There are many ways a cognitive distortion can appear. Let’s look at some of the most common types:
1. Black-and-White Thinking: All or None
A person with this thinking pattern typically sees things in terms of either/or. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong, all or nothing. Black-and-white thinking fails to acknowledge that there are almost always several shades of grey that exist between black and white. By seeing only two possible sides or outcomes to something, a person ignores the middle—and possibly more reasonable—ground.
When engaging in this type of thinking, an individual tends to take things personally. They may attribute things that other people do as the result of their own actions or behaviours. This type of thinking also causes a person to blame themselves for external circumstances outside the person’s control.
3. ‘Should’ Statements
A person using ‘should’ statements puts unrealistic expectations on themselves or others. Thoughts that include “should,” “ought,” or “must” are almost always related to a cognitive distortion. For example: “I should have arrived to the meeting earlier,” or, “I must lose weight to be more attractive.” This type of thinking may induce feelings of guilt or shame. “Should” statements also are common when referring to others in our lives. These thoughts may go something like, “he should have called me earlier,” or, “she ought to thank me for all the help I’ve given her.” Such thoughts can lead a person to feel frustration, anger, and bitterness towards others. No matter how hard we wish to sometimes, we cannot control the behaviour of another, so thinking about what others should have done rarely serves a healthy purpose.
This occurs when a person sees any unpleasant occurrence as the worst possible outcome. A person who is catastrophizing might fail an exam and immediately think they have likely failed the entire course. A person may not have even taken the exam yet and already believe they will fail—assuming the worst, or catastrophizing before the event happens.
With this type of cognitive distortion, things are exaggerated or blown out of proportion, though not quite to the extent of catastrophizing. It is the real-life version of the old saying, “Making a mountain out of a molehill.”
The same person who experiences the magnifying distortion may minimize positive events. These distortions sometimes occur in conjunction with each other. A person who distorts reality by minimizing it might think something like, “Yes, I got a raise, but it wasn’t very big and I’m still not very good at my job.”
7. Mind Reading
This type of thinker may assume the role of psychic and may believe they know what someone else thinks or feels. The person might think they know what another person thinks despite no external confirmation that his or her assumption is true.
8. Fortune Telling
A fortune-telling-type thinker tends to predict the future, and usually foresees a negative outcome. Such a thinker predicts that things will turn out poorly. Before a concert or movie, you might hear them say, “I just know that all the tickets will be sold out when we get there.”
When overgeneralizing, a person may come to a conclusion based on one or two single events, despite the fact that reality is too complex to make such generalizations. If a friend misses a lunch date, this doesn’t mean they will always fail to keep commitments. Overgeneralizing statements often include the words “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all.”
This is the opposite of personalization. Instead of seeing everything as your fault, all blame is put on someone or something else.