Reality Check! Ten Common Cognitive Distortions

By Katie, 5:20 am

My journey to improve my relationship with food and my body has helped me realize that some of the stuff my brain cooks up is downright outrageous. 8-O

I’m talking about the part of my brain that decides I shouldn’t go to that party because my jeans are too tight, or that I have to go to the gym twice because I had a larger dessert. Does that voice ever talk to you?

On a bad day, I buy into those thoughts. On a good day, I ignore them. And on a GREAT day, I challenge them.


Here are some of the common ”cognitive disortions” I’m talking about (adapted from this handbook), along with personal examples I’ve wrestled with and some thoughts I’ve used to fight back.

Ten Common Cognitive Distortions (plus some good retorts!)

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking

EXAMPLE: “I planned to eat two cookies, but instead I ate four…in other words, I’ve blown it. I might as well finish off the entire sleeve.”

RETORT: “Yes, I ate more cookies than I wanted to, and now I feel a little uncomfortable. But there’s no reason to add to my discomfort by eating more. Besides, a few extra cookies is really no big deal!”

2. Over-generalization

EXAMPLE: “This week has been majorly stressful, and I binged on ice cream to deal with it. Ughhhhhhh! I will always be an emotional over-eater!”

RETORT: “This week has been majorly stressful, and I didn’t use the best coping strategies to manage it. But now I can learn from this situation so that I am better able to handle it next time around.”

3. Dwelling on the Negative

EXAMPLE: “Holy cow, this blemish is crazy big and ugly. When someone looks at me, that is all they are going to see, and they will think I’m just plain gross.”

RETORT: “Sure, that blemish isn’t the most attractive thing in the world. But I probably notice it way more than anyone else. They probably won’t even think twice about it.”

4. Disqualifying the Positive

EXAMPLE: “Even though today I chose healthy foods and got in some moderate exercise, it doesn’t really count because yesterday I did the opposite.”

RETORT: “Yesterday is in the past. Today I took care of myself, and I deserve to be proud of that!”

5. Jumping to Conclusions

EXAMPLE: “That girl I met last night? The one I thought was a potential new friend? Yeah, she doesn’t like me. I can just tell.”

RETORT: “That thought is a judgment, not a fact. Besides, how can someone truly like or dislike me after one meeting?”

6. Magnification of a Single Episode

EXAMPLE: “I was ten minutes late to work today. NOOOOOOOOO!!!! My boss probably thinks I’m totally irresponsible.”

RETORT: “What about the other dozens of days I’ve been on time, or even early? One late day does not irresponsible make.”

7. Emotional Mind

EXAMPLE: “Because I feel fat and ugly, I am fat and ugly.”

RETORT: “Well first, fat isn’t really a feeling. And second, just because I feel or think something doesn’t mean it’s a set-in-stone reality.”

8. Should Thoughts

EXAMPLE: “I should go running even though I’m tired and sore because if I don’t I will have gone two days without exercising!”

RETORT: “Obsessing about what I should do isn’t helpful or productive. Instead, I will pay attention to my body and react to its cues accordingly.”

9. Name-Calling

EXAMPLE: “I made a silly mistake while cooking and now dinner is ruined! I am such an idiot!” (Note: This just happened yesterday! :-? )

RETORT: “It’s true that dinner is pretty unedible. But mistakes happen to everyone, not to mention I was tired and rushing around. This little mishap says nothing about me or my intelligence!”

10. Personalization

EXAMPLE: “Wow, Dave seems pretty upset. It must be me. I must have said something to frustrate or annoy him.” (I told you these were real-life examples!)

RETORT: “How about I ask Dave what’s wrong so that we can talk about it? For all I know it has nothing to do with me.” (Turns out he had a headache!)


Granted, the way I’ve laid these out might seem too obvious; our thought-process is often much more subtle. But still, these cognitive distortions are traps that a lot of us fall into, usually without even realizing it. Simply increasing my awareness has allowed me to challenge and replace these distortions with more level-headed thoughts, which does wonders for my body image and relationship with food. Sometimes all I need is that little reality check!

