Ever wonder why your thinking gets so distorted? You know, those times when your mind plays tricks on you and convinces you of things that aren’t really true? The bad news is that those cognitive distortions aren’t just random glitches in your brain. The good news is that there are some simple explanations for why your mind warps reality like that. It turns out that the root causes of your cognitive distortions boil down to just a few key factors.

Once you understand what causes cognitive distortions or what’s really behind your distorted thoughts, you’ll be in a much better position to catch them, challenge them, and straighten out your thinking. So let’s dive in and explore the major causes of cognitive distortions—what they are, how they develop, and what you can do about them. It’s time to get your thinking back on track!

The Psychology Behind Cognitive Distortions

Our thoughts aren’t always rational. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thoughts that can influence our emotions and behaviors. Where do these distorted thoughts come from?

A lot has to do with life experiences and learning. The way we were raised and the events we’ve gone through shape our core beliefs about ourselves, the world, and the future. If you were often criticized as a child, you may have developed an “internal critic” that fuels negative self-talk and low self-esteem. Traumatic or abusive experiences can also twist your thinking in unhealthy ways.

Environment and lifestyle play a role too.

The people you surround yourself with and the media you consume can strengthen cognitive distortions. If you’re exposed to a constant barrage of unrealistic societal standards and fear mongering, it’s easy to become anxious, judgmental, and pessimistic.

Stress and a lack of self-care contribute as well. When you’re tired, overwhelmed, or not taking good care of yourself physically and emotionally, your ability to think rationally and objectively decreases. Negative thoughts spiral out of control more easily.

The good news is that cognitive distortions can be challenged and overcome. Awareness of the underlying causes is the first step. Then, you can work to address unhealthy patterns and nurture more constructive ways of viewing yourself and the world. With time and practice, rational, balanced thinking can become your habit.

What Causes Cognitive Distortions

Some common cognitive biases that contribute to cognitive distortions are:

1. Unrealistic Expectations: Why We Set Ourselves Up for Failure

Unrealistic Expectations Why We Set Ourselves Up for Failure
Unrealistic Expectations Why We Set Ourselves Up for Failure

We all have certain expectations in life that just aren’t realistic. The problem is, we often don’t realize it until it’s too late, and we’ve already set ourselves up for disappointment or even failure.

One of the biggest unrealistic expectations many of us have is that we can do it all. We pile on responsibility after responsibility, commitment after commitment, thinking we’ll somehow manage to get everything done without dropping a ball or sacrificing our health and relationships. News flash: It’s impossible. No one can do it all, no matter how productive or motivated they are. You’ll need to learn to say no, prioritize what’s really important, and accept that some things just won’t get done.

Another unrealistic expectation is that you can control everything. The truth is, there are so many factors outside our control: how other people act and react, unexpected events, health issues, and natural disasters. Life is unpredictable. The healthiest approach is to focus on what you can influence and accept what you can’t. Prepare and plan as best you can, but also learn to adapt to changes and roadblocks. The less you try to control, the less anxiety and disappointment you’ll experience.

Finally, many of us expect that we should achieve and succeed all the time. We believe every day should be productive and purposeful. But the reality is that everyone fails, struggles, and experiences setbacks. No one can be on their A-game 24/7. It’s vital to build rest, downtime, and play into your life. Take a break when you need it, do something fun, and don’t be so hard on yourself. Success is a journey, not a destination. Learn to appreciate small wins along the way.

With realistic expectations, you’ll find greater peace of mind and contentment in life. And when things don’t go as planned, you’ll be better equipped to handle them. So do yourself a favor and ditch those unrealistic expectations once and for all. Your mental health will thank you.

2. Negative Self-Talk: How Our Inner Voice Sabotages Us

Negative Self-Talk How Our Inner Voice Sabotages Us
Negative Self-Talk How Our Inner Voice Sabotages Us

Our inner voice, the constant stream of thoughts in our mind, can be our own worst enemy. This “self-talk” directly influences our moods and behaviors. When this voice is critical and judgmental, it leads to cognitive distortions that sabotage our happiness and success.

The way we talk to ourselves has a huge impact on our self-esteem and mental health. Harsh self-criticism causes anxiety, stress, and depression. Unfortunately, negative self-talk comes naturally to many of us. We were exposed to critical voices as children and internalized them.

Some common forms of negative self-talk include:

  • Labeling yourself as “stupid” or “useless” over small mistakes
  • Catastrophizing minor setbacks into the worst possible outcomes
  • All-or-nothing thinking views situations as either perfect or a total failure.
  • Mind reading involves assuming you know what others think of you, usually in a negative way.
  • Fortune-telling involves making negative predictions about how things will turn out without considering more positive outcomes.

