Cognitive Distortions

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t- you’re right.Henry Ford

Yesterday’s post, “It’s either Perfection or Failure”, was inspired by my own experiences and belief system. For reasons too lengthy, too personal and too complex to write about at this point; I hold a belief within me that I need to be perfect, to be deserving of love. As a result, I find the prospect of failure very uncomfortable. This belief impacts me daily; my personality, my work ethic, my relationships and how I behave.

It’s not always negative, there are a lot of good things about wanting to work hard and do well. But, by the very nature of being human and, therefore, prone to make mistakes; I find myself increasingly frequently experiencing moral and psychological distress.

I’ve been believing this with such conviction and for so long, that it has been deeply cemented in my psyche. It probably started as an unhelpful thought; the posh word for thought being cognition. In the clinical world (particularly the Cognitive Behavioural side of things), these unhelpful patterns of thinking are called Cognitive Distortions.

One Cognition that I’ve already identified as having is: “If I don’t do it perfectly, I have failed.” This involves a Distortion called ‘Black and White Thinking’. As you can see, there’s no grey area or middle ground to my thinking, it’s either one way or the other.

There are lots of other Cognitive distortions too, so maybe have a look and see if you can identify any that relate to you.

Black and White Thinking Where thoughts are all or nothing, e.g. “If it’s not perfect, I’ve failed”

Fortune Telling Making predictions about the future and believing they’ll happen, e.g. “I knew it- he was never going to show up anyway.”

Over Generalising Making sweeping assumptions and seeing patterns, based on one or two events, e.g. “This always happens to me- everything is going wrong”

Catastrophising Expecting the worst- case scenario to happen or something terrible, e.g. “If I go on an aeroplane it’ll probably crash and i’ll die.”

Mental filter Only paying attention to certain pieces of information or evidence, e.g. “I read that line wrong so the entire thing was ruined.”

Disqualifying the positive Not giving yourself the credit or making excuses when you deserve reward or recognition e.g. “I was only doing my job”

Mind Reading Making assumptions based on what you think a person is thinking, e.g. “She doesn’t even like me, she wont come.”

Emotional Reasoning Believing something, based on the emotion you’re feeling, e.g. “I’m not coping and feel overwhelmed… I must be a failure.

Minimisation Making something sound less important than it is, e.g. “Don’t worry about me though, i’ll survive…”

Expectation Using phrases such as, “I should”, “I must”, “I ought”, makes you feel like you aren’t meeting standards or the expectations that are upon you. The language you use reinforces how you think and feel about yourself. E.g. “I should be doing better at this.” “I must not make a mistake” “I ought to have moved out by now”

Labelling Giving yourself derogatory titles, e.g. “I’m such an idiot/ loser/ failure…”

Personalisation Blaming yourself for something that was not completely within your control, e.g. “It’s all my fault, now they’re going to hate me”

Lack of accountability Blaming other people for your own actions or mistakes, e.g. “I was speeding, but she got in the way…”


Beck, A. T. (1964). Thinking and depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 10, 561-571.

Beck A.T., Rush A.J., Shaw B.F. & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: Guilford Press

Burns, D. (1980). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Morrow

11 thoughts on “Cognitive Distortions

  1. I understand, from my previous life as an educator, your discussion of cognitive-related issues. Each of us has our own unique wiring system, and I hope that you know that you are truly a gift and a blessing to so many people.

    From Philippians 4:13, Apostle Paul writes: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

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  2. One Cognition that I’ve already identified as having is: “If I don’t do it perfectly, I have failed.”

    I recall reading an interview with Earl Slick, ex Bowie Guitarist. He was talking about a mistake that he had made during the recording process, when the sound engineer said ‘we can fix that’. Slick so no – that’s my guitar part – warts and all. I really do believe that these ‘warts’ that we have make up who we are. Whether is Marylin Monroe’s mole on her face, or Earl Slick’s guitar gaff. They become part of us and become rather attractive, too.

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  3. Cognitive distortions are the bane of existence, but just because they are there one does not have to believe them. They are actually words that come from outside sources, words that we internalized somewhere along the line, and now have forgotten why or even that we internalized them. For many people it starts out as what we call a conscience, believing that we screwed up in some way. A conscience never congratulates a person for a job well done, or rewards that person for trying even though they were not able to accomplish a goal. It is not the tasks the person succeeded at that they remember, it is the ones they did not succeed at that haunt them. This is the conscience at work, and it does no one any good. It can drive us to be better, but usually it causes us to FAIL! That is a scary word, isn’t it, FAILURE! But what does it really mean? It means we TRIED, and maybe we didn’t have the right training (if any training at all), or we did not have the right tools. It can mean we were not adequate to the task, but we cannot discover that until we try! TRYING is what we have to learn to be proud of, not success. Success is what we expect of ourselves, just like our parents and teachers always expected success, OR AT LEAST WE THINK THEY DID! All of these things are cognitive distortions. TRYING is a sign that we are not perfect, but we can leafn to be better. Your “sketches” are very good, including the mouths. But you knew you had to go through a period of training, and a period of trying. You did not expect yourself to be perfect, yet look where you are. I could not draw two lines that look like anything; you draw a few lines and we know what you are drawing. If you were like me, unable to draw, would you feel like a failure? I don’t, because I have little interest in drawing. Words are my forte. Nor do I judge myself by other’s abilities. Rewarding yourself can be as simple as accepting that you xannot do everything, but that the things you can do well you do well.
    So, really, is it you being a failure as your conscience is telling you, or is it you being successful at those things you know you can do? You have to decide that for yourself.

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  4. Thank you. Again, you raise a good point. Yes, the prospect of failure is terrifying to me; Constant battles between inevitable human fallibility, the perspective of failure as a learning opportunity and the psychology within me, that to be perfect is to be deserving of love. You’re right, the concept of failure is a subjective one, given the right perspective. What can I say, I’m a work in progress!


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