Is Your Thinking Distorted?

By Ernest Schmidt, LCSW

The way you think influences who you are. Although this may seem obvious, let me break this down to show the importance of this idea in your life. How you think about something (thoughts) affects how you feel (emotions) which in turn affects how you act (behavior). How you act then, affects how you think and feel. Can you see the cycle? 
Thinking feeling behaving thinking feeling etc.
For example, when I think I am a bad teacher (thought) I feel sad and discouraged (feelings) I teach with less enthusiasm and passion (behavior) I receive poor evaluations and then I really believe I am a bad teacher (thought) and the cycle continues downward.

So what does distorted in “distorted thinking” mean anyway? Distorted means inaccurate, irrational, not quite right, false, not completely true, or that there is an error of some sort. When it comes to distorted thinking, all of these definitions will work. When you feel really upset, anxious, angry, scared, ashamed or any other intense emotion it is likely that your thinking is not quite right or distorted.

One way to feel better is to first identify what thoughts are causing your emotions and then to check to see if any of these thoughts have errors or distortions in them. By finding the mistakes in your thinking you begin to see that your thoughts are not entirely true. This can greatly reduce the emotion that it was causing, since you no longer believe the upsetting thought. For instance, when I feel anxious sometimes I think people will see I am anxious and that they will think that I am weak. This thought causes me sadness, shame, and more anxiety. If I look for distortions or errors in this thought I will see that there are many; fortune telling, mind reading, and labeling to name just a few (see list of distortions on the next page). Do I really know that people can see my anxiety or that they will always think badly about me because I appear anxious? I am also labeling myself as weak, but if I feel anxious is that enough information to conclude that I am a weak human being or less than someone who isn’t feeling anxious?

By finding these distortions I show myself that my upsetting thought is not entirely true which results in less sadness, shame, and anxiety. You may be thinking that this is too simple to make any difference (fortune telling), but in reality this can be a powerful tool to help you feel better. Please review the following page: Common Distorted Thought Patterns and see if you can spot any errors that you have in your thinking. Let’s find out whether this works for you!
Common Distorted Thought Patterns

I have written the following based on my experience with cognitive therapy and having read numerous books that describe thinking errors, mistakes, or cognitive distortions. These ideas are adapted from David Burns, M.D., who was the first to label these distortions in his best-selling self-help book Feeling Good, the New Mood Therapy.

Mind Reading: 
You automatically assume you know what others are thinking or feeling. Even if you have good reasons to believe you are correct, you are often wrong. “She’s angry with me,” “They think I’m boring,” “He’s disappointed in me.”

Fortune Telling: 
You predict the future in mostly negative ways. “I am going to fail the test tomorrow,” “The audience will be bored with my material,” “I will never get promoted,” “My children will not make it in life”. Very often this type of fortune telling causes unnecessary worry and anxiety. Last time I checked, no one could predict the future with 100% certainty.

You negatively label yourself through broad generalizations — “I am a nervous wreck, an idiot, a jerk, a failure” — but you leave out the crucial specifics and don’t realistically evaluate your current situation — “I am tight due to my nervousness and my voice is quivering, but I am not a nervous wreck.”

This distortion mostly defines itself. You make sweeping statements based on one or two events. You oversimplify or take a broad view that is not well supported by the circumstances. “He is always rude to me,” “Traveling is always difficult,” “All employers expect perfection and are unforgiving.”

You blow things out of proportion or magnify them beyond what is factual. You give too much importance to one thing or situation, and this causes unnecessary emotional distress. “I am the biggest jerk in the world,” “I will die of embarrassment,” “I am having a nervous breakdown.”

This means you tend to think in terms of catastrophes or disasters. “Because I forgot to put out the napkins, the whole party is ruined,” “My career is over since I blanked out during my presentation.” Upsetting events can be difficult to deal with, but they are usually not catastrophic. When you exaggerate the effects, you torture yourself with unnecessary anxiety.

All or Nothing or Black and White: 
You see things all one way or another — either black or white — with no middle ground. “I am unsuccessful” or “I am a bad wife/husband.” The world typically does not work this way. Usually things occur on a range or continuum. Often things are neither black nor white, but somewhere in the middle.

Emotional Reasoning: 
You make assumptions based on how you feel; you ignore the facts, but are excessively tuned into your feelings. For instance, “I feel worried, therefore I am unsafe” or “I feel guilty, therefore I did something wrong” or “I feel discouraged, so I must be hopeless.” Although your emotions may be telling you something important, often they are way off base and are not supported by the facts.

About the Author:
Ernest Schmidt, LCSW, is a Certified Cognitive Therapist and the founder of Palo Alto Therapy. As a results-oriented practice, Palo Alto Therapy stands apart by specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) a method that more quickly and effectively brings about positive changes. Our counselors work closely with clients in a team effort to set goals and create specific plans to work past problems and realize happier, more fulfilled lives. Under their direct and personable approach, clients tend to achieve both short and long-term lifestyle adjustments without long-term counseling. 
To learn more about Palo Alto Therapy visit or call to schedule an appointment at 650–461–9026.

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