Cognitive Distortions

Nearly everyone experiences some kind of cognitive distortion over the course of their life, and it is easy to slip into the habit of relying on them as mental supports when we experience stress, anxiety or depression. These distortions can become so deeply embedded in us that they generate “automatic thoughts” that can be difficult but assuredly not impossible to challenge.

In 1979, psychologist Aaron T. Beck and his colleagues identified several types of cognitive distortions to which people are vulnerable—and upon which the field of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has built therapeutic strategies over the decades.


Personalization involves thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to oneself. People engaging in personalization tend to constantly compare themselves to others and relate external events to themselves when there is no basis for making such a connection. Example: Dr. Mendoza didn’t make eye contact with me—she must think I’m stupid and not worth her time.


Overgeneralization is the tendency to come to a general rule or conclusion based on one isolated incident or a single piece of evidence. People prone to overgeneralization apply the conclusion across most situations regardless of whether it is relevant or unrelated to a specific situation. Example: Last time I went to a class party, no one talked to me and I hated it. I just don’t have what it takes to make friends.


Catastrophizing (also called fortune-telling) involves attributing such significance or magnitude to an event or concern that it assumes disastrous consequences. People prone to catastrophizing anticipate worst-case scenarios to an unrealistic extent. Example: If I can’t perform this suture perfectly, they’ll never let me touch another patient.


Mind reading is the tendency to make inferences about how people feel and think without their explicitly saying so. People engaging in mind reading unrealistically believe they are able to divine what others think or feel about them. Example:  Dr. Gutierrez heard me fumble during my meeting with the patient’s family and he hasn’t let me be alone with them since. I’m sure he thinks my bedside manner is hopeless.