CBT stands for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. In the 1970’s, Dr Aaron Beck observed that with patients suffering from depression and anxiety, that there was a thinking disorder at the heart of their condition. The basic philosophy of his theory, is that dysfunctional thinking and behaviour is common to all mental health difficulties.

In the book “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy”, clinical psychiatrist David D. Burns identifies ten cognitive distortions that are commonly present in mental illnesses.

It’s important to note that you do not necessarily need to be suffering from a form of mental illness to experience thinking that is unhelpful in your day to day life. From time to time, to a greater or lesser degree, we may all be guilty of some of these unhelpful thinking patterns.

The ten types of unhelpful thinking that Burns has identified are as follows:

All or nothing thinking

You tend to look at things in black and white categories, or in extreme polarities. For example something is either entirely good, or entirely bad. However the reality of life is that things are generally not black or white – but instead are a shade of grey somewhere in-between!


You view a negative event as a never ending pattern or as evidence of the truth or reality about a situation or about who you are. For example as a result of failing at one project, you believe that you are likely to fail at all future projects.

Mental filter

You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives by filtering out positive experiences, facts or evidence. This way of thinking greatly distorts perception and reality, and undermines your self esteem.

Discounting the positives

You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities “don’t count.” You are unable to acknowledge or accept positive aspects of your make-up.

Jumping to conclusions

Mind-reading and fortune telling are two very similar thinking distortions that fall into this category. With mind-reading, you assume that you know what people are thinking and that they are reacting negatively to you, when really we can never be certain about what another person is thinking. With fortune-telling you irrationally predict that things will turn out badly.

Magnification or minimisation

In the case of magnification, you blow things up way out of proportion as though you are looking at something through a magnifying glass. Or in the case of minimisation, you inappropriately shrink the importance of something. For example an aspect of your life that needs some attention but that you minimise as you may find it too difficult to face.

Emotional reasoning

With this thinking error, you mistakenly believe that how you feel is a true reflection of reality, failing to see that emotions can often be irrational. For example “I feel like an idiot, so I really must be one.” This thinking error can often lead to procrastinating behaviour. For example, “I don’t feel like doing this, so I’ll put it off.”

Should statements

You often use statements containing “must” and “have to”. For example “I must achieve the highest sales target”. You criticise yourself or other people with “should” or “shouldn’t” statements. The standards that you expect yourself and other people to meet are unrealistically high, leading to a continuous feeling of dissatisfaction and not being good enough.


You identify with your shortcomings, placing inaccurate labels upon yourself, or on other people. For example when you make a mistake, instead of saying, “I made a mistake, everyone makes mistakes sometimes” you tell yourself, “I’m an idiot,” or “a fool,” or “a loser.”

Personalisation and blame

You blame yourself for something you aren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that your own attitudes and behaviour might be contributing to a problem.

Challenging your thinking patterns

Are there certain situations or aspects of your life that can be difficult at times? Consider your thoughts in these situations. Are some of your thoughts unhelpful or particularly negative in these aspects of your life? Is it possible that some of your thinking patterns fall into any of the categories mentioned above?

If some of these negative thinking patterns resonate with you, ask yourself if you could challenge any of these unhelpful thoughts in any way? Is there a more balanced way to look at yourself or at a situation in your life? Does your thinking reflect the true reality of a situation, or of who you are as a person? Can you look for evidence to show that your negative thoughts may not be 100% true?

Establishing more helpful and balanced thinking patterns

Over time, in challenging your thoughts in this way, you can establish more helpful ways to look at aspects of your life, and at yourself. Your thinking will become more balanced, and more grounded in reality. Your outlook upon life is likely to become brighter, and your self-esteem will be positively enhanced.

Beck, J., (2011). Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – Basics & Beyond. 2nd Edition. New York: The Guildford Press.
Burns, D., (2000). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. 2nd Edition. New York: Harper.

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