Ten Cognitive Distortions (and four IB’s)


Good Morning REBT T Mates!

Here are the Ten Cognitive Distortions as conceptualized by David Burns based upon his work with Aaron Beck.  Following them are what I refer to as The Big Four, the four irrational beliefs (IB's) that drive emotional disturbance as conceptualized by Dr. Albert Ellis.



Both are valid!  And there is nothing inherently magical  or sacred about the numbers 10 or 4.  They are just different perspectives on the same content and dynamics.  All of the ten are contained within the Big Four.  Burns could have just as easily organized them as 12 or 20 or 8.  Lists of 10 items are always a catchy way to organize ideas when you are writing books and especially when you are trying to sell those books, but  10 and 4 are certainly not inherently more correct than any other number.  The trick, I suppose, is to choose a number that is sufficiently informative while remaining "user friendly."


I do wish that more people would take me up on my earnest recommendation that the process I describe below is the a way of getting the most out of this list rather than just reading it once-over and saying "Isn't that nice!"

  1. Read, study and familiarize yourself each of the 10 distortions.


  2. Then, memorize them!  That's right, I said "memorize" them. (~Rex! Surely you must be joking!)

    I realize  that may seem really "old school" and not very amusing . . .  but it works! Think about it. How can you ever learn and understand anything if you don't first remember it? or to put it another way, how can you possibly understand why you know or know what you understand if you can't remember it?  If you normally use peg and link memory systems, it will be a snap.  If not, just a little boring work.  But the boring work will pay off in great dividends as you move toward being able to actually apply this process to your problems in a meaningful and useful way, rather than just "thinking about them." 


  3. Then, write about your problem,  or choose something you have already written.  You can do exactly the same thing with nearly anything that your or another person has written, fact or fiction, to great benefit.


  4. With your list of Cognitive Distortions at hand, carefully go thorough the material you have collected and written to see how many of the distortions you can identify.  Yellow highlight them.  Especially, be on the lookout for any (moralistic) shoulds, oughts and musts, and disguised shoulds in the form of "Why?" questions and "I can't believe it!"
                                                    Highlighter.jpg (500×300)


  5. Go back over the highlighted distortions.  Can you see (really "get it) that these distortions are indeed distorted, often completely false, illogical, irrational and most important, unhelpful. Can you see how these distortions are actually provoking and evoking unpleasant feelings and disturbed emotions?  Great!  Can you see how these emotions might be leading you to behave in ways which are unrewarding and self-defeating?  Great!


  6. Do you really "get it"? Fine, now you can begin to replace this distorted thinking with thinking that is "cooler," more rational and helpful, less provocative and inflammatory.  Do you believe what you are telling yourself?  Really?  Great!
                                         old-vs-new1.jpg1.jpg (304×200)

  7. How do you feel now?

  8. Take rational action that is counter to habitual, self-defeating behavior you are working on.

I believe this process to be intuitively correct, a natural, organic process, which operates no matter whether you follow the procedure above or use the Burns Three Column Technique, or Ellis's ABC method, or Edelstein's  Three Minute Technique, or some of the excellent forms on Will Ross's  at  REBT Central.  The technique and the form and the format are merely ways or organizing your thinking.  Please, don't get hung up on the form.  I don't care if you do this climbing a tree and talking to your cat.  The object is to change the self-defeating beliefs that are making you miserable.  The various techniques all lead to the same place and help you to  

1. identity your distorted thinking,

2.  see (really see, really get it)  how these distortions upset you and lead to dysfunctional behavior,

3. Replace the distorted thinking with rational thinking,

4. behave in ways which help you to get more of what you want and less of what you do not want.

That's all folks!
Continue reading to see the list of the ten cognitive distortions and the "The Big Four."

Message me or join the discussion and add your questions, comments, thoughts, whatever in the box all the way at the bottom of this page.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Khon Kaen, Thailand

Definitions of Cognitive Distortions


You see things in black and white categories.  If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2.  OVER GENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

3.  MENTAL FILTER:  You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality become darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

4.  DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by
insisting they "don't count" for some reason or another.  In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

5.  JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS:  You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.

     a.  Mind Reading:  You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don't bother to check this out.

     b.  The Fortune Teller Error:  You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.

6.  MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION (Ellis's #2 below): You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement) or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow's imperfections).  This is also called the "binocular trick."

7.  EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions
necessarily reflect the way things really are:  "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

8.  SHOULD STATEMENTS (Ellis's #1 below) :  You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and
shouldn'ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything.  "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders.  The emotional consequence is guilt.  When you direct your should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

9.  LABELING AND MISLABELING (Ellis's #4 below): This is an extreme form of
over-generalization.  Instead of describing your error, you attach a
negative label to yourself:  "I'm a loser."  When someone else's behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: "He's a goddamn louse."  Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10. PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative
external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

Table 3-1, _Feeling Good_
             David D. Burns, MD

And Ellis reduces these IB's to, as I call them,

"The Big Four" 

(1)  Demanding,

(2)  Awfulizing,

(3)  Low Frustration Tolerance, and

(4)  People Rating,

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