March 17, 2020

Thought Traps: The Common Traps of Cognitive Distortions

Mental Health & Wellbeing

Have you ever walked into a room and noticed a couple of people whispering, and were sure that they are talking about you?
Have you ever had a work review or grade with one comment that’s negative, and found that that’s the one you dwell on, even if the other comments are neutral or even positive?
How about avoiding having a conversation with someone because you just know the other person is not going to understand?
Ever find it easy to call something all “good” or “bad”, but find it a bit tougher to see the gray?

Guys, I’m here to tell you that if you resonate with any of these, you are in the VAST majority of people. Those are just some quick examples of thought patterns that are very common; in fact, they are so common that some psychologists decided to do some research and put a name to the most universal of these thought traps. They call them, “Cognitive Distortions”.

“Cognitive Distortions”

These cognitive distortions are just what they sound like: they are thought processes or patterns that we fall into that aren’t actually realistic or helpful. They are patterns of distorted thinking that most (if not all) of us subscribe to, to some extent. And there are lots of them. In fact, my quick google search showed me lists varying from 8 to 50 of the “most common” ones. While part of me would love to explore all 50 with you, that would take forever (but by all means, google them!). So what I’m going to do instead is spend a couple of posts highlighting the cognitive distortions that have been showing up most frequently in my office.


We’re going to start with my favorite cognitive distortion, Personalization. Probably more than any other, this type of distorted thinking is constantly popping up in my own life and in my conversations with clients. Personalization as a cognitive distortion is the idea that we assume that most things are about us, when in fact, most things aren’t. I believe the pure definition of personalization is more specifically the belief that we have more control or influence over a situation than we actually do. The result of this is that we end up taking on responsibility or blame for something that is actually not our responsibility, or even under our control. I think personalization also extends to simply taking things personally, when in reality, they aren’t about you.


Let’s say your coworker snaps at you at work one afternoon. An example of personalization would be thinking, “I must have done something to offend them” or, “I must not be doing my work well enough,” or something along those lines. Now, those things could be true, so it might be worth doing a little reality testing to see if you have been rude to them or been slacking off at work. But, if you haven’t, then those assumptions are not very balanced thoughts.

When we take on responsibility for things that aren’t under our control (like other people’s communication), we are ignoring the dozens of more likely explanations for that behavior. We make things about us, when they’re probably not about us at all. Maybe they’ve been offended by you, or maybe they’ve just had a bad day. Maybe they didn’t sleep well. Maybe you interrupted a thought or text conversation they were having so they didn’t have time to think through their response. Maybe they just got some bad news, or maybe someone was just short with them and they’re frustrated. Maybe you were the sixth person to ask them that question and they felt irritated. There are so many possible explanations, why would we bank on just one, that it’s our own fault?

Here’s another example. If I walk into work and see my boss and my supervisor having a serious conversation, falling into the trap of personalization might look like me assuming that they are talking about me or my work. Again, that could be the case. However, there are SO many other possibilities! They could be talking about what a great job I did, or they could be talking about policy changes with the practice. Maybe they’re talking about staff meeting, changing supervision schedules, consulting on a case, or sharing some personal information, or talking about their lunch plans. Why would I make that about me, when it probably isn’t about me at all?


We all make these kinds of assumptions. All the time. I would challenge you to pay attention to your interactions and your internal dialogue and just see if personalization shows up. I’m always surprised at how often it shows up for me and for my clients, even if we know it’s distorted thinking! Once you can catch yourself making these kinds of assumptions, you can dispute and challenge them with skills like reality testing or balancing. As you catch and shift distorted thinking, you can move yourself towards more realistic thought processes and a healthier (and more helpful!) state of mind.

This is just one of many cognitive distortions, and I’ll be looking at a few of the other common ones in some future posts. If you’re interested in learning more about cognitive distortions, how they impact our wellness, and how we can combat them, give us a call or send us an email- we’d love to explore this with you.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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