Thinking Your Way To Happiness

Cognitive distortions.  It’s a term with which not too many people are familiar, but everybody does it.  They are thinking errors, and they are the inevitable result of being human.  They are often used as mental shortcuts because we don’t have all the facts at hand and we need to take some kind of action, so we jump to conclusions, mind-read, predict the future.  They’re meant to save time, energy, and stress.  But in reality, the conclusions are often faulty.  What’s worse, we usually don’t realize we’re wrong because we’re in too much of a hurry to stop and check the facts.  In the end, cognitive distortions can result in creating or exacerbating anxiety, depression, anger, embarrassment, or any number of uncomfortable and, oftentimes, unfounded feelings.

What am I talking about?  Let’s give an example.

You’re new on a job and you want to impress.  Your boss walks briskly by you and doesn’t look at you or verbally acknowledge you.  You believe he ignored you because you are so low on the office totem pole that you are beneath his notice and you probably always will be.  You feel dejected, deflated, and a bit hopeless.

What’s the reality of the situation?  The reality is you can’t read the mind of your boss.  You can’t predict the future.  While it is possible that your boss believes you are beneath his notice and you may never get anywhere in this job, it is equally possible that your boss was late for a meeting and needed to rush by you, or that his mind was preoccupied by something that happened at home before he came to work, or that he was just chewed out by his own boss.  In this example, you took one thing, one event – your boss walking past you without saying hi – and drew one possible conclusion from it and called it Reality.  Based on that Reality, you felt a number of corresponding feelings (dejection, deflation, hopelessness).  However, if you open yourself up to considering the possibility of other realities, you will likewise be open to feeling other feelings.  For instance, if you are open to the possibility that he was just chewed out by his boss, you may feel a sense of camaraderie because that happened to you once and that sucked.

When we realize that our perception plays a big role in how we feel, we have more choice in what we feel.  Our interpretation of our world – rather than the world itself – is key to our own happiness.  No one makes you feel anything.

To make these thinking errors, you don’t need to be crazy, you just need to be human.


1.       All-or-Nothing Thinking: You see things in black and white categories.  If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2.       Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.  E.g., when one woman declined a date, the man concluded, “I’m never going to get a date.  No one will ever want me.”

3.       Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively.  E.g., You focus on the one criticism you got for your work presentation and fail to notice the other 20 compliments.

4.       Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting “they don’t count” for some reason or the other.  “So what if I got straight A’s?  I wouldn’t have been able to do it without a tutor.” 

5.       Jumping to Conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.

a.      Mind Reading: E.g., Your spouse is upset about work and is quiet at home.  You think, “She’s mad at me.  What did I do wrong?”

b.      Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate things will turn out badly and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.  “I just know he’s going to leave me.”

6.       Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny: “I answered the professor’s questions wrong.  Now he thinks I’m stupid.  I’ll fail and never graduate.  I won’t ever be able to get a good job.”  This is also known as “the Binocular Trick.”

7.       Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.  “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

8.       Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts as if you have to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything: “I should always get the answers right/I must always be perfect.”  The emotional consequence is guilt.  When you direct should statements at others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment: “They should never be late.”

9.       Labeling and Mislabeling: An extreme form of overgeneralization.  Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself (“loser”).  When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to that person (“jerk”).  Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10.   Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.  It causes you to feel extreme guilt.  “It’s all my fault.”

List of cognitive distortions, with some editing by this writer, provided by:

Interested in learning more about cognitive distortions and how to counteract them?  Call me for more information or to schedule an appointment at the Offices of Dr. Michael DeMarco at (917) 525-2205 x.5, e-mail me at, or visit me at  You can also check out my professional Tumblr at

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