Have you encountered any of these cognitive distortions? How do you challenge those thoughts?

31 Responses to “Reality Check! Ten Common Cognitive Distortions”

  1. This was a GREAT post. I am going to bookmark this one and come back to it — these are the kinds of things that I say to myself every day!! Your retorts are SO useful. I generalize/magnify a LOT, even at work. One little thing happens, and I let myself get thrown off. NOT useful.

    Seriously, thanks for a really helpful list!!

    • Katie says:

      I’m glad you’ve found it useful, Bethany! It’s definitely helped me a lot. :)

  2. I definitely have issues with all or nothing and disqualifying the positive. Thanks for the retorts, I will definitely use them!

  3. Ohhh I am sooo guilty of #6 . . . especially at work!

    I tend to think my world is going to end if I piss my boss off when in reality, everyone moves on and as long as I am a good employee most of the time, I shouldnt worry.

    Its a tough one though.

    Great list :D

  4. Sarah says:

    You put words to many of my crazy thoughts, Katie! I really like the retorts you came up with :-) .

  5. Love this post Katie! I can so relate to all of them, depending on the day. The retorts are right on.

    We’re all going to have rough days, make mistakes, feel like crap, and experience all the negative head talk, but we can do all that without completely turning on ourselves and everything about us. It’s a lifelong practice, but oh so worth it.

  6. Great application of these principles! I’ve seen them applied before, to OCPD (Super-Perfectionist) distorted thinking, but not specifically to eating disorders. #1 is kind of the key – the all or nothing thinking, which is how a very young child behaves. They are ECSTATIC, or in deepest DESPAIR, because *they* don’t have the perspective of age and experience. *We* do – so why act like a three-year old?

    About #3 – dwelling on the negative. Your example reminded me about once when I was job-hunting, I developed this HUGE cold sore under my bottom lip, which caused my entire lip to swell up. I could disguise the cold sore under tons of makeup, somewhat – but my lip was still swollen. Went on my interviews anyway, and decided since I couldn’t DO anything more about it, I would simply act like it wasn’t there.

    I think being able to project poise and confidence when I had this huge honking THING on my face that could have been seen from the moon, was part of what *got* me several job offers that week. People must have thought – wow, if she can handle that and not hide in bed with the covers over her head, she won’t freak out if things get a little stressful around the job. Not only not *dwelling* on the negative, but finding a way to turn it into a positive.

    • Katie says:

      What an awesome example!!! You nailed it – turning what could be a negative into a total positive!

  7. JoLynne says:


    I keep stumbling upon your website and it really is a huge source of relief for me. While I wasn’t aware of the issues you struggle with (and seem to overcome with such elegance!) when I worked with you at the university, I have to say that I share a lot of them. I have had a lot of problems with these sorts of things in the last five years and to read this site really gives me a feeling of both relief and confidence that I too can get beyond the problems that plague me still to this day. Thank you!

    • Katie says:

      So great to hear from you, JoLynne! I hope you are doing well! I’m not surprised that you weren’t aware of these particular struggles when we worked together, since at that point I wasn’t very open about them. But talking about it through this blog and through other outlets has been so liberating!

      I am confident that you can work through anything that you are struggling with! I hope you find my posts helpful, and feel free to e-mail me if you ever want to talk more personally. All the best!

  8. bubu says:

    Another terrific post! Great, real-life examples are so much more helpful than vague statements. Here are a couple additional thoughts of how I try to deal with this stuff:
    1. “Feedback, not failure” – I think I got that at WW but it now hops to mind automatically when I start getting down on myself. We all have up and downs, but viewing it as information to be learned from rather than a reason to give up hope or get down on myself is really helpful to stop the downward spiral of negative thoughts. Also, I aim to, though don’t always succeed, to reflect on and journal about these moments afterward. In the moment reflection and judgment usually go out the window, but it’s worth taking the time once I’ve calmed down to try and unpack a little the emotions and conditions that led to the “argh!” moment, I find it not only helps in the future, but also works out any lingering emotions that might lead to a “re-lapse” or repeat of the moment.
    2. “Would I say this to a close friend?” People who are often so supportive as friends are often so rough on themselves – I am sometimes guilty of this too. And if I say something to myself that I would never say to a friend, because it is too cruel or thoughtless or un-constructive, then why should I say it to myself, someone I theoretically love as much as I love those close to me? We know our friends need support and positive encouragement when going through a rough patch, and we need to give that to ourselves as well.

