The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Cognitive Distortions: Define, Discover & Disprove

Cognitive distortion is a term used to describe a pattern of thinking, or “self-talk”, that consistently shifts life events into a negative framework.  When automatic thoughts continually send us negative messages, we often begin to believe they are true.  This can lead to feelings such as sadness, anger, shame, hopelessness, and anxiety which can perpetuate a depressed mood and may trigger disordered eating.  The first step in overcoming negative thoughts is learning to identify them.  There are many different types of cognitive distortions; some of these are described below:

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking:  Also known as “black & white thinking”, this occurs when things are thought of in extremes with no middle ground or grey zone.  Ex) “I woke up late and now my whole day is ruined.”
  • Discounting: Downplaying or disregarding the positive elements of a situation.  Ex) “I shouldn’t have gotten an award for that project, anyone could have done that.” OR  “She only told me I looked beautiful because she’s my friend and she was trying to make me feel better.”
  • Filtering: Focusing on and magnifying the negative aspects while ignoring important positive information  Ex)  “My boss chose to publish the article I wrote but he made so many changes and edits to it – he must have thought it was awful.”
  • Overgeneralization: the assumption that one small negative event is a continually occurring problem; often includes words such as “never”, “always”, and “every”.  Ex) “I never win anything.” OR “I always mess everything up.” OR “Everyone thinks I am annoying”
  • Fortune Telling: making a prediction about how something will turn out as though it is already a fact  Ex) “I just know there is going to be terrible weather on my wedding day and nothing will turn out the way I planned.”   
  • Mind Reading:  making assumptions about what other people are thinking  Ex)  “Everybody thinks I’m too young and inexperienced to do this job.” OR “He would never even consider going out on a date with me.” 

Once you can identify the cognitive distortions you are struggling with, you can begin to challenge the thoughts and substitute them with more accurate facts and/or positive thoughts.  The best way to overcome cognitive distortions is to work with a therapist who can help you learn to process and restructure thinking patterns that are causing you distress.  However, you can begin to undo cognitive distortions by challenging your own automatic thoughts.  Next time you’re feeling  triggered or are tempted to act on symptoms, write down the thoughts you are having, and ask yourself the following questions: 

What’s the evidence? 

Am I confusing a thought with a fact? 

Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms? 

What’s the source of my information? 

Am I confusing a rare occurrence with a common one? 

What difference will this make in a week, a year, or ten years? 

Am I overlooking my strengths?

Am I assuming every situation is the same? 

These may sound like simple questions with obvious answers but you may find out a lot about your thoughts when you begin to challenge them.  In fact, you might find that some of the difficult feelings you experience are triggered by thoughts that you didn’t even realize you were having.  It takes time and effort, but eventually it is possible to turn off these automatic negative thoughts and “turn on” a more positive soundtrack for your life.  Why not try it today?

If you are struggling with negative thoughts and are interested in seeking treatment for an eating disorder, please call our admissions counselors at (410) 938-5252.

  Above photo courtesy of


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