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What are cognitive distortions and how do we fix them?

Do you find yourself stuck in irrational patterns of thinking? Fixed in black and white thinking without being able to find shades of grey? Meaningful Minds Psychologist, Ethelwyn Rebelo looks at how we develop cognitive distortions and how to change them.

DEFINITION: Cognitive Distortions

Exaggerated or irrational ways of thinking that are automatic and reinforce negative ways of seeing yourself and the world. These distortions often lead to and perpetuate states like depression and anxiety.

We all grow up in families in which there are explicit rules which we can identify and speak about. Such rules may be that one must keep one’s room tidy; one shouldn’t interrupt when someone else is talking; one should always ask permission before making plans with friends - and so on.

Then there are implicit rules. These are rules which we don’t always consciously think about. We may not

even be aware of their existence, but they also guide our behaviour. An implicit rule might be that dad should always gets more food than everybody else; that no one should ever tell mum that she is putting on weight; that anger is bad and should not be expressed; or that it would be very bad to admit that one hates granny. There can be all kinds of unspoken rules that govern a family’s dynamics.

In addition to rules and somewhat related to them, families transmit attitudes and values, also both explicitly and implicitly. There may be explicit values that it is important to work hard; to obtain high marks; to take care of your appearance; to be neat; to be a good person; to be likeable and to have friends. There are also implicit values. These may not always be admitted openly or acknowledged, but they also play a powerful role in moulding one’s behaviour and responses when one fails to uphold them. If you adhere to your family’s values, you are made to feel okay, if you don’t you are not okay. This is because, if you come from a reasonably loving and functional family you have internalised these values and made them your own.

It is neither abnormal nor undesirable for families to hold values dear and to transmit them to their children. However if a failure to adhere to these values or to perform as expected is treated in an exaggeratedly negative way so that an individual is made to feel that he or she is not okay as a person, then the latter may become susceptible to depression or anxiety.

Responses which may result in a difficulty with dealing with failure and associated depression are:

  • when a person is not taught to handle a lack of success as a learning experience which may lead to achievement in the future:

  • or if one feels or is made to feel defined by that failure.

Lets us consider some examples of all or nothing thinking:

Some people place an enormous emphasis on the importance of a woman being attractive to men. Women in such families learn how to make themselves look good and to draw male attention to themselves. Those who are less physically beautiful may be treated as lesser beings, irrespective of their other positive attributes. Should one of these women enter a beauty competition, for instance, and not be judged among the top ten, she may descend into a deep depression characterised by irrational thoughts that she must be ugly and is hence worthless. In this woman’s mind you are either beautiful or you are ugly, there are no grey areas.

Academic achievement is another value that invites all or nothing thinking. Many families convey that obtaining high marks in educational enterprises is important and, indeed, it is essential that children and adolescents work hard at school. However if a message is conveyed that unless you do well, you are a failure, this will predispose you to depression when you fail or obtain low marks.

This all or nothing kind of thinking can be formulated around any value. You can be made to feel that you are not okay if you are not always charitable, if people do not like you, if you lose your job, if you do not drive an expensive car or wear expensive clothes, if you do something considered sinful…the list is long. The implication, however, is always the same, you end up feeling that you are a loser.

The problem with this, apart from the fact that it is likely to make you depressed and anxious, is that it also makes you lose touch with your humanity. No human being can always be perfect, can always get things right, always be good and always be liked. Everyone fails at some time or other. One of the most important life skills to have is to be able to fail constructively. To tell yourself that ‘yes’, you are disappointed, you might not be where you want to be, but you can learn from this experience and move on. Great achievers tend to be good failures because they respond to their failures by accepting that such things happen to everyone and by trying to learn from them.

Furthermore, one may be weak in one area but strong in another. A person may be poor and have not managed to succeed in business, but they may have developed a great deal of spirituality and wisdom in their life’s journey. This may draw people to them and inspire admiration. Our society tends to value wealth rather than spirituality and wisdom so that rich people are made to feel more okay than those who are struggling. This is not a reflection of lack in poor people, it is a reflection of all or nothing thinking in relation to the value that wealth is important as an indication of personal worth.

Let us assume that you are one of those people who feel that you always have to do well and succeed in all you do. If you do not manage to always be awesome in your achievements, you feel worthless and a ‘loser’. Here are some ways you can challenge yourself and make yourself feel better.


You have failed this time, but how many times have you done well and succeeded in your projects? List the times you have accomplished your tasks well. If you struggle with certain activities and always fail at them, note the activities that you are good at.


Instead of thinking about yourself in an overly critical and harsh way, speak to yourself about your experience of failure in the same compassionate way that you would speak to a friend with the same problem.


Explore the various factors that might have contributed to your failure and consider how you might deal with them in future. View your failure as a problem that needs to be solved rather than a reflection of who you are.


So you feel worthless? What are the advantages and disadvantages of feeling this way? If Einstein had become immobilised after his initial failures, would he have gone on to develop this theory of relativity? If Churchill had fallen into a heap of depression on account of his poor school performance, would he have led Britain to victory in the Second World War? If Walt Disney had slit his wrists after having been fired fromhis job, would he have developed the successful film corporation and created the lovely films which he later managed to do? None of these individuals had a problem with all or nothing thinking.

If necessary, develop a mantra for yourself and put it up somewhere in your home or office. I suggest words to this effect:


Changing patterns of thinking requires consistent practice and effort. If you would like assistance in changing your ways of thinking please contact us at Meaningful Minds Psychologists on 0817594849 or email at

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