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How to think better and stop playing mind games with yourself

picture of a brain

We all experience distorted, negative, or gloomy thoughts from time to time—it's part of being human. But when distorted ways of thinking are chronic, it's time for a remedy.

A “cognitive distortion” or “thinking error” is when your mind puts a spin on the events you perceive, and attaches a not-so-objective interpretation to your experience. It's an absolute mind game.

Cognitive distortions are like optical illusions for our thoughts, making us see things in a wonky or exaggerated way. These thinking errors increase anxiety and make us have more intense and challenging emotional reactions. But once we learn about the common cognitive distortions, we can work to change them.

Why change distorted thought patterns?

Because they're party poopers.

Cognitive distortions can quickly turn a positive or neutral situation into a dismal and stressful one. By catching and shifting them, we can decrease anxiety and have more ability to engage in the good and fine things happening around us.

Because we want to see reality as it is.

Thinking errors are like those funhouse mirrors that warp our perception. They make us see a small bump in the road and interpret it as a towering mountain. By observing and changing our thinking errors, we can regain clarity and see things as they truly are. Then we can deal with our difficulties from THAT place.

Because we want more emotional control.

These thought gremlins send our emotions on an unnecessary roller coaster ride, taking us from fine to awful in no time. One sideways glance or one benign text message can send us spinning. By shifting our distorted thinking patterns, we can manage our emotions and circumstances more effectively.

Because we want better relationships.

Distortions put tremendous strain on our relationships. We can quickly villainize, misinterpret others' intentions or jump to conclusions, jeopardizing the connection. Once we are able to better manage our own thought reactions, we can reduce misunderstandings, communicate more effectively, and feel more secure in the relationship.

Because we want more confidence.

Thinking errors can zap our self-confidence and make us see only negatives in ourselves. We then feel like we're not capable or good enough. By correcting these thought errors, we can see ourselves and our strengths more accurately.

I hope I've convinced you it’s worth the effort to work on these unhelpful thought patterns...

Once you learn about the typical thought errors, you'll be able to start noticing when it’s happening inside you and work on re-writing it. The key is catching your unhelpful thoughts and adjusting them for accuracy.

What are the common thinking errors?

Let’s take a look! There are 7 here. For each one, you'll see:

  • Name of the distortion

  • Definition of what it means

  • Examples of what it looks like

  • The remedy – some more effective re-thinking options to try

Disqualifying or Discounting the Positive

What this means:

  • Treating positive outcomes like flukes.

  • Downplaying positive experiences as unimportant, as not meaningful, or even that they “don’t count.”

  • Discounting positive feedback or accomplishments, attributing them to luck or dismissing them as insignificant.

What this looks like:

  • Marc was complimented by his boss for a successful sale. He thought, “Anybody could have closed that deal. I don’t have any special ability.”

  • Jamie thinks “She just asked me on the date to be nice, she isn’t really interested.”

The remedy:

Ask yourself…

  • “If this positive thing happened to a friend, would I dismiss it this same way?”


What this means:

  • Making a rule or interpretation from one or a few isolated negative incidents and then applying it broadly.

  • Using absolute language that’s not fully supported by the facts of the situation.

  • Regularly criticizing yourself or others using terms like never, nothing, everything, everyone, or always.

What this looks like:

  • “I was so awkward in that meeting. I’m always so awkward.”

  • “I had a panic attack once before giving a speech. I will never be able to speak in public again.”

  • “It’s stormy outside and my flight is delayed. Nothing ever goes smoothly for me.”

The remedy:

Ask yourself…

  • “What am I leaving out of my interpretation?”

  • “What else is also true here?”

Jumping to Conclusions

What this means:

  • Drawing conclusions based on perceptions rather than factual or comprehensive evidence.

  • Anticipating a negative outcome and then looking for evidence to back it up.

  • Ignoring evidence to the contrary of the negative conclusion.

What this looks like:

  • Jocelyn decides in advance that everyone at the book club will think she isn’t smart or likeable. “I just know that they’ll only act nice when I’m around and they’ll gossip about me later.”

  • After a particularly long day away from his family, a father concludes “I work too much. I’m a terrible father. I’m useless to my family.”

  • At a party, Liz thinks “I knew I should have stayed home. People are staring at me. No one is making eye contact. Everyone is avoiding me. I don’t even dress like these people. I knew it. I’m a loser.”

