Distorted Ways of Thinking

I like to believe that I’m fairly intelligent. I like to think that I can rationalize my way through just about anything. When I went into treatment and sat in a group, we went over some of the common distorted ways of thinking. I was shocked when I read this list and realized how many of them I had! Half of me was upset that I could label all of these ways of thinking as distorted, but the other half was thankful that it was labeled and that meant it could be fixed!!! I’ll place the common list below so you can see. Truthfully, some of these are very common, so don’t be shocked if you see yourself doing some of these at times! For people with eating disorders, it was kind of funny to hear us go around the room and say “yep – 8-10” or “I’m 9-10 of these”….. to me, looking back, that’s a lot of distorted ways of thinking to be engaging in all the time. And, those ways of thinking were ways that we thought were true! So, although these will sound outrageous, note that eating disordered people believe that this information as true. This takes perfectionism to a whole new level.

Ten common cognitive distortions appear below. They are based on theories of cognitive therapy expounded by Aaron T. Beck, M.D., which were further refined and brought to popular attention by David D. Burns, M.D. Do any of these distortions resonate with you? Use this list to help make you aware of ingrained negative thought patterns and try to substitute more realistic, positive thoughts.

Distorted Thinking Patterns (Cognitive Distortions)
Here’s the 10 distorted thinking patterns according to Dr. Burns. Burns writes:

  • 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.
  • Overgeneralization  – You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • Emotional Reasoning – You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Personalization – You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

Mike said I needed to break this up with pictures…. he was sad when he didn’t see any…. here ya go:

Bella Bear

Now, I’ll give you some better examples of a few, but you’re about to drive into crazy town! You have the option now to pull a big fat U-turn and go on away from this page, or you can wait for the green light and head on into crazy town! Just know, once you get into crazy town, there is no turning back! 🙂

The one I struggle with the most is the black and white thinking or the “all-or-nothing thinking.” This is probably the one for which I’m the biggest offender.

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.

This might not be just in performance, but in all areas of life! I have been working hard on recovery at treatment and I had to have a challenge at dinner just before going to Europe with my students. I still needed to work on being okay with Italian food so I decided I had to go all out to be ready for Europe in time (all-or-nothing thinking). My dinner was a slice of pizza, chips, slice of chocolate cake and juice. I haven’t had any of these items in months to a year! BAD NEWS BEARS!!! Amy, the therapist, came to me and said, “wow, what’s going on here?” because she knew that many challenge items was unheard of and I was making up for missing an item at lunch. Frankly, I thought I had to go big or go home, but all I had to do was meet my meal plan. I didn’t have to go all out. She said that I didn’t have to have that many challenge items in one meal – hell it was a challenge meal – and that what I was doing was making the challenge all-or-nothing.

I did this with a challenge when I got out of treatment – I wanted to be able to eat the big gigantic scary muffins – you know the HUGE ones that are the size of your head! (exaggeration? Duh, NO!) So I take this muffin into one of my appointments and I was determined to prove that I could beat a challenge by taking on this massive muffin! Now, I could have had a regular muffin…. I didn’t have to go with King Kong’s breakfast here! But this was all-or-nothing — if I couldn’t tackle that scary muffin, then I was NOT beating this eating disorder.

Another example might be that I have to have a perfect on my observation with no suggestions for teaching or I consider it a failed observation. It’s completely satisfactory, but if they give me a suggestion, then I have just failed as a teacher (I know, crazy, right?).

With all-or-nothing thinking we lose the gray area. We fail to find that there is a middle ground. It’s either one side or the other; right or wrong. I know I personally have a hard time finding the gray area in many situations. I see everything as black or white. If I followed my meal plan, it was 100% or not (I couldn’t dare give myself a 90%). One mistake meant a failure. This one is hard to break! This also goes with trying to find balance in your life – balance is the gray area that we want attain.

You have the option right now to take a quick highway out of crazy town and leave this page! 🙂 There is still time to not think “holy cow, Rachel is craaaaaaaaazy” 🙂

Another picture needed??? Okay.


This next one is another favorite! I think many of us do this at time, but some just take it to extremes!

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.

I’m such an offender of this one. I will always assume the negative side of something even though there is no chance that I could have done something. I’ll always assume it even if there is no concrete support – if there is the slightest chance of my idea being true then it’s true.

A. Mind reading – This is what I do. I’ll send an email to a colleague for information or asking for a meeting, or collaboration etc. and if I don’t get an email back for a while I begin to think, “They are mad at me, what did I do? I must have done something to upset them, what could it be?” In all reality I did nothing, and I won’t ask for fear of confirming that I did really do something wrong. In true reality, the people were probably never at their desk, or too busy. I’ll even find this to be true later, and time and time again AFTER knowing that, I’ll still think the same thing! (I swear pigeons learn faster than me at times! Haha)

B. The fortune teller error – I’m the culprit of this! I have a tendency to “already see” how things will work out, and what’s the use in trying if you know the ending!! Most likely that ending that I predict won’t happen, but I’m already sure of it so it is what it is.

Another picture?

Yes, Sophie loves snuggies and reading! She’s one smart poodle.

She’s cultured!

In both of these situations, I will never have proof. I will base them off simple, fast information and call them the truth. Talk about distorted!

Even though I know that these ways of thinking are distorted, I don’t notice it when is happening. In the moment, I don’t see that I am minimizing my own accomplishment, or disqualifying my positive qualities, or generalizing and saying that “everybody is the same and this will always happen to me.” It’s hard to see that you’re doing that! I see it after the fact and can rationally see how it was distorted. It takes a while, but I am just beginning to recognize some of it (mainly black and white thinking because that’s my biggest offense!) in the moment.

The idea is to try to recognize the distorted pattern and replace it with something positive. When I catch myself in the black and white thinking stage I can simply say, “okay, this is black and white thinking, where can I find gray area?” and I can start the process of finding positive there. These patterns lead down negative routes of thinking, but they can be broken. I won’t lie….. it is freaking hard! Over half of the time I have no clue that I’m thinking these crazy things!!! 🙂 So, if you ever hear me talk about fighting the negative thoughts, or trying to refocus thoughts, this is just one tiny part of that job that we do.

I didn’t realize recovery was this much work when I started! It’s hard as hell! This whole process is a little more complicated than I thought. I think there will be a huge amount of pride when this is all said and done. 🙂

Looking at the list of distorted ways of thinking – if you have those patterns at times it doesn’t mean you’re crazy! When I say this was my way of thinking, I mean it was ALL THE TIME! These patterns were the ONLY ways that I thought. Pretty negative, right?

So, looking at the list…. Have you ever found yourself stuck in any of the patterns? Did you read the list and think, “yep, I sometimes do that”? If so, do you think next time you’re in that situation you can find a way to take a positive route out of the negative pattern?

We can only fight the negative with the positive.

Update: Although many of these patterns have existed in my head and I see them more with the new furlough, I am still following my meal plan!! So, I’m at 5.5 weeks of following my meal plan!!!! 🙂 What does that mean for Ed? Bazinga, punk! 🙂


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