    • Katie says:

      These are some great thoughts! I love the “feedback, not failure” one; it’s got a catchy ring to it, so maybe that will help me bring it to mind in the moments I need it most. And I also love the idea of trying to treat myself the way I would treat a friend; if someone else deserves kindness and respect from me, don’t I deserve that from myself too? :)

  9. Lisa says:

    Haha I do ALL of those. It can be a vicious cycle but once you become aware that you’re doing those things you can try to correct the behavior. My boyfriend will point out to me when I’m doing the “all or nothing” thing and I stop, think about what I said and try to rephrase it in my head.

  10. Kristen says:

    Wow, this is a GREAT post!! I have been a reader for a while now and I am constantly amazed by your posts… you seem to read my mind 90% of the time! It’s so great because your posts always seem to negate my ugly thoughts! This post really spoke to me yet again! Thank you for always posting honest thoughts and positive messages. Thank you!!

  11. Hmm… number two is the one that hits very close to home. I work on this one daily, and I’m SO SO SO much better with this than ever before. The method that really works for me is to think about how I’d explain behavior of someone else I wanted to support. And then I turn that around and use it to support myself.

  12. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jaimie Winkler, Katie McLaughlin. Katie McLaughlin said: Reality Check! Ten Common Cognitive Distortions [...]

  13. Leslie says:

    Ooh! Great post, Katie!

    For readers who don’t know, identifying and challenging our cognitive distortions is the basis of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the main type of “talk therapy” that has been demonstrated by research to be helpful for people with a variety of mental disorders, from depression to eating disorders and beyond. Anyone who’s interested can find therapists trained in CBT on a variety of websites, including the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

    As a CBT-trained therapist myself, I get REALLY excited when I see such a great description and good dialogue about these thinking patterns that we all get stuck in. Bravo!

    The other thing I like about CBT as opposed to other therapies I’ve learned to practice is its focus on the “core beliefs” that we have about ourselves that influence the kind of thought distortions we’re prone too. For example, maybe we have a “core belief” that “I am not good enough,” and it’s a story we’ve told ourselves so often that we aren’t even aware anymore that we’re thinking it, yet it affects much of what we think! Good stuff :) .

    • Katie says:

      Thank you for your insight, Leslie! I’m not trained in this stuff, but I have worked with a CBT therapist for some time, so that’s probably where a lot of this comes from. It’s good for me to know that the information I’m sharing – the stuff that’s worked for me – is also backed up by the research!

  14. I sometimes find myself doing #4-Disqualifying the Positive; I might eat really healthy on one day and exercise, but because I didn’t do the same the previous day, I was bad. I need to accept that the day before is the past and move on (like on the Disney movie — The Lion King, with the Bamboo who declared “It’s in the past. It does not matter.” I should give myself a pat on the back for doing better today, not mourning on how bad I did the day before.

  15. Simply Life says:

    Great info – I work in the mental health field and am happy to see this info being shared!

  16. I SO needed to read this today (especially #7)…and I will be referencing it in an upcoming blog post of my own!

  17. Dave says:

    This post is awesome. :-) Remember to come back to it if you’re struggling at some point!

  18. [...] found Katie’s post on Common Cognitive Distortions very interesting and could relate to many of [...]

  19. Kate says:

    This post is great! I found your blog over at medicinal marzipan and went lurking to find this :) Its amazing the similarities you can find between people struggling. Thank you for the retorts, they should come in handy ;)

    • Katie says:

      Thanks, Kate! It’s always comforting to meet people who truly understand what we’re facing.

  20. [...] I’ve shared before, sometimes I struggle with all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to my food choices, and it’s pretty frustrating. It’s equally frustrating [...]

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