Cognitive Distortions: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

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When faced with a stressful situation, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that our thoughts and feelings may not be entirely accurate when viewed through an emotional state. These irrational thought patterns are known as cognitive distortions, and they aren’t uncommon in students dealing with academic difficulties. So, what are some examples of cognitive distortions, and how can we help students to recognize them?

All-or-Nothing Thinking. This is a common cognitive distortion that can cause us to see situations as having binary outcomes – “black or white” with no middle ground. Consider a high school student applying for universities that discovers they aren’t eligible for their college of choice due to their finance major being impacted. “I’m never going to get into business school,” “I’ll never get a decent job,” “Now I’ll never graduate from the school of my dreams” – these are all examples of all-or-nothing thinking. In this situation, a student should remind themselves that there are hundreds of excellent schools with great business programs, as well as transfer opportunities and post-graduate education options. In most cases, the first two years of college are general education courses anyway! As parents, you can try to alleviate this type of thinking by reminding your kids to keep their options (and minds) open, and to not set themselves up for situations where only one desirable outcome is possible.

Overgeneralizing. This cognitive distortion often happens to students when they are feeling frustrated or discouraged. When overgeneralizing, we take the outcome of a single event and mistakenly apply this same outcome to other events, often including future situations that haven’t actually happened yet. For an example, let’s consider a first year high school student that has just begun their first year of algebra. In the past, math subjects weren’t any particular issue for them – however, eight weeks into the high school semester, the student is struggling to achieve passing results on weekly tests and assignments. A classic overgeneralization would be, “I just suck at math!” or “I’m never going to be able to pass my high school math classes.” In a situation like this, parents can help to provide a more sensible line of thinking that combats the overgeneralizations. In reality, eight weeks into an algebra course is not an indication of a student’s overall math skills. Furthermore, the shift from arithmetic-based concepts (elementary and middle school) to more advanced algebraic concepts is a sizable and challenging leap. It’s extremely common for students to have problems with the transition to high school, and it’s also completely normal for students to begin feeling overwhelmed when more difficult concepts (like algebra and geometry) are introduced. In no way does this speak towards the student’s overall academic abilities – and despite popular belief, there’s simply no such thing as not being a “math person.”

Comparing to others. One of the more self-explanatory cognitive distortions, this one is easy to identify. With students of all ages, it’s not uncommon for students to make unfair comparisons with other classmates or siblings. Parents should also be particularly mindful to never make these comparisons ourselves – all students have different strengths and learning styles. What comes easily to one student may be more difficult for another student, but each of them exhibits their own unique qualities and characteristics. It’s important to remind our kids to be proud of who they are as individuals – don’t compare yourself to others, because it’s simply not possible to compare people in this way. We aren’t mind readers – for all we know, the person we compare ourselves to may be comparing themselves to you. And on that note…

There are simply too many cognitive distortions to go over in one blog! If you’d like to research more cognitive distortions, here are a few more common ones to be aware of:

  • M.A.P. (Mind-reading, assuming, predicting)
  • Taking Things Personally
  • What Ifs
  • Misplaced Labeling
  • Shoulds and Should Nots
  • Maximizing Negatives and Minimizing Positives
  • Emotional Reasoning
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