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Cognitive Distortions: Changing Your Thinking in Order to Change Your Life


“If you think differently, you’ll act differently.” It’s a huge tenet of counseling. Counselors challenge thinking processes in order to change behaviors.

Some of these thinking patterns are called cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are filters  we set up for recognizing patterns in the world, but they aren’t accurate patterns. We set them up for our self-protection, but they do more harm than good.

Cognitive distortions are self-defeating and self-fulfilling

If you don’t trust your wife because women can’t be trusted, she’ll probably leave because she didn’t like how you treated her. Proving to you that she can’t be trusted. The cognitive distortion filter may never let yourself realize that you created the situation yourself.

Perfectionism lies at the root of cognitive distortions and it’s a terrible taskmaster. Expecting perfection from flawed human beings isn’t nice. Being human means we do great things and we do hurtful things. We need forgiveness from each other and ourselves. Sometimes we’re in control of things, and sometimes not.

The 15 Cognitive Distortions


Ignoring all the positive, only noticing the negative.

Polarized thinking

Also called “black and white thinking.” Things are either black or white, no shades of gray.


Focusing on the bad, ignoring the good, and predicting the worst possible outcome.


Believing that all experiences and people are the same based on a negative experience.

Jumping to Conclusions

Believing something about someone or a situation with little to no evidence to support this conclusion.

Global labeling/mislabeling

Turning one or two experiences into a blanket judgment. Like overgeneralization, but with emotionally-loaded and exaggerated language.


Holding to a belief that you are responsible for anything bad that happens to you, at least partially.

Control Fallacies

Either everything is your fault, or nothing is.


Holding others responsible for any negative event, instead of acknowledging your own role in a situation.

Fallacy of Fairness

Being overly-focused on whether everything is fair.

Emotional Reasoning

Deciding what is true and false based on your emotions.


Holding others and yourself to a high standard.

Fallacy of Change

Expecting others to change to meet your expectations or desires.

Always Being Right

Not allowing yourself or others to be wrong.

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

Any good that you do will be rewarded in kind.

Do Any of These Sound Familiar?

I bet they do. We all engage in some of these traps from time to time. Especially when things are hard,it’s easy to fall into thinking patterns that don’t help us.

When cognitive distortions are directed at you

Some cognitive distortions direct inward.They’re about how you see yourself.

Control Fallacies, Personalization, Always Being Right, and Heavens Reward are all directed right at you–they make you your own punisher.

There’s a reason why the 1st Step in 12 Step Programs is recognizing you are powerless over your life–it’s to break through the barriers these distortions create. In AA, they call distortions  “Stinking Thinking.” They get in the way. They’re inflexible, harsh, and negative. They feed your depression, despair, and anxiety. They keep you from getting better.

Perfectionism keeps you from getting started

If 100 percent success is the only standard you have, starting becomes insurmountable. That’s why in recovery, there’s a “one day at a time” emphasis. Rather than “I’m never taking another drink again,” for a long time, the focus is “I need to get through today without a drink.”

In treatment, you’ll learn you were wrong about a great many things. You made a boatload of mistakes, and a huge part of any treatment plan is coming to terms with that, forgiving yourself, and making things right where you can. It’s a painful process, but an infinitely human one.

The purpose of treatment is to open yourself up to learning again. Cognitive distortions close you off from learning and growing. Even relapse is a learning experience if you can learn how to avoid your triggers the next time and find new motivation.

When you direct cognitive distortions at others

When I was a teen, my dad retired from his job and went off to law school, leaving my mom to work, take care of me, and get the house ready to sell. He’d wanted to paint the store room, but hadn’t. He left it for my mom.

She didn’t get around to it for the same reason that my dad didn’t–it was an overwhelming task for one person to do. But my dad came home for Thanksgiving irate. He felt betrayed that she hadn’t gotten around to painting this one little room that was loaded with stuff and lined with shelves that also needed to be painted.

He could’ve recognized  it was a daunting task. They could’ve embarked on this project together or hired a handyman. But because she knew how he’d react, she spent three months being overwhelmed by the prospect and afraid of his reaction. And he reacted exactly how she knew he would.

This is what our cognitive distortions do to the people we love. We put standards on them that we don’t apply to ourselves, and they get in the way of real and helpful interaction. They distort small things into something divisive and mean.

Cognitive distortions keep you from accepting the blame that actually is yours

Cognitive distortions not only cause you to bear too much of what’s going on in your life, they help you rationalize away the things that you really should take responsibility for.

  • When the world is NEVER fair…
  • When how you feel at the moment decides what’s right or wrong…
  • When you only see the bad…
  • When it’s always someone else’s fault…

…it doesn’t seem like your fault. You don’t have to be in control. Someone else made you do what you did. While part of that is true, it keeps you from changing your life.

At Spring Gardens Recovery, We’re Here to Help

At Spring Gardens Recovery, we set up our treatment program to give opportunities to be good to yourself and others.

Through counseling, support groups, and our various experiential therapies, you’ll learn to be more open with yourself and others. We’ll help you challenge the thinking patterns that don’t serve you and we’ll support you as you work toward change.

We’re here. Give us a call at (866) 244-9556 or contact us on our webpage.

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