Cognitive distortions and negative thinking

12 minutes reading time

By far the biggest waste in life are cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are all extreme negative thoughts that bring bad feelings as well as longer periods of depression or severe negative moods sooner or later. You simply can’t live a positive life with a negative mind. By having too many cognitive distortions, you’re trapped in living a zombie life, seeing the world as very dark and full of terror. What a waste.

There’s good news and bad news regarding cognitive distortions. The good news is that you can get rid of cognitive distortions and live a fuller and happier life. Without cognitive distortions, you can be much more positive, lean, agile and with a greater capacity to love yourself and the world around you. You develop inner strength that allows you to go after your goals with positive feelings.

The bad news is that the way of getting rid of cognitive distortions is counterintuitive to us. For most people, assumptions about how to deal with cognitive distortions go something like this: I need [x]. Having [x] will make me happy in life. By having [x] and being happier, my negative thoughts will go away, I will free myself and be more motivated and become successful. As you’ve probably guessed [x] is usually a good car, a well-paid job, a dream spouse or anything similar from the materialistic world.

There are several problems with that kind of thinking. The first wrong assumption is that happiness comes from the outer world. Well, it can come, but only for a very short period of time. Buying something you want makes you happy for a few days, after that you’re back in the same situation of negativity.

The second very big problem with that kind of thinking is passivity. You put yourself in a passive role, waiting for life to reward you just because you deserve it, just because you’re something special. It doesn’t work that way. Life rewards those who master its rules and put all their creativity, cleverness and hard work into achieving their goals. Life wants you to be proactive, not passive and reactive. A passive role has never brought real happiness. You can find a lot of passive people who fake happiness, but you don’t want that.

The next false assumption is that it’s going to be easy to get rid of negative thoughts. One new item, thing or person in your life, and your mind will get updated with a new, more positive “software”. You’ve probably been thinking negatively for years, it’s part of how you were raised, maybe your parents were too critical of you or you grew up in an abusive family. It’s been there for years; and it’s going to take a lot of effort and hard work to get rid of it. It’s not fair, but you have to face it. Nothing worthwhile comes easily and getting rid of your negative thoughts is definitely worth it. No matter how hard it is.

The process of getting rid of cognitive distortions works the other way around. First you have to work on your mind, first you have to improve your mental state and change your inner world. Working on your mind will improve your thoughts, better thoughts will bring more positive actions, more positive actions will bring more positive outcomes. That’s a proactive position. You tackle the software in your brain to get rid of bugs and function optimally. You level up your game. You first have to work on your mind to become more focused, more decisive, clearer about what you want out of life, and more positive.

It’s really important that you distinguish between the process and the event. Getting rich is an event. Meeting your perfect spouse is an event. Getting a raise is an event. Having a positive mind is an event. But before any kind of event like that, the process always comes first. Getting rich is a carefully orchestrated process that usually takes years if not decades to finally reach the final event. It’s the same with your mind. There are no shortcuts. There is no easy way out of negative thinking, there is no event without a process. But it can be done.

You can’t just think positively

You can find many self-help books that praise positive thinking. Well, it’s true that positive thinking is an important part of a happy and successful life, but you can’t just decide to think positively. If it were that simple, everyone would be happy and optimistic and super positive in life. You can’t force yourself into positive thinking, it will only make you miserable. Every time a negative thought crosses your mind, you will get mad and angry and disappointed, and that only means even more negative thoughts.

In order to get superior results, you always need a superior strategy. You need to tackle the problem more smartly and systematically. There are two ways how to do it, the first one is the hardest, but gives the best results, the second one is a simpler version, but probably suitable for most people.

If you have really big problems with depression, negative thinking and heavy moods, they probably won’t go away without professional help. In this case, I suggest that you enter the search mode, and do research on different types of psychological therapy, read a few professional psychology books, not self-help ones, visit a few specialists, try to get to know yourself as well as you can on your own and find the therapy that suits you best or you think could help you the most. It may take a lot of time, money and energy, but you don’t want to waste your life and live like a zombie. Your life is the most precious thing you have.

The second, simpler version is to systematically tackle the problem by yourself. You can still do research on your own, but the best resource I’ve ever found by far is a book called Feeling Good, written by David D. Burns. If you want to get rid of your thoughts, you first have to understand what they are, where they are coming from, the different types of negative thinking that exist and how to deal with them. You can find all the answers in the mentioned book.

Methods and techniques in the book are part of cognitive psychology. The foundation of cognitive psychology is the hypothesis that all your moods are created by your cognitions – thoughts, where cognitions refer to the way you look at things, from your perceptions and mental attitudes to beliefs.

Based on that fact, you simply feel depressed when your thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity. Your negativity is therefore probably not based on accurate perceptions of reality, but is instead often the product of mental slippage. The extent of negative thinking is enormous. Your mood slumps, your self-image crumbles, your body doesn’t function properly, your willpower becomes paralysed and your own actions defeat you.

Feeling trapped

You can feel trapped inside your own mind.

