How Do Cognitive Distortions Affect Us?

How do cognitive distortions affect us?

Today we will discover some of our mechanisms that play a very important role in our life, but which we often underestimate. We could say that they are a kind of perfect perpetrators of crimes. However, before giving a definition of cognitive distortions, we report the extract of a story of a patient who turned to her psychologist :

“Whenever I’m depressed, I feel like I’ve been hit by a cosmic earthquake and I start to see things differently. The change can occur in less than an hour. My thoughts turn negative and pessimistic. When I examine my past, I am convinced that none of what I have done is really worth.

Happy moments or times seem like an illusion to me. My successes seem as real as the set design of western movies. I come to convince myself that my true personality has neither value nor sense. I cannot assert myself at work because I am paralyzed by doubts. I can’t rest easy because the suffering is unbearable ”.

We are dealing with a patient suffering from symptoms of depression, but we could also speak of anxiety. It is necessary to assess whether these symptoms are the result of a certain situation, a particular event or something that has happened to her or not.

We usually say that we feel a certain way because something has happened to us, as if one thing necessarily leads to another and we don’t have a chance to say anything. However, we tend to neglect our thoughts or those inner messages that we address to ourselves after experiencing a certain event.

The role of our thoughts or our internal dialogue is fundamental to understand how we arrived at a certain emotional state. Our thoughts, in fact, influence the way we feel more or less similar to the fact itself. Taking a culinary example, the taste of a food depends a lot on its composition, but also on the way we chew it.

Our thoughts give way to our emotions

Negative thoughts that invade our mind are the real cause of our emotions. The reverse mechanism also works, so  thoughts are the starting point to consider if we want to learn how to manage our emotions.

We offer you a simple exercise. Whenever you feel depressed about something in particular, try to identify your thoughts at that precise moment. Since thoughts create moods, you can change them if you change your thoughts.

Probably some of you will be skeptical. The reason is that your negative thinking has become so installed in your life that it has become automatic. Many thoughts pass through the mind automatically and fleetingly, without us being aware of it. They are so obvious and natural, almost like the way we hold our fork to eat.

It is an obvious neurological fact: before experiencing any fact, we must process it in our mind and attribute a meaning to it, consciously or unconsciously. In general, thoughts feed on the dialogue we have with ourselves. In this sense, a maxim that has been handed down over the centuries acquires meaning:

Differences between rational and irrational thinking

The adjective “rational” refers to everything that is true, logical, pragmatic and based on reality (at least in this article this will be the meaning we will attribute to the term). Consequently, rational thinking facilitates people in achieving their goals and objectives (Ellis, 2015).

On the other hand, the adjective “irrational” indicates what is false, illogical, not based on reality or that prevents people from achieving the most important goals (this will be the meaning we will consider in this article). Irrational thinking is what interferes with our survival and happiness  (Ellis, 2015).

Albert Ellis, a forerunner of cognitive therapy, has identified a number of basic irrational ideas that exist in most people. Let’s see some examples of irrational ideas:

  • The adult human being has an extreme need to feel loved and accepted by practically every significant person who is part of the same community.
  • It is terrible and catastrophic that things do not go the way we would like them to.
  • Bad luck depends on external causes. People have little or no ability to handle suffering and worry.
  • Some people are vile, wicked, and infamous. They should be blamed and punished for their wickedness.

There are many other irrational ideas, but we will not expose them all because we want to focus primarily on cognitive distortions.

What are cognitive distortions?

In the culture we belong to, we are continually bombarded with thoughts of an irrational nature. If we listen to songs, watch movies or TV shows, or read books, we will recognize a lot of irrational thoughts that we can internalize, if we have not already done so, as part of the things we believe in.

By this we are not saying that we must stop watching television or listening to music or moving away from society. We are saying that we need to question what we hear or see on television and ask ourselves questions about these ideas before adding them to our store of beliefs and values.

In this sense, cognitive distortions, or errors of thought, are precisely distorted thoughts about the reality that surrounds us. They are often automatic thoughts and it can be difficult to realize you have them. For this, the help of a specialized psychologist can be very useful. The next step, once the distortions have been identified, is to replace them with thoughts that are more “realistic” or “conform” to reality.

Cognitive distortions, in essence, are responsible for our sadness, our anxiety, our anger, etc. As we can identify and change them, we will feel much better.

Types of cognitive distortions

Thinking of “all or nothing”

It is a distortion whereby we tend to perceive anything in an extremist way, in no uncertain terms. It is the typical “all or nothing” or “black or white” thought. We think that things can only be good or bad, a person is successful or is considered a failure. For example: Either I get the most success in everything I do or I am a completely useless person .

Excessive generalization

It is about drawing general conclusions from particular facts, in the sense that if a bad thing has happened on a given occasion, we tend to think it will happen all the time. For example, if a young man is rejected by a girl, he may generalize and think that no woman will want him in the future.

Mental filter

The person chooses a negative detail that characterizes a situation and fixes himself only on this, thus perceiving the whole situation as negative. For example: the wife who scolds her husband in front of everyone because he is messy, without saying a word about his qualities which are many (and more numerous than the negative ones) such as “responsible”, “worker”, “affectionate”, etc.

Thought reading

In this case, we try to surmise the motives or intentions of other people, considering this interpretation as the valid one, when in reality there are various possibilities. We think we are guessing exactly what others are thinking at a given moment, but most of the time we are wrong. This means we come to hasty conclusions. For example: He’s not paying attention to me, he sure doesn’t care what I say . This is one of the most frequent cognitive distortions when we relate to others.


It is the tendency to relate an aspect or something to oneself. In other words, we think that everything revolves around us, so we usually distort reality. Another type of personalization is when we compare ourselves to others. For example, if someone makes an open comment about people’s irresponsibility, we tend to consider this comment as personally addressed to us. The person who is very sensitive to personalization sees himself as the indirect recipient of anything.

Emotional reasoning

Underlying this distortion is the belief that what the person feels should be true. In other words, we view our emotions as proof of truth in the absence of objective data. For example: If I feel like a loser, it’s because I’m a loser .

Hurried conclusions

It is a distortion whereby a conclusion is reached without having all the necessary information. The conclusion, therefore, is arbitrary and without foundation. For example: No one in the family will like the lunch I’m making for sure .

Exaggeration and minimization

Exaggeration occurs when we focus on our mistakes, our fears or our imperfections and give them too much importance. For example: I made a mistake! What a terrible thing! What a horrible thing! . Minimization, on the other hand, occurs when we minimize our qualities : I’m not that smart or good at math. Having taken 9 means nothing .

I “should”

In this distortion, the person behaves according to inflexible rules on which all interpersonal relationships should be based. The words that indicate the presence of this distortion are the “should”. With this rule, not only are others judged, but the person in question also uses it with himself. For example: Others should understand me , they should n’t treat me this way,  or  you shouldn’t behave like this .


It is an extreme form of excessive generalization. Instead of describing the mistake we made, we give it a negative label : I am a loser . When we don’t like someone’s behavior, we give them a negative judgment:  He’s a damned liar .

The way we fight our irrational thoughts involves several steps :

  • Realize when we are sick.
  • Identify the thoughts that cross our mind at that precise moment.
  • Evaluate if they correspond to some of the cognitive biases we talked about in this article.
  • Replace distortions with more realistic thoughts by changing our language and our inner dialogue.

In one way or another, everyone in life has been the victim of some cognitive distortion and we will continue to be. On the other hand, the more we become familiar with these thoughts and understand how they affect us, the easier it will be to control their effect and also to exploit it in our favor.

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