Category Archives: Thinking Errors

Making sense of the world, and making ourselves miserable at the same time

We all have ways of working to be
less miserable, some working better than others.  One of the tools we at times use to work to feel better is
to analyze the situation, trying to make sense of it.  We work to find a reality that makes sense to us. The
difficulty is that we see through the filters of our history and our
experience.  These filters
sometimes skew what is and distort it to something different.  These distortions often make us


Everyone has distorted thinking at
one time or another.  The
difficulty is; in our effort to make sense of something to help feel better, we
actually often make ourselves more miserable.  We have errors in our thinking that lead to frustration and
hurt.  In therapy speak we call
these cognitive distortions, and any time someone says they are using Cognitive
Behavioral Therapy they are working to help you change these thinking errors in
to something healthier.  Below are
some commonly used thinking errors. 
We all use them, it is finding a way to correct them that helps us feel


1. Filtering.

take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive
aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single,
unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality
becomes darkened or distorted.


2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White”

polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect
or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations
in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the
complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect,
you see yourself as a total failure. 
This is also true of how we see other people.  If they don’t do exactly what we want they are failing


3. Overgeneralization.

this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single
incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we
expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant
event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.  If a dog bit me once, all dogs forever will be bad, no
matter how sweet they are.


4. Jumping to Conclusions.

individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way
they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward


example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them
but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct.  E.g.; the boss brushes past you without
saying hi with a scowl on his face. 
You assume that he is angry with you, and either get anxious about what
you did or angry that he is angry at you for no reason.  When in all possibility he could have
had a very bad morning at home or a bad meeting, or any number of bad
experiences that have nothing to do with you.


 Another example is a person may
anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their
prediction is already an established fact.


5. Catastrophizing.


expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as
“magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy
strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).

example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such
as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately
shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example,
getting an A in a class and saying it was because the teacher liked you, not
because you did well in the class).



6. Personalization.

is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is
some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves
to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.


person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some
unhealthy outside event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We
were late to the dinner party and caused
the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on
time, this wouldn’t have happened.”


7. Control Fallacies (false belief).

we feel externally controlled,
we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “It was the cop’s
fault I was running late, I wasn’t speeding that much” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming
responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example,
“Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”


8. Fallacy of Fairness.

feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t
agree with us. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something
doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life
applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will
often feel badly and negative because of it. Because life isn’t “fair” — things
will not always work out in your favor, even when you think they should.


9. Blaming.

hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame
ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about
myself!” or “I couldn’t help yelling at him, he made me angry!” Nobody can
“make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions
and emotional reactions.


10. Shoulds.

have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who
break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules.
A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds
and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything. Or
focusing on others and thinking “they should or shouldn’t” (I often do this
when driving:  He shouldn’t cut me
off like that!)


example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is
guilt. When a person directs should
toward themselves or others, they often feel anger,
frustration and resentment.


11. Emotional Reasoning.

believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and
boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy
emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be


12. Fallacy of Change.

expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole
them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to
depend entirely on them.


13. Global Labeling.

generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are
extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and
“mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific
situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.


example, they may say, “I’m a failure” in a situation where they failed at a
specific task. Instead of thinking “I failed at this, and I can do better next
time” they globalize that the whole of them is a failure. When someone else’s
behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him,
such as “He’s a real jerk.” as in everything he does is jerkey.  Mislabeling involves describing an
event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example,
instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person
who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”


14. Always Being Right /Power Play .

are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct.
Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our
rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel,
I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right
often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages
in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.  We also see the situation as having a winner and a loser,
and I have to be the winner.  No
matter what.


15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.

expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping
score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.



Are you an “I can’t”er?

What do you really mean when you say “I can’t”?  “I can’t”, or “I cannot,” truly means “I am unable to.”   If someone were to ask me to do a basketball lay-up, I would legitimately be able to say, “I can’t”.  I am unable to coordinate myself and the ball to do an official “lay-up.”  Were someone to ask me to learn to do a lay-up, if the words “I can’t,” should happen to come out of my mouth what I would really mean would be “I won’t”.  I am perfectly capable of learning to do a lay-up, though I honestly have little interest in doing so. 

A good deal of the time when we utter “I can’t,” we really mean: I won’t, I don’t want to, it is too hard, or it’s to scary.   One of the worst things we do is convince ourselves of the “I can’t.”  This often comes into play when change is needed.  One of my personal “I can’t” moment came about 8 years and 70 pounds ago.  As I struggled with my weight I was referred to Gary Avignon, LPC.  After an interview and assessments he dropped the news.  I already knew I was over weight, but I didn’t know that my adrenal system had essentially shut down leading to depression, anxiety and type two diabetes.  Now for the good news.  In order to combat all of these problems I would need to completely change my lifestyle.  I would need to remove all non-complex carbohydrates from my diet.  This included most wheat products (bread, noodles, cereal), rice, sugar and potatoes.  No french fries, no bread, no spaghetti, no ice cream…Could you do it?  Veggies and fruits were a necessary part of this lifestyle, but even things like Special K cereal for breakfast was out.  As I was being told this my first thought was, “I can’t.”  And as I thought these words I was informed that this lifestyle change would not just be until I lose the weight, but permanent, if I wish to keep the weight off forever.

In this “I can’t” moment I had to decide what was more important.  French Fries, or my health?  Bread, or my health?  But making this sacrifice was overwhelming.  Food as comfort,food is an important part of our life.  In that moment, though, I made a decision then and there that I could.  Many times in the next year or two after making the decision I didn’t want to, but “I can’t” changed to “Oh my goodness this is HARD, but I CAN!” 

When working with addicts and offenders (violent, sexual, what have you) one of the most frequent thinking errors is “I can’t,” (next to “it isn’t fair”).  When working with clients facing a large change, the most frequent thinking error is “I can’t.”  “I can’t leave my partner,” “I can’t leave my job,” “I can’t leave my home,”  “I can’t exercise,” even though I am miserable.  The justifications for all of these are many, and at times surprisingly few.  Often there are reasonable justifications for the “I can’t:” “I can’t leave my job because I can’t afford my apartment without it.”  “I can’t exercise because I have (various physical problems).”  Okay, then let’s figure out what you CAN do. 

The moment we become honest with ourselves and use “I won’t” or “I don’t want to,” or “I’m scared,” or “that’s really hard,” we take a step forward.  You can leave your job.  It will make life very difficult in some cases, and will be very scary, but you can make that change.  You can’t do certain exercise, but you can find exercises you CAN do.  Anneli Rufus wrote a book called Stuck, Why We Can’t, or Won’t Move On.  While I disagree with some of her extremes, generalizations, and some of her “all or nothing” thinking, her concepts are sound.  She covers the concept of “I can’t” very well.  People come to me when they hit a point of stuckness they don’t want to tolerate anymore, but are often not ready enough to do the things they need to do, or admit the things they need to admit to themselves, in order to become unstuck and move past “I can’t”.   

Next time you use the words “I can’t,” be honest with yourself.  Are you truly unable to, or is it too hard, scary, or difficult?  This admission is incredibly difficult to make, because the next step is to admit that you CAN.  You may not have the resources (emotional, financial, physical) but often you are able to obtain these things, if you look. 

Are you ready?