Ten types of negative thinking

I suggest you buy and read the book, as it can really be a life-changer. Nevertheless, here’s the summary of ten different kinds of cognitive distortions that are really eye-opening and the first step to understanding your negative thoughts. Before we look at ten types of negative thinking, let’s look at the scientifically proven hypothesis of the extent that negative thinking really has.

“Every bad feeling you have is the result of negative thinking. Self-defeating emotions are caused by negative thoughts, illogical pessimism and strong inner critique. Your emotions result entirely from the way you look at things, by your internal dialogue on a series of events that happen to you. If your understanding of what’s happening is accurate, your emotions will be normal. If your perception is twisted and distorted in some way, your emotional response will be abnormal.”

Here are ten types of negative thinking, described in detail in the book Feeling good:

All-or-nothing thinking

“You evaluate yourself and events that happen in your life in extremes, it’s either totally black or totally white. That kind of thinking is the basis for perfectionism. It causes you to fear doing any mistakes, it causes you to fear doing something imperfectly. If you don’t do it perfectly, if you make a mistake, you see yourself as a complete looser. You have the same interpretation if something doesn’t happen as you wanted or expected. It can go from all to nothing really quickly. You can see yourself as zero with one single small change in the outside environment. That kind of perception has nothing to do with reality. Absolutes do not exist in the universe.”

For example, your spouse must behave exactly to your expectations, or they are not the right one.


“With overgeneralization, you arbitrarily conclude that a thing that happened to you once will occur over and over again. For example, the pain of rejection is generated almost entirely from overgeneralization. Without cognitive distortion, a rejection can be temporarily disappointing, but cannot be seriously disturbing.”

You know how it goes: I will never get a girlfriend… (Based on one rejection).

Mental filter

“Mental filtering simply means that you pick out a negative detail in any situation and dwell on it exclusively, thus perceiving the whole situation as negative. Because you aren’t aware of this mental filtering, you conclude that everything is negative. All that you allow to enter your conscious mind are the negative things.”

For example you have your dream job, it’s just your pay check that could be a little bit higher, but all you can see is that the pay check is not adequate.

Disqualifying the positive

“It’s about the unwanted ability of your mind to transform neutral and maybe even positive events into negative ones. You don’t just ignore positive experiences, you cleverly and swiftly turn them into their nightmarish opposite. “

For example, if you get a compliment and your mind starts questioning the compliment and maybe even seeing it as manipulation that could definitely be this kind of cognitive distortion. It doesn’t make sense to constantly throw cold water on the good things that happen in your life.

Jumping to conclusions

“Jumping to conclusions means that you jump to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts of the situation. It’s as if you had a crystal ball that foretold only misery to you.”

For example, you make assumptions that other people are looking down on you, and you’re so sure about this that you don’t even bother to check it out and talk with other people. You would rather have a negative belief about what other people think of you.

Magnification and minimization

“With magnificational or minimizational thinking, you either blow things out of proportion or shrink them. Magnification commonly occurs when you look at your own errors, fears or imperfections, and exaggerate their importance. When you think about your strengths, you may do the opposite – you look at your strengths in a way that makes them look small and unimportant. Of course if you magnify your imperfections and minimize your good points, you’re guaranteed to feel inferior.”

Emotional reasoning

“Emotional reasoning means that you take your emotions as evidence for the truth. Because things feel so negative to you, you assume they are true. But in reality if your thinking is distorted, your emotions have no validity of reality. Just because you feel overwhelmed and helpless, for example, it doesn’t mean that your problems are impossible to solve.”

Should statements

“You try to motivate yourself with statements like “I should do this”, “I must do that” etc. These statements cause you to feel pressured and resentful. With that kind of statements, you achieve the opposite result, feeling even more unmotivated and apathetic. When the reality of your own behaviours falls short of your standards, your “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” create self-loathing, shame and guilt.”

It’s the same when you direct “should” statements towards other people. In most cases, you feel frustrated, because you want someone to behave according to your expectations. When the all-too-human performance of other people falls short of your expectations, which definitely happens from time to time, you feel bitter and self-righteous. You either have to change your expectations to approximate reality or always feel let down by human behaviour.

Labeling and mislabelling

“Labeling means creating a completely negative self-image based on your errors. It’s an extreme form of overgeneralization. Labeling yourself is self-defeating and irrational. Because we label ourselves or others, for example with the label “I’m a born loser”, we resent ourselves or others, and jump at every chance to criticize. But it doesn’t make any sense to focus on every weakness or imperfection of yourself or others as proof for being worthiness.”

You must consider that a human life is an ongoing process that involves constantly changing the physical body as well as having an enormous number of rapidly changing thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Your life is therefore an evolving experience, a continual flow. You are not a thing. That is why any label is constricting, highly inaccurate, and global. Labelling means that you have a fixed mindset, but in life you can always grow, improve and change. Nothing is permanent and there is always a move you can make towards a better life. You have to innovate your way towards a better life.


“The last cognitive distortion is personalization and it is the mother of guilt. You assume responsibility for a negative event or thing, even where there is no basis for doing so. You arbitrarily conclude that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy, even when you are not responsible for it. Personalization causes you to feel crippling guilt.”