The good news is that we can retrain our inner voice to be more compassionate. It takes conscious effort and practice to overcome years of negative self-talk habits. Some tips to try:

• Identify negative thoughts and talk back to them with more constructive responses. Call out distorted thinking and replace it with more balanced thoughts.

• Practice self-compassion. Be gentle with yourself and avoid harsh self-judgment. Treat yourself with the same kindness you show others.

• Focus on your strengths and accomplishments rather than perceived weaknesses or failures. Be your own best cheerleader.

• Speak to yourself with encouragement and praise. Replace “I can’t” with “I can” and “I’m going to give this my best shot.” Your self-talk shapes your reality.

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Our inner voice is a powerful tool that can either build us up or tear us down. With conscious effort, you can reframe negative self-talk and learn to be your own best friend. Supportive self-talk leads to greater confidence, happiness, and success in all areas of life. The choice is yours.

3. Emotional Reasoning: Why Feelings Aren’t Facts

Emotional Reasoning Why Feelings Aren't Facts
Emotional Reasoning Why Feelings Aren’t Facts

Emotional reasoning is when you believe your feelings reflect the truth. Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t make it a fact. Our emotions are often unreliable and prone to distortion. They can be influenced by many factors, like our mood, experiences, beliefs, and biases.

Feelings aren’t facts.

When you’re feeling anxious, sad, or upset, it’s easy to draw negative conclusions that aren’t grounded in reality. For example, if you feel stupid after making a mistake at work, you may tell yourself, “I’m incompetent.” But that’s emotional reasoning; just because you feel that way in the moment doesn’t make it true. Your abilities and self-worth aren’t defined by a single error or what your emotions are telling you.

The same applies for positive emotions. Just because you feel happy and optimistic doesn’t necessarily mean everything in your life is perfect or going your way. Emotions fluctuate, so you can’t rely on them alone to determine the truth or predict the outcome of situations.

Check the evidence.

To avoid emotional reasoning, look at the situation objectively. What evidence supports or contradicts how you feel? Are there alternative explanations or perspectives you haven’t considered? Talk to others to gain a more balanced view.

Try to adopt a rational and logical mindset. Remind yourself that you can’t trust your feelings alone. Look for proof to back up your conclusions about yourself, others, or events in your life. If there are no facts to support how you feel, then your reasoning is likely distorted. Make an effort to consider other possibilities that are grounded in reality, not just emotions.

Over time, practicing this approach can help strengthen your ability to evaluate situations accurately and rationally, even when emotions run high. You’ll get better at recognizing emotional reasoning and putting feelings into proper perspective.

4. Mind Reading: Guessing What Others Think About You

Mind Reading Guessing What Others Think About You
Mind Reading Guessing What Others Think About You

Mind reading, or assuming you know what others think about you, is one of the most common cognitive distortions. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you have some magical ability to read people’s minds and know their innermost thoughts. But the truth is, you have no way of really knowing what others think or feel about you.

When you start mind reading, you’re usually guessing in a negative way. You assume the worst about what others think of you—that your friend seemed quiet because she’s mad at you, or that your coworker didn’t say “hello” because he doesn’t like you. In reality, there are many possible reasons for their behavior that have nothing to do with you.

To overcome mind reading:

Recognize that you can’t actually read minds. You have no way of knowing for sure what others think or feel about you. Their actions and words often say more about them than they do about you.

Don’t assume the worst. Our anxieties tend to make us think people judge us more harshly than they actually do. Give others the benefit of the doubt.

• Look for alternative explanations. A friend seems quiet. Maybe she’s tired or has something else on her mind. A coworker didn’t greet you? He could be preoccupied with a work issue and not even have noticed you. There are many possible reasons beyond dislike or judgment.

Ask clarifying questions. If you’re truly concerned about someone’s feelings or thoughts about you, politely ask them to clarify. Say something like, “I may be misreading things, but I get the sense something seems off. Is everything okay?” Let them know you’ve been prone to mind reading and are working to overcome it.

Focus on your own thoughts and feelings. You can’t control what others think; you can only control your reaction. Don’t let mind-reading make you feel bad about yourself. Your own self-worth isn’t defined by what others may or may not think about you.

With practice, you can overcome mind reading and learn to recognize that you have no way of knowing for sure what others think. Free yourself from negative assumptions and instead focus on surrounding yourself with people who appreciate you for who you are.

