What is a Cognitive Distortion? And What You Need to Know About Them!

Man wearing fake glasses nose and eyebrows

What is a Cognitive Distortion?

A Cognitive Distortion is where we focus on particular aspects of an experience (often the 'negative' ones) and ignore or discount other aspects—thereby "distorting" our view of the world.

Why are Cognitive Distortions "Bad"?

People are usually completely unaware of how they distort their experience—whether it's the words they use aloud, or habitual thought patterns.

Yet Cognitive Distortions not only limit our choices, but the can also lead to unnecessary suffering—and sometimes make a situation worse when we act on incorrect assumptions.

Why do we "distort" our experience?

Well, it's often (but not always) unconscious. Of course some information always gets "lost in translation" when we use words to attempt to convey the richness of our experience and thoughts: a limited range of words can only attempt to describe the infinite possibilities of our experience.

Cognitive Distortions and Coaching

So as a coach, Cognitive Distortions are a great opportunity to raise our client's awareness and challenge their thought processes. When we spot a cognitive distortion, this allows us to raise our client's awareness and dig into the limiting beliefs people have about themselves, others and the world.

The two key ways we distort our experience

There are two other major overarching ways we lose the richness of our experience: "Generalising" and "Deleting" information.

  • Generalising is where we take one experience and then assume that a range of other experiences will be the same.
  • Deleting is where we take an experience, and "delete" certain aspects of the experience, and overly focus on others.

Now we'll take a look at 10 of the most common cognitive distortions. See if you can tell which is a generalisation or a deletion!

Here is a brief list of the 10 Most Common Cognitive Distortions:

  1. All or Nothing Thinking—also known as black or white thinking. Something is either all right—or all wrong...
  2. Overgeneralization. This is where we view a single negative experience as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Minimising or Magnifying (also Catastrophizing). This is when people play up or play down one particular aspect of an experience to their own detriment.
  4. Using "Shoulds", "Musts", "Ought tos". We're all familiar with these phrases used to criticize ourselves or others—and then feeling guilt or anger/frustration afterwards.
  5. Labelling (or Mislabelling). This is when we turn a single experience into a sweeping judgement, "He's a jerk", "I'm a failure", "She's a _____".
  6. Jumping to conclusions: where we make assumptions with little evidence to back it up.
    1) Mind-Reading—assumptions about what others are thinking.
    2) Fortune Telling—assumptions about what the future holds (or doesn't hold!).
  7. Discounting the positive: When we say, "Oh that? Anyone could have done it", or "It doesn't count because _____".
  8. Blame and Personalization: this is where we overblame ourselves, or blame others and deny our role in a situation.
  9. Emotional Reasoning. I feel _____, so it must be true. For example, I feel terrible so I must have done something wrong. Or I feel upset so they obviously meant to hurt me.
  10. Mental Filter. This is where we dwell on one small thing and then allow that to spoil the rest of our experience. Because he said _____, it spoiled my whole birthday party.

Get a Free Cognitive Distortions Handout

Cognitive Distortions List for Coaching

Click to get your Free Cognitive Distortions List

Check out our *FREE* Cognitive Distortions List Coaching Tool for a handy reference list of the 10 Most Common Cognitive Distortions. Use this in a coaching session to remind yourself, or give it out to clients to help them spot when they distort their experience.

This coaching tool comes complete with helpful descriptions and examples of how they are used!

TIP: Cognitive Distortions are not just 'negative' or limiting. Sometimes a cognitive distortion can lead to great creativity and new ideas...

Want to learn more about Cognitive Distortions? You may also like:

This is just one of our many coaching tools! Learn more about what coaching tools are, when to use them and how they can help in our Complete Guide to Coaching Tools here >>

Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce Kindness.com. She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools, resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

Image of Man wearing fake glasses etc to show Cognitive Distortion by VINCENT GIORDANO PHOTO via Shutterstock

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