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Transforming the Mind ~ by Peter Shepherd

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15 Types of Distorted Thinking



  1. Tunnel vision
  2. Awfulising
  3. Black & White Thinking
  4. Generalization
  5. Assumption
  6. Projection
  7. Negative Thinking
  8. Self-consciousness
  9. Blame
  10. Unfairness
  11. Emotional Reasoning
  12. Manipulation
  13. Shoulds
  14. Got To Be Right
  15. Heaven's Reward


1. Tunnel vision

Example: "I expect it'll be another boring party".

It is being stuck in a mental groove. In particular you look for that which confirms your fear or prejudice, remember it from the past and expect it in the future. You ignore other points of view or the possibility of alternative solutions. To top.

2. Awfulising

Example: "I can't bear going on these awful buses".

This attitude is saying that it's unacceptable if things aren't as you would prefer them to be. You take the negative aspect of a situation and magnify it. To handle this, recognize when you use words like terrible, awful, disgusting, etc. and in particular the phrase "I can't stand it". Examine their rationality. To top.

3. Black & White Thinking

Example: "You're either for me or against me".

Things are black or white, wonderful or terrible, a great success or a total failure, brilliantly clever or really stupid, a certainty or a complete mystery, friend or enemy, love or hate - there is no middle ground, no room for improvement, no room for mistakes. judgments on self and others swing from one emotional extreme to another and are easily triggered. It is important to remember that human beings are just too complex to be reduced to dichotomous judgments, and that all qualities fall somewhere along a continuum, containing elements of either extreme. To top.

4. Generalization

Example: "I'll never be any good at tennis" after one poor game.

In this distortion you make a broad, generalized conclusion, often couched in the form of absolute statements, based on a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. If someone shows evidence of a negative trait, this is picked up on and exaggerated into a global judgment. This inevitably leads to a more and more restricted life and your view of the world becomes stereotyped. Cue words that indicate you may be over-generalizing are: all, every, none, never, always, everybody and nobody. To become more flexible use words such as: may, sometimes and often, and be particularly sensitive to absolute statements about the future, such as "No one will ever love me", because they may become self-fulfilling prophecies. To top.

5. Assumption

Example: "Nothing can change the way I feel".

Making an assumption, presupposes knowledge that you do not have. Assumptions are often popular beliefs that have been adopted without examining their basis in fact, such as "I'm over the hill now that I'm forty". Making decisions based on assumptions may lead to disaster, as when an executive assumes that a new product will sell well, having made no market research. Often, taking things for granted causes people to be blind to possible solutions - assuming no-one can help them, a couple's marriage may go on the rocks, when they could seek counseling. Question: What leads you to believe this? Why do it this way? Who says? What alternatives are there? What would happen if you did? What would happen if you didn't?

As a practical matter, all of us must proceed with the business of living by relying on "maps" of the world that we have taken on trust and that we have not tested and often cannot test. To supplement personal experience, we absorb a constant stream of reports, descriptions, judgments, inferences and assumptions coming from a multitude of sources. From this abundance of stored information, you piece together a mental "model" of the world and its workings that literally becomes your world view. However, people do vary considerably in the extent of their misinformation and in the degree to which they actively seek out new information, take opportunities to correct or update their mental models, and expose themselves to new experiences. To top.

6. Projection

Example: "I know he doesn't like me".

Making false assumptions about what other people think depends on a process called projection. It is like mind-reading - putting words into peoples' mouths. You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way. If you get angry when someone is late, you assume that another will feel the same way about you or others, in that situation. If you don't like yourself, you assume others also think that way. The answer is not to jump to conclusions about what other people think and feel. To top.

7. Negative thinking

Example: "We haven't seen each other for two days - I think the relationship is falling apart".

You read a newspaper article about some misfortune and wonder if that could happen to you. Predicting negative consequences is a defense, to protect oneself from disappointment by expecting the worst. Consider, what are the realistic odds of that happening? To top.