5. The Impact of Confirmation Bias on Your Thinking

The Impact of Confirmation Bias on Your Thinking
The Impact of Confirmation Bias on Your Thinking

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms your preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. This cognitive distortion impacts how you think in many ways.

You tend to seek out information that supports what you already believe. When you come across information that contradicts your beliefs, you ignore it or look for ways to discredit it. You give more credibility to sources that align with your views while doubting those that don’t.

Confirmation bias also leads you to interpret neutral or ambiguous information as supportive of your beliefs. You twist facts to fit what you want to be true. For example, if you believe vaccines are unsafe, you may interpret a coincidental health issue arising around the same time as a vaccination as causation, even without concrete evidence.

Your memory is also affected by confirmation bias. You have an easier time recalling experiences and events that reinforce your beliefs while forgetting those that contradict them. Over time, this selective memory strengthens your convictions even more.

The impact of confirmation bias on thinking is significant. It leads to poor decision-making, close-mindedness, and hostility towards different viewpoints. The good news is that you can work to overcome confirmation bias by exposing yourself to alternative perspectives, fact-checking questionable claims, and considering other explanations. Making an effort to understand those with opposing views can help create more balanced thinking and open-mindedness.

Overcoming the effects of confirmation bias is challenging but worthwhile for cultivating a more objective and fair-minded outlook. With conscious effort and practice, you can overcome this common cognitive distortion.

6. Catastrophizing: Expecting the Worst-Case Scenario

Catastrophizing Expecting the Worst-Case Scenario
Catastrophizing Expecting the Worst-Case Scenario

Catastrophizing is when you automatically assume the worst will happen, even though there’s little evidence to support that conclusion. It’s a type of cognitive distortion that fuels anxiety and stress. When you catastrophize, you blow things out of proportion and magnify the negative possibilities, often imagining unrealistic worst-case scenarios.

For example, say you have a big presentation at work next week. If you catastrophize the situation, your thoughts might go something like this:

  • “I’m going to mess up and embarrass myself in front of everyone.”
  • “My boss will realize I’m no good at this job and fire me.”
  • “Everyone will think I’m an idiot, and my career will be ruined.”

In reality, the presentation will probably go just fine, and none of those disastrous outcomes will happen. But in the moment, catastrophizing causes very real feelings of fear and distress.

Some other examples of catastrophizing thoughts include:

  • “If I make one small mistake, it will be a total failure.”
  • “If I start to feel anxious, I’ll have a full-blown panic attack.”
  • “If this relationship ends, I’ll never find love again.”

To combat catastrophizing, try challenging those irrational thoughts with more balanced and realistic thinking. Look for evidence that contradicts your worst-case scenario and try putting the situation in perspective. Even if things don’t go perfectly, the consequences are rarely as dire as we imagine. With practice, you can overcome catastrophic thinking and gain a healthier outlook.

The key is recognizing these unrealistic thoughts as they arise and avoiding exaggerating the negative. Focus on the facts, not the fear. Your anxiety will thank you, and you’ll find yourself better able to handle life’s uncertainties in a calmer way.

7. Black and White Thinking: Why We Lack Nuance

Black and White Thinking Why We Lack Nuance
Black and White Thinking Why We Lack Nuance

Black and white thinking, also known as polarized thinking, refers to seeing things in absolute terms—as either good or bad, right or wrong. Nuance and complexity go out the window. This type of cognitive distortion can negatively impact your relationships and decision-making.

Why do we tend to think at such extremes? A few reasons:

• Lack of emotional regulation When you’re stressed, anxious, or upset, it’s harder to think logically and see shades of gray. Your emotions override your rational mind.

•Cognitive laziness. It’s easier to categorize something as all good or all bad than to evaluate it objectively. Nuanced thinking requires mental effort.

•Learned behavior. You may have picked up black-and-white thinking from your parents or role models growing up. Their extreme views became your own.

• Need for control If you see the world in absolutes, it feels more predictable and controllable. Ambiguity and uncertainty are uncomfortable.

Self-protection. It may feel safer to label something as “all bad” to avoid getting hurt or disappointed. But this robs you of experiencing the good.

The truth is, most things in life are not purely good or bad. People are complex, situations are nuanced, and there are many perspectives to consider on any given issue. To overcome black-and-white thinking:

• Challenge extreme thoughts. Look for exceptions to the rule and consider other angles. Ask yourself, “What’s another way of viewing this?”

