10 Distorted Thinking Patterns


What are the most common ways we warp our view of the world? 

In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated, David Burns highlights 10 distorted thinking patterns that work against a healthy outlook on life.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Know the patterns.  Familiarize yourself with the ten distorted thinking patterns.
  • Recognize distorted thought patterns.  Once you know the patterns, you can start to recognize thought patterns that may not be serving you well.
  • Challenge your own thinking.   See if the patterns resonate especially in situations where your thinking or feeling is not particularly effective.  For example, you might find that you have a habit of jumping to negative conclusions, without actual facts, or you might find that you let negative emotions get in the way of interpreting your situation.

I think the key is to use this list to challenge your own thinking. In any scenario where your thinking starts to seem particularly negative, it’s good to sanity check against the patterns below.

10 Distorted Thinking Patterns (Cognitive Distortions)

Here are the 10 distorted thinking patterns according to Dr. Burns.  Burns writes:

  1. All-Or-Nothing Thinking – You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  2. Overgeneralization – You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental Filter – You pick out a single negative defeat and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water.
  4. Disqualifying the positive – You dismiss positive experiences by insisting they "don’t count" for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  5. Jumping to conclusions – You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    A. Mind reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
    B. The fortune teller error. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  6. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization– You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the "binocular trick."
  7. Emotional Reasoning – You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true.
  8. Should Statements – You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling – This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: "I’m a loser." When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: "He’s a goddam louse." Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. Personalization – You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

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13 Comments on "10 Distorted Thinking Patterns"

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  1. Anonymous says:

    This is great. I recognize those feelings in myself. I’m going to print this out and examine my thoughts.

  2. iamjerry1 says:

    Your readers will also likely enjoy this follow-up to your excellent postings. It is a copy of Dr. Harriet Braiker’s 1989 “Power of Self-Talk” article, which appeared in Psychology Today magazine. I share it with each of my new patients. The .doc file is hosted by UCLA here:

    To simplify your overall health care, by improving your emotional health with psychology-related links, E-books, hypnosis and other FREE self-help programs, try visiting

    Jerry Solfanelli

  3. J.D. Meier says:

    Great suggestion Jerry! I gave Dr. Bralker’s article a quick read and found it insightful, pragmatic and actionable. It’s true timeless advice.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Learning to identify thinking errors was one of the best things I have ever done. Some other thinking errors include:

    blaming – placing blame on others, things or situations and finding fault with them.

    polarized thinking – everythng is either good or bad.

    Mind reading – concluding what others think and do without proof.

  5. Sharmila says:

    JD, I really enjoyed this blog!
    I could especially relate to these categories:
    # Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization
    # Emotional Reasoning
    # Should Statements – getting better at this one, but i do have a few left in my personal belief system of what is acceptable and what is not and it gets mixed up with what is out of my control which then makes me feel victim to it, if i let myself dwell there in a panic moment! getting better in this area though! thankfully!

    still really struggle with the first 1 especially and the second sorta

    thanks for sharing!

  6. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Jen

    Thank you.

    Two things that I’ve found that help with emotional reasoning are:
    1. use emotions as input
    2. explore alternative stories

    They’re simple but effective.