A quick thought exercise for you:
Think of a recent negative event.
(Nothing too traumatic; just something that triggers a negative feeling.)
How did you respond to this event?
Specifically, were you proactive (and took control of the situation) or were you reactive (and fell into negative patterns of thinking)?
If it was the latter, don’t worry—you’re not alone.
Here’s the thing:
Most of us consider ourselves to be happy rational people.
So, why, then, do we torment ourselves when everything falls apart?
These thinking traps cause us to perceive reality differently to how it really is, triggering feelings of negativity and pessimism (and in many cases, depression).
I want you to avoid these errors in thinking at all cost, that’s why in this article, I’m going to show you the sixteen most common cognitive distortions that twist our thinking and more importantly, how to overcome them.
Let’s get started.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
Before looking at the sixteen most common cognitive distortions that cause negative thinking, it’s important to understand what cognitive distortions are so we can manage them (if not mitigate them, entirely).
A foundational principle of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is our moods are created by thoughts or “cognitions”.
A cognition simply refers to your perception of reality (how you interpret the world around you) and yourself (what you communicate to yourself, your beliefs, your values, etc.).
In other words, your thoughts (what you think) determine your emotions (how you feel).
(And if you want to go one step further, your emotions determine your behavior)
When you feel negative, your thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity.
Because you distort (or misinterpret) the information you’re receiving.
As Dr. Burns writes,
A friend, for example, might read your text and not reply, and you might interpret that information as, “My friend doesn’t care about me” and feel down about it.
The problem, though, is we rationalize “I’m feeling unhappy therefore I am unhappy,” and take that feeling as fact (more on this shortly).
A cognitive distortion, then, is when we convince ourselves of something that simply isn’t true.
The thing to remember is this:
These thoughts are irrational or just plain wrong. In fact, it’s not the event itself that causes feelings of negativity; it’s your response to the event.
Ultimately, it is you who is in control of your thoughts…
…and therefore your emotions.
Only when we pinpoint and eliminate the cognitive distortions that skew our thinking, can we begin to think more objectively and feel better about a given situation.
Now that we’ve covered what cognitive distortions are, let’s discuss the most common thought patterns that distort our thinking.
Cognitive Distortions: A Complete List
While psychiatrist Dr. Aaron T. Beck laid the groundwork for much of what we now know about cognitive distortions, it was his student, Dr. David Burns, who continued research on the subject and brought it to a wider audience with his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.
In it, Dr. Bruns outlined 12 common cognitive distortions that form the basis for irrational thinking.
Since the publication of his book, other psychologists have added to his research.
Below, I’ve listed the sixteen most common cognitive distortions, each with an example and a recommendation for how to fix it.
1. All-or-nothing thinking (also known as black-or-white thinking, dichotomous reasoning and splitting)
All-or-nothing thinking refers to your tendency to think in terms of false dichotomies. You’re either on top of the world or down in the depths of despair. And if you fall short of your expectation, you perceive yourself as a total failure. Thinking in either/or categories isn’t just illogical; it’s incorrect (not to mention unrealistic).
Example: “I got laid off. I’m a total loser”
Solution: There are no absolutes in life. There are shades of gray in between, but you’ll never notice them when you discount the complexity of life and other people.
2. Always being right
If you constantly try to prove your actions or thoughts are correct, you’re probably guilty of always being right. Going to any length to demonstrate our rightness is not just egoic and self-destructive; it’s harmful to those around us (especially those we love).
Example: “I don’t care what you think, I’m right!”
Solution: Ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or happy?” Often, it’s not a difficult decision to make.
Blaming is when you refuse to accept your part in a given situation and instead, blame others and outside circumstances for your shortcomings. As Jack Canfield writes in The Success Principles, “If you want to be successful, you have to take 100% responsibility for everything that you experience in your life.” Blaming is the opposite of personalization.
Example: “It’s not my fault I was late, I got caught in traffic.”
Solution: Start taking 100% responsibility for what happens in your life. If you don’t like your outcomes, change your responses. (ht: Jack Canfield)
4. Disqualifying the positive
A distant cousin to all-or-nothing thinking, this “superpower” involves transforming neutral or positive experiences into negative ones. The worse part? Most people aren’t even aware they’re doing it. If you experience a negative event, it’s a justification of a limiting belief (“Typical! This ALWAYS happens!”) And if your fortune changes for the better? Nope. It’s an anomaly. You can’t win.
Example: After acing an interview, you might comment, “Oh, it was nothing really. They probably would have hired anyone.”
Solution: Cultivate an attitude of gratitude by writing down three things you’re grateful for every day for 21-days.  My method of choice is The Five-Minute Journal.
5. Emotional reasoning
As mentioned earlier, one of the most common thinking traps we fall into is emotional reasoning: taking our emotions as evidence for the truth. If you recall, your feelings are a result of your thoughts, so if they’re distorted (which, if you’re feeling disempowered, they probably are), they have no validity.
Example. “I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.”
Solution. Challenge the validity of your feelings by asking yourself, “What thought did I just have?” Often, there’s an unconscious cue that triggered the thought and therefore the emotion.
6. Fallacy of change
The fallacy of change means you believe others need to change for you to be happy. The underlying belief is, “I need to change people because my hopes for happiness depend entirely on them.” Much like always being right, this distortion can affect the well-being of others.