•Stay calm. Take a few deep breaths to gain a more balanced perspective. Your emotions will not serve you well here.

•Practice empathy. Try to understand different viewpoints and why others may see things differently than you. Look for common ground.

•Embrace ambiguity. Learn to get comfortable with uncertainty and not needing definitive answers. The world is messy and complex, not black and white.

With practice, you can retrain your mind to embrace more nuanced thinking. The world becomes a richer and more interesting place when you start seeing shades of gray.

8. Shoulds and Musts: The Tyranny of Strict Rules

Shoulds and Musts The Tyranny of Strict Rules
Shoulds and Musts The Tyranny of Strict Rules

The tyranny of “shoulds” and “musts” refers to the strict rules we impose on ourselves that end up causing distress and anxiety. These absolutes suggest there is only one right way to do things, and if we fail to meet these unrealistic expectations, we are somehow inadequate or unworthy.

You’ve probably said things to yourself like:

  • I should always please everyone.
  • I must never show weakness.
  • I have to be the best at everything I do.

The problem with these statements is that they are extreme and inflexible. No one can be perfect all the time. Life is messy and complicated. Rigid rules don’t account for difficult realities or situations outside of our control.

Rather than motivating us in a constructive way, “shoulds” and “musts” often have the opposite effect. We feel stressed, overwhelmed, and like we can never measure up. This diminishes our confidence and self-esteem over the long run.

A healthier alternative is to replace these absolutes with more flexible and compassionate statements:

  • I will do my best to consider everyone’s needs.
  • It’s okay to feel vulnerable sometimes.
  • I will aim to improve at things that really matter to me.

The next time you notice a “should” or “must” thought, challenge it. Ask yourself questions like:

Is this rule really necessary or helpful?

• What are the costs of not meeting this expectation? Are they really catastrophic?

• Can I reframe this in a kinder, less extreme way?

Freeing yourself from the grip of “shoulds” and “musts” is liberating. You’ll feel less stressed and more at ease. Life becomes an exciting journey of growth rather than a constant test you have to pass or fail. Give yourself permission to be human—imperfect but perfectly worthy of love. You deserve nothing less.

How do Cognitive Distortions Develop?

Cognitive distortions don’t develop overnight. They are learned patterns of negative or irrational thinking that build up over time through life experiences, interactions, and interpretations of events.

When you’re young, your mind is impressionable. The ways of thinking modeled by parents, teachers, and other influential adults in your life can shape how you perceive and interpret the world. If the adults around you tended to think in an exaggerated, polarized, or illogical manner, there’s a good chance you learned and adopted those ways of thinking yourself.

Traumatic or highly stressful life events can also trigger the development of cognitive distortions. When you experience something painful or scary, especially in childhood, your mind tries to make sense of it. Sometimes the explanations we come up with are unreasonable or untrue, but they provide a sense of understanding and control over the situation. Over time, these explanations turn into habitual ways of thinking.

Your environment and experiences continue to influence your thinking as you age. Interactions, relationships, media consumption, and life events all have an impact. If you are frequently exposed to polarized, dramatized, or irrational messages, it can normalize those ways of thinking and make cognitive distortions seem believable or even truthful.

The good news is that cognitive distortions are learned, so they can be unlearned. By developing self-awareness about your thinking patterns, evaluating thoughts objectively, and practicing more balanced and realistic thinking, you can overcome cognitive distortions. It takes ongoing effort and mindfulness, but replacing distorted thoughts with more constructive ones will help you see yourself and the world more clearly.

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While the origins of cognitive distortions may be complex, awareness and intentional effort can help reshape your mindset over time. With regular practice, balanced and reasonable thinking can become your new normal.

Take Away

So there you have it. Your thoughts aren’t always as rational or objective as you’d like to believe. Your brain takes shortcuts and makes assumptions to help you navigate the world efficiently, even if those mental leaps aren’t entirely accurate. The good news is that now you know some of the common culprits behind your cognitive distortions: anxiety, lack of sleep, emotional reasoning, attribution errors, and so on.

The truth is, we’re all prone to these distortions from time to time. But awareness is half the battle. Now that you can spot some of these distorted thoughts in yourself, you’ll be in a much better position to challenge them. It may take practice, but with conscious effort, you can absolutely reframe those thoughts into something more balanced and realistic.

Your mind may play tricks on you, but you’re still the one in control of your thoughts. Stay aware of your cognitive distortions, be kind to yourself, get enough rest, and remember that your thoughts alone don’t define you or your reality. You’ve got this!


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