8. Self-consciousness

Example: "Quite a few people here seem smarter than I am".

This is the introverted tendency to relate everything around you to yourself, to think people must be judging you, or to think that everything they do or say is a reaction to something about you. It is the habit of continually comparing yourself to other people, based on the underlying assumption is that your worth is questionable. You are therefore continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. If you come out better you have a moment's relief; if you come up short, you feel diminished. Your worth doesn't depend on being better than others, so why start the comparison gamble? To top.

9. Blame

Example: "It's your fault we're in debt".

If you see yourself as externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless, a victim of fate or "the system". You don't believe you can really affect the basic shape of your life, let alone make any difference in the world, so you try and manipulate others to take care of your interests. Someone else is to blame and is responsible for your pain, your loss, your failure. The truth is that we are constantly making decisions and every decision affects and steers our lives. It is your responsibility to assert your needs, to say no or go elsewhere for what you want. In some way we are responsible for nearly everything that happens to us, including our distress and unhappiness. Taking responsibility means accepting the consequences of your own choices. Ask yourself: What choices have I made that resulted in this situation? What decisions can I now make to change it?

The opposite distortion is also very common - the fallacy that makes you responsible for the pain or happiness of everyone around you. You carry the world on your shoulders. You have to right all wrongs, fill every need and balm each hurt; if you don't you feel guilty and turn the blame on yourself. Blaming yourself means labeling yourself inadequate if things go wrong. With this viewpoint you are very easily manipulated. The key to overcoming this fallacy is to recognize that each person is responsible for himself - taking responsibility doesn't imply that you are also responsible for what happens to others. Remember, part of respecting others includes respecting their ability to overcome or accept their own pains, make their own decisions and be in control of their own lives. To top.

10. Unfairness

Example: "It's not fair, he should take me out more often".

The consideration of unfairness results from resentment that the other person does not want or prefer the same as you, or that events do not turn out in your favour. The person gets locked into his or her own point of view, with a feeling of ever-growing resentment. Be honest with yourself and the other person. Say what you want or prefer, without getting involved in the fallacy of unfairness: that people and situations shouldn't be the way they are. To top.

11. Emotional reasoning

Example: "I feel depressed, life must be pointless".

You believe that what you feel must be true - automatically. If you feel stupid then you must lack intelligence. If you feel guilty then you must have done something wrong. If you feel angry, someone must have taken advantage of you. However, there is nothing automatically true about what you feel - your feelings can lie to you, they can be based on misconceptions. If your feelings are based on distorted thoughts, then they won't have any validity. So be sceptical about your feelings and examine them as you would a used car. To top.

12. Manipulation

Example: "If we had sex more often, I'd be more affectionate".

The only person you can really control or have much hope of changing is yourself. When you pressure people to change, you are forcing them to be different for your own benefit. Strategies for manipulating others include blaming, demanding, withholding and trading - in order to make the other feel obliged. The usual result is that the other person feels attacked or pushed around and resists changing at all, or feels resentful if they do. The underlying fallacy of this thinking style is that your happiness depends on controlling the behavior of others. In fact your happiness depends on the many thousands of large and small decisions you make during your life. To top.

13. Shoulds

Example: "You should never ask people personal questions".

In this distortion, you operate from a list of inflexible rules about how you and other people should act. The rules are right and indisputable. Any particular deviation from your particular values or standards is bad. As a result you are often in the position of judging and finding fault. People irritate you, they don't act properly or think correctly. They have unacceptable traits, habits and opinions that make them hard to tolerate. They should know the rules and they should follow them. Of course, the answer is to focus on each person's uniqueness: his or her particular needs, limitations, fears and pleasures, and consequently different values. Personal values are just that - personal.

You are also making yourself suffer with shoulds, oughts and musts (or their negatives). You feel compelled to do something or be a certain way and feel guilty if you don't, but you never bother to ask objectively if it really makes sense. Some people beat themselves up constantly for being incompetent, insensitive, stupid, too emotional, etc. They are always ready to be wrong. The psychiatrist Karen Horney called this the "tyranny of the shoulds". To top.