In the case of personalization, you usually confuse influence with control over others. What the other person does is ultimately his or her responsibility, not yours.

These are ten cognitive distortions identified by David D. Burns. You can read more about them in his book Feeling good. I really recommend it. Here is a good summary of why dealing with your negative thoughts is so important:

“Your thoughts create emotions; therefore your emotions cannot prove that your thoughts are accurate. Unpleasant feelings merely indicate that you are thinking something negative and believing it. Every time you feel depressed about something, try to identify the corresponding negative thought you had just prior to negative feelings and during the depressed mood.

Because these thoughts have actually created your bad mood, by learning to restructure them, you can change your mood. Your emotions come entirely form the way you look at things. If your understanding of what is happening is accurate, your emotions will be normal. If your perception is twisted and distorted in some way, your emotional response will be abnormal. Feelings aren’t facts.”

Smile more

Free yourself!

Dealing with cognitive distortions

The first step in dealing with cognitive distortions is building up your sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When you are in a negative emotional state or, even worse, depressed, you usually believe that you’re worthless. The stronger the negative feelings, the more you feel like no one.

Thus the first step is to closely examine what you say about yourself when you have negative feelings. Negative events grow in importance until they dominate your entire reality. All the distorted thoughts feel real to you. The illusion you have about yourself is very convincing.

An important fact in the whole picture is that achievements and other external rewards can’t really help you with your feeling of self-worth. They can bring you satisfaction, but not happiness. Moreover, love, approval and friendship also can’t help you much. As stated in the book, a great majority of negative and depressed people are loved very much, they just can’t see it, because their focus is completely elsewhere.

The only way to do it is to tackle your inner dialogue and your inner critique.

The method that David S. Burns recommends for tackling your self-esteem is:

  • Talk back to your inner critique
  • Train yourself to recognize and write down self-critical thoughts as they go through your mind
  • Learn why these thoughts are distorted
  • Practice talking back to them so as to develop a more realistic self-evaluation system

You simply draw a three-column table, where the first column is the automatic negative thought (“I never do things right”), the second one is the type of cognitive distortion (overgeneralization) out of the mentioned ten different types, and the third one is your rational response (“Not true, I do a lot of things right”).

Genius people always test and implement new things in their life as quickly as possible. If you aren’t willing to use the tool and take time to deal with your thoughts, you simply won’t be able to do the job. The table tool will help you locate the mental errors that depress you and fix them.

Even if this article is eye-opening for you and you do nothing afterwards, all the reading was a big waste of time; and waste is your biggest enemy to a happy and successful life.

Emotional accounting

The most important thing in cognitive therapy is to observe your thoughts and your feelings. Thus you can add two more columns to the above-mentioned table and do some emotional accounting. You can specify the type of feeling and its intensity (0 – 100) from before the rational response to cognitive distortion and afterwards. It’s a good way of determining how much your feeling will actually improve.

Thus columns in your table would be:

  • Automatic negative thought (“I never do things right”)
  • Type of negative feeling and intensity (Anger, 90%)
  • Type of cognitive distortion (Overgeneralization)
  • Rational response (“Not true, I do a lot of things right”, for example…)
  • Intensity of negative feeling (Anger, 30%)

An important part of emotional accounting is also the mental biofeedback. It simply means clicking a button each time a negative thought about you crosses your mind. With this technique, you will always be alert for negative thoughts about yourself. You should probably do this exercise first, before any others, just to become aware of your negative thoughts and how many of them you have.

That’s basically it. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Nevertheless it’s definitely worth it. You don’t have to do anything especially worthy to create or deserve self-esteem. All you have to do is turn off that critical, inner voice. Your inner self-abuse springs from illogical, distorted thinking. Your sense of worthiness is not based on truth, it’s just the abscess that lies at the core of your negative thinking. Deal with your inner critique and your thoughts will improve.

Negative thinking can really paralyze you, your willpower and your desire to do things. Mindsets like hopelessness, helplessness, overwhelming yourself, jumping to conclusions, self-labelling, undervaluing the reward, perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of disapproval and criticism, coercion and resentment, low frustration tolerance, guilt and self-blame are usually most commonly associated with procrastination. And you deserve better.

You should identify your negative thoughts, your cognitive distortions and your paralyzing mindsets. Keeping a schedule of negative thoughts, fixing your cognitive distortions, keeping a daily activity schedule as well as rewarding yourself and giving yourself credit is a way towards a whole new, more positive life. Focusing on your progress, what you’ve done and fixing your negative interpretations and beliefs will help you with your feeling of self-worth and thus you will be able to enjoy life more. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you respect and love yourself.

Here is a good checklist you can download to refresh your memory about cognitive distortions when needed.

Start small. It is first action and then motivation, not vice versa. A little action leads to motivation and motivation leads to more action. Don’t just wait for motivation to come out of nowhere. It won’t happen. Just do it. Take a piece of paper and start writing down negative thoughts you have about yourself. Take a piece of paper and write down three small things you will do tomorrow. Then do them all.

Source: David D. Burns, Feeling good: the new mood therapy

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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