The remedy:

Ask yourself…

  • “Are there other possible outcomes?”

  • ”How else could this situation play out?”

Magnification/Minimization (Exaggerating)

What this means:

  • Believing that your positive traits and aspects are not valuable.

  • Believing that your mistakes or “negatives” about you are what actually define you.

  • Evaluating others by magnifying the negative and minimizing the positive about them.

What this looks like:

  • Shannon’s gaming group made her a special “World’s best team captain” t-shirt for the competition. She thinks “So what, a shirt doesn’t mean I’m any good or that they actually care about me.”

  • Grant didn’t get the job he wanted after preparing hard for the interview. He thought, “My life is over. I’ll never have a job that pays well and makes me happy. I’m a failure.”

The remedy:

Ask yourself…

  • “Am I being balanced in my conclusions?”

  • “Am I giving equal weight to all parts of the picture about this situation/person?”

Emotional Reasoning (Feelings become facts)

What this means:

  • Thinking that your emotions reflect the way things factually are.

  • Morphing your perception of factual reality to match your feelings about a situation or person.

What this looks like:

  • “I’m feeling completely overwhelmed, so this situation must be too hard for me”

  • “I’m afraid of flying, so it must be dangerous.”

  • “I’m lonely. Obviously, no one likes me or wants to spend time with me.”

  • “I feel like a bad friend, therefore it must be true that I’m a bad friend.”

The remedy:

Ask yourself…

  • “Am I treating my feelings about this as facts about this?”

  • “What actual data do I have about this situation?”

  • “Where could I get facts or another perspective to double check my emotional accuracy?”


What this means:

  1. Using broad labels that are often negative or inaccurate to describe yourself and others.

  2. Describing yourself only with your shortcomings.

  3. Describing others only with their shortcomings (or calling names).

What this looks like:

  • “I’m so stupid. I’m a loser for messing that up.”

  • “He’s a whiner with low self-esteem.”

  • “She’s a phony.”

  • “She’s a terrible supervisor with no idea how to manage.”

  • “All conservatives are close-minded.”

  • “All liberals are idiots.”

The remedy:

Ask yourself…

  • “Would I say these things to someone I care about?”

  • “Am I being a bully?”

  • “What am I leaving out when I label things this way?”

Personalization & Blame

What this means:

  • Blaming yourself for a negative outcome even though there were aspects beyond your control.

  • Blaming yourself for the actions or inactions of others.

  • Blaming others for your feelings and overlooking your own contributing factors.

  • Taking things personally, even when they have nothing to do with you.

What this looks like:

  • Daisy’s parents separated after many months of arguing. She thought, “My parents argue so much because of me. If I acted better, they wouldn’t have to split up.”

  • “If I was a better parent, my child wouldn’t have ADHD.”

  • “If he hadn’t been so defensive, I wouldn’t have gotten so angry and yelled at him.”

  • “My mom would be less depressed if I helped more.”

  • “If I was just a better supervisor, my staff would be happier.”

The remedy:

Ask yourself…

  • “If I am not all-powerful, what part of this can’t be my fault?”

  • “What other things contributed to this outcome?”

Do you see yourself in some of these thought distortions?

Which of these types of distorted thinking happen for you most often?

With some careful attention to your thoughts and self-talk, you can start to apply the remedies here. Regular efforts at re-thinking will improve your emotional experience and your overall daily life.

How about a quick practice?

Identify a recent situation that led you to feel anxious, down, or otherwise upset.

  • Describe the situation that prompted the emotions.

  • Describe the thoughts you had about the situation.

  • Identify the specific type(s) of Thinking Error your brain used.

  • Use the remedy strategy to re-write an alternative interpretation or thinking pattern that could reduce your emotional intensity about it.

Remember, cognitive distortions happen all the time for all of us. But most people who struggle with high anxiety and other intense emotions fall into these unhelpful thinking traps more frequently.

Make it your goal to start noticing your thoughts and working to untwist from the distorted thought gremlins that bring you down.

There are 12 common thinking errors, you can read my other post here for the remaining 5. This list of cognitive distortions is adapted and enhanced from Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Burns, David, M.D. Avon Books: New York, NY.


Frequent use of distorted thinking patterns leads to chronic emotional overwhelm and dysregulation. If you want to learn new ways to manage high anxiety & other intense emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.

Image credit: QuinceCreative on Pixabay


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