or cognitive distortion, that can lead to feelings of fear and worry. They also put on ourselves unfair demands and pressure, which can make us feel bad or like we have failed.

What are examples of cognitive distortions?

Nobody loves Me.

I go wrong with women.

I’m dumb.

I know they are laughing at me.

She does not like me.

She’s going to fail me on this exam.


Rachman, S., & Shafran, R. (1999). Cognitive distortions: Thought–action fusion. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy: An International Journal of Theory & Practice, 6(2), 80-85.

Yurica, C. L., & DiTomasso, R. A. (2005). Cognitive distortions. In Encyclopedia of cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 117-122). Springer, Boston, MA.