Retrain Your Brain – Challenging Cognitive Distortions

It’s happened to almost everyone.  You come home from a hard day.  You are trying to relax and watch TV when the thought pops in your head… remember that time I said that super embarrassing thing two years ago? It was so awkward… 

The thought continues to linger throughout the night, until it becomes, I am always SO awkward.  

You spend the next day over-analyzing everything you do, almost trying to prove this thought true.  These negative thoughts are called “cognitive distortions.  They are negative thinking patterns we develop that, in excess, can lead us to feel anxious, inadequate, and depressed.  

The first step in beginning to challenge these thoughts is to recognize what they are.  This helps us understand that our feelings are just feelings, and not necessarily the truth.  Here are some common cognitive distortions and what they might look like. 

Magnification and Minimization

When you exaggerate small mistakes, or minimize your achievements: 

Ex: “I didn’t really deserve that award in band because I made so many mistakes”. 

Jumping to Conclusions

When you make a guess on how a situation is going to turn out with no evidence.  This may be assuming what other people are thinking, or how a situation will turn out. 

Ex: “I see them whispering over there, they must be talking about me”, “He didn’t respond to my message, he must think I’m weird”, “There is no way I could get that job”. 


Assuming the worst outcome to a situation.  Often thinking in “what-ifs” 

Ex: “What if I get in a car accident on my way to work?”, “If I don’t pass this test, I’ll never get into college, and then I will never get a job.” 


When we believe we are responsible for something that is not our fault.  Often when we think someone is upset with us for no reason.   

Ex: “My wife didn’t talk to me today.  I must have done something wrong”.   

Disqualifying the Positive

When we ignore the positive in a situation, and focus on just the negative. 

Ex: (After getting positive remarks and one negative remark after an audition) “I can’t believe he didn’t like me.  I am never going to get this role.”  

All-or-nothing thinking

When we use absolutes such as always, never, everyone, no one, etc. 

Ex: “No one likes me”, “I always mess up”, “I never do anything right”. 


Applying how we did in one situation to all situations, much like the story above. 

Ex: “I was so awkward on that date last night, I’m always so awkward”, “I failed my math test, I’m never good at math.”  

These are just a few of the cognitive distortions we might encounter.  Begin keeping track of how you think during the day.  Do you notice yourself having one of these thoughts? Then write it down and note how that thought made you feel.  Once you are ready, try to write down reasons this thought isn’t true and maybe even try replacing it with a new, more positive thought.  Here is an example: 

Negative thought

I am never good enough 



Evidence against the thought

I have family who loves me.  I got positive remarks at my last job evaluation.  I have two good friends who support me.  My worth is not defined by my mistakes.  

New thought

I am loved by my friends and family, and I am good enough, even if I make mistakes.  

Going through this process slowly helps retrain the brain to think in a more positive way.  Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight.  Imagine, if you have been thinking the same way for years, it is hard to think differently.  But beginning to recognize our thinking patterns is a great first step in more self-awareness, and hopefully more positive thinking.  

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