14. Got to be right

Example: "I've been doing this longer than you, so I know what I'm talking about".

In this very common distortion you are usually on the defensive, needing to prove to yourself and others that your views, assumptions and actions are all correct. You never make mistakes! If you've got to be right, you don't listen. You can't afford to - listening might reveal that you are wrong sometimes. Your opinions rarely change because if the facts don't fit what you already believe you ignore them. This makes you lonely, because being right seems more important than an honest, caring relationship.

The key to overcoming being right, is active listening - making sure you really understand what's been said to you, to appreciate the other's point of view and what you can learn from it, which is effort better spent than in devising rebuttals and attacks. Remember that other people believe what they are saying as strongly as you do, and there is not always just the one right answer. To top.

15. Heaven's reward

Example: "I worked and raised these kids and look what thanks I get".

This distorted thinking style accepts pain and unhappiness because "those who do good are rewarded in the end". You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there was someone keeping score. You feel hostile and bitter when the reward doesn't come. In reality the reward is now. Your relationship, your progress toward your goals, and the care you give to those you love, should be intrinsically rewarding. If not, you need to rearrange your activities to provide some here-and-now reward, dropping or sharing the activities that chronically drain you - Heaven is a long way off and you can get very tired waiting. To top.


The best way to practice identifying Thought Distortions in everyday life is to take particular notice of one of the distortions for one day, and notice whenever it is used - by others or by yourself!

Frequently, several Distortions are combined in a statement, or a statement fits into several categories of Distortion. These are commonly rationalizations - i.e. seemingly plausible explanations, excuses or justifications, which in fact are ignoring or fudging the real issue. For example. "I don't need to work hard on this job because no one else will," is an assumption, a generalization, negative thinking, tunnel vision, projection, and so on.

Unclear Thinking

Without us being aware of it, the way we usually think serves to riddle our minds with inconsistencies and irrationalities. This unclear thinking then leads to the Thought Distortions listed above.

This occurs because language is a representation of human experience and not the experience itself. Language is an abstraction and in many cases a person will delete, distort or generalize in his verbal thoughts or statements about the actual experience. We can't speak all of the meaning underlying our thoughts or every statement would be too long and pedantic but there is a danger in simplifying our thoughts too much. This is usually done to avoid confronting the whole truth about a situation. A situation can be seen as final and fixed rather than ongoing and changeable, so that responsibility is avoided and nothing can be done about it. For example:

"I'm angry". About whom? About what?
"That's not right". What specifically is not right?
"I realize I'm stupid". How specifically do you realize you're stupid?
"I want love". Who do you want loving from?
"Nobody loves me". Who specifically does not love you?
"I have to clean the house before my husband gets home". What would happen if you didn't?
"It's impossible to talk to my boss". What stops you?
"My wife makes me angry". How specifically does your wife make you angry?
"I handled that meeting badly". Badly compared with what?
"I know he dislikes me". How do you know he dislikes you?
"It's wrong to love two people at the same time". It's wrong for whom to love two people at the same time?
"I have a bad memory". What do you have trouble memorizing and how do you go about it?
"I can't relax". What prevents you? What would happen if you did?
"I can't cry". Is that can't or won't?

“Without us being aware of it, the way we usually think serves to riddle our minds with inconsistencies and irrationalities.”

The idea is to shift one's state of being to at least acknowledge the possibility of choice, and to revise one's fixed ideas. This is not to say one should question one's every word, but if you find yourself feeling dissatisfied, look out for what you are deleting, distorting or generalizing about your experience, and how are you reducing your choices.


Each day, take one of the above Thought Distortions and spot when you find yourself or a person you are talking to using the Distortion. Also note on TV when this occurs (nearly all the time on soaps!) Just recognizing it as such - i.e. that it is an irrational thought - will enable you to be free of the Distortion or will enable you to better understand your fellow man.

Return to Transforming the Mind - Contents

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