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Cognitive Thinking Skills. Identify and Challenge Distorted Thinking Styles

Updated on November 4, 2014
Your self talk effects how you feel.
Your self talk effects how you feel.

Cognitive thinking skills therapy can teach you to be aware of and understand how you are thinking, acting, and communicating with other people. It is also about learning how past experiences and childhood traumas determine your way of thinking, and can cause distortions in your view of daily situations.

Identifying these distortions and learning how to change your thinking style can be very helpful with the treatment of psychological problems including anxiety, depression, phobias,panic, anger, marital conflict, and addiction.

The way you think about things can either calm you down, or worsen your anxiety. People often have automatic subconscious thoughts that they may be unaware of. This is completely normal. Most people are usually thinking constantly without being aware of what their thoughts are.

When you begin to notice chronically recurring strong emotions such as terror, anxiety, or sadness, it is important that you learn to hear and change your self talk. The way you view your self, others, and your environment determines the way you feel emotionally, and even physically.

We have learned our opinions about things for the most part, during our upbringing and past experiences. Most of us learned our view of ourselves and the world around us before we could analyze these beliefs. We learned these beliefs from our parents or other important care takers. Not only did we learn specific views, but we also learned a style of thinking. As we get older, we may alter some of these ideas, but the opinions we have are usually the ones we have had for a long time and aren’t even aware of. Because of this, some of our opinions may be “distorted”. These learned opinions can determine our inner view of our world, other people, relationships, and life in general. Cognitive therapy is about learning to pinpoint our distorted beliefs, and question them when it is necesarry.

A few common distorted beliefs are:

“To be happy, I must be loved by everyone.”

“I never do anything right.”

“Nobody understands or cares about me.”

“If I fail it’s because I’m not smart.”

“I can’t live without you.”

You may not even hear your thoughts when you are having them. But they still have an effect on the way you see things, the emotions you feel and your behavior. The belief systems you learned as a child may be out of your awareness because they are no longer really part of your conscious thinking. With cognitive therapy you can examine the truth value of your thoughts.

Our thoughts tell us the way we feel our situations “should” be. It is when reality doesn’t conform to these “rules” that we feel angry or disappointed. Irrational thoughts often take the form of “ought”, “should”, “always”, and “never.” It is a good idea to look out for words like these when we are thinking, because they may point us to thoughts that might set standards that are impossible to live up to. When a given situation doesn’t live up to these impossible standards, we feel badly.

This is why it is so important to use cognitive therapy to help us identify our distorted thoughts and thinking styles.

Common Distorted Thinking Styles

All or Nothing Thinking.

Seeing things in "black and white". Refusing to see possible “shades of gray.”

Generalization. Seeing a single failure in one segment of your life and drawing conclusions from it for your whole life. A person who generalizes needs to only fail once to imagine a billion failures thereafter and those imagined failures are just as devastating as the real one..

Mental Filter.

Dwelling on the negatives and ignoring the positives. This is a distortion of what really happens and the inclination to only see the negative aspects of a situation.

Magnification and Minimizing.

“Making a mountain out of a molehill” or adopting the attitude that something that is very important “does not matter anyway.” Or accepting unnecessary defeat.

Emotional Reasoning. Reasoning from they way you feel rather than from reason or facts. E.g. “I feel stupid so I really must be.” Or , “I don’t feel like doing this so I just won't."

"Should, Ought, Always, and Never".

The belief that there is one way things should be or be done without any exception. The assumption that anything that falls short of the way it “should” be is wrong and to be considered failure.


Identifying or labeling yours or other’s mistakes and failures. Instead of saying “I made a mistake”, you tell yourself “I’m an idiot”, “moron”, or “loser”. This is a form of over generalization.

Personalization and Blame.

Blaming yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for or blaming another person and overlooking ways that your own attitudes and behavior might have added to the problem.

With the help of cognitive therapy, we can change our learned distorted beliefs. It is up to each of us to hear our own cognitive distortions and to learn to challenge them. We have power over our emotions and thinking habits. By changing our thoughts and the way we behave, we can change our feelings. Conversations with yourself can get it out there so it can be dealt with.


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    • Athlyn Green profile image

      Athlyn Green 5 years ago from West Kootenays

      Excellent info. I'm sharing this one!

      I was talking to a teacher who worked with adult learners and she said she noticed that before many of them could start learning, she had to teach them to think constructively because of all the negative programming they carried around inside their heads.

      She said, more often than not, she would go by a desk and hear: "I'm so stupid";"I'll never be able to get this"; "I can't do anything right." She said she had to work with them to develop realistic thinking patterns such as "If I make a mistake, it's no big deal"; "If I stick with it, I'll master it"; "I'm not in a competition with anyone else"; "I do not need to compare how fast I'm learning this to others and then become discouraged if I'm not as fast. The important thing is that I stay the course and finish. No one will ever know who took longer; they will only remember those who finished."

      She basically had to teach them to unlearn all those self-defeating thinking patterns so that they could learn how to learn and how to tackle new things without becoming discouraged.

      One of the most powerful things I ever read was about the patterns we create in life: do we create a pattern of success or a pattern of failure? People sometimes have to be taught how to adopt thinking patterns that help them to create a pattern of success in their life.

    • megni profile image

      megni 6 years ago

      I like your thinking