Example: “If you loved me you would…”
Solution. Understand: your happiness doesn’t depend on others; it depends on yourself and the decisions you make on a daily basis (like which cognitive distortion you need to work on, first).
7. Filtering (also known as mental filter and selective abstraction)
Another relative to all-or-nothing thinking and disqualifying the positive, filtering involves focusing entirely on the negative aspects of a situation while excluding the positive. When you dwell exclusively on a negative detail, you perceive the whole situation as negative and therefore, in your mind, everything is negative. If you believe you’re unhappy, you’ll filter out any positive elements. Why? Because we tend to filter out information that doesn’t conform to our already held beliefs.
Example: You receive praise for a presentation in your job but one colleague offers mildly critical feedback. You reflect on his reaction for days and ignore all the positive feedback.
Solution: Ask yourself, “What’s great about this problem? What else could this mean?”. Returning to the above example, is it possible your colleague’s feedback has some validity?
8. Jumping to conclusions
When you’re jumping to conclusions, you’re reaching negative conclusions with little (or no) evidence. Two examples of this are “mind-reading” and “fortune telling”.
Mind-reading is when you assume what others are thinking and feeling about you without having any concrete evidence to suggest so. Often, you respond to these assumptions as if they’re true, thus withdrawing from others without a valid reason. When mind-reading is performed regularly, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where every interaction is further evidence for a negative belief (“I knew they hated me”).
Example: “She looked at me and then turned to her friend to whisper something. She’s gossiping about me. I just know it”
Solution: Test your assumptions. If you don’t investigate, you don’t know.
8.2 Fortune-telling (also known as the fortune teller error)
Similar to mind-reading, fortune-telling is the tendency to arbitrary predict the future and foresee negative outcomes. Taking unrealistic predictions as fact, can, in turn, affect your behavior and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Example: “I just know I’m going to flunk my interview today.”
Solution: Ask yourself, “What evidence is there for my prediction?” How often are you on-point with your predictions?
Labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization and involves attaching a negative label to yourself or others instead of a mistake. When describing a mistake you made, it’s often front-loaded with an “I am” statement.
Example: Saying, “I’m a failure” rather than, “I failed”.
Solution: Attribute your errors to the event rather than yourself. Define yourself by your efforts, not your outcomes.
Mislabelling, on the other hand, is when you describe an event using words that are highly colored and emotionally charged. A common example is binge eating, feeling bad about yourself and then binge eating more to alleviate that feeling. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that’s difficult to break.
Example: “I ate too much dessert. I feel like a disgusting pig.”
Solution: Be mindful of the words you use to describe yourself.
11. Binocular vision (also know as the binocular trick)
Binocular vision is common when you either blow things up out of proportion of shrink things down in size. There are two examples of this.
11.1. Magnification (also known as catastrophizing)
Magnification is when you exaggerate the importance of your errors, fears, and imperfections.
Example: “I can’t believe I said that. My life is over!”
Solution: Similar to mislabeling, be mindful of the vocabulary you use to describe undesired outcomes.
Minimization, on the other hand, is when you downplay your good points or other people’s desirable qualities.
Example: “I’m not that good at my job.”
Solution: Make a list of all your best qualities and refer to them regularly.
Overgeneralization is when you arbitrarily conclude a single negative event is a never-ending pattern of defeat. If you experience a negative incident, you believe it’s likely to happen again and again. Burns recounts a man complaining about a bird “always” defecating on his car even though it had never happened before. Using universals like “always”, “every” and “never” are common when overgeneralizing.
Example: “Why does this always happen to me?!”
Solution: Universals are words like “always”, “every” and “never”. If you catch yourself using them,c For example, if you catch yourself saying, “I never get anything right, ” you might respond back, “Never?” 
Personalization occurs when you assume responsibility for an external event over which you have no control. When you personalize, you feel guilty because you confuse influence with control over others. This triggers feelings of guilt and self-condemnation.
Example: “My daughter failed her exam. I should have done more to help her.”
Solution: Understand: How other adults behave is their responsibility—not yours.
14. Should statements
This is when you have ironclad rules for how you, or others, should and shouldn’t behave. When our expectations fall short, we feel disappointed, frustrated, resentful, even angry. Albert Ellis calls this “Musturbation.” David Beck describes it as having a “Shouldy approach to life.” Be aware of your, “Musts” and, “Oughts”: they are culprits of this distortion, too.
Example: “People ought to call ahead when they’re running late.”
Solution: Adjust your expectations so they’re more realistic. When someone fails to meet your expectation, ask yourself “How do I do that?” (HT: Brian Johnson)
Untwisting cognitive distortions isn’t always easy. We all have narratives that are deeply ingrained in our psychology (many of which hold us back from realizing our full potential).
But with a little time, attention and energy, we can begin freeing ourselves from the errors in our thinking and make meaningful progress toward the things that matter most.
I’ve put together a free PDF worksheet based on the work of Dr. David Beck to help you identify the most common thinking traps and how to fix them.
To get started, click the image below:
What cognitive distortions have influenced your thinking? Leave a comment below.
 The “Precision Model” is from Awaken the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins.