Cognitive Distortions that Could Be Holding You Back From Your Potential

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As humans, we all too often make an artform out of subverting our own potential. We are experts at undermining our talents, skills, credentials, or intellect with false assumptions that we will never be “worthy enough” to claim space in this world. 

But why are we so prone to assume the worst about who we are and what we have to offer? We can thank our cognitive distortions for that. 

What Is a Cognitive Distortion?

To borrow a definition from Positive Psychology, “cognitive distortions are biased perspectives we take on [about] ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.” 

While they can manifest in numerous different ways, one characteristic exists at the bedrock of all cognitive distortions: These systems of belief are inaccurate, and if unchecked, will result in psychological harm such as depression or anxiety, for instance. 

However, as we learn to identify our cognitive distortions, we’re then able to confront those inaccuracies and replace them with healthier thought patterns. It’s intensive work to dismantle such deeply ingrained beliefs, but the effort does payoff. 

Do you live with the burden of cognitive distortions that hold you back from reaching your fullest potential? If so, the action steps below can help you to notice the patterns and challenge the assumptions to build a more positive mental framework.     

What Are the Types of Cognitive Distortions?

Let’s start with a basic rundown of the various forms that a cognitive distortion can take. There are 10 specific cognitive distortion patterns to be aware of as you delve into this work to both recognize and dismantle them in your own life: 

  • Polarized Thinking: This is when you tend to think in binary extremes. 
  • Overgeneralization: This is when you assign one conclusion to all scenarios in general. 
  • Catastrophizing: This is when you assume the worst if faced with the unknown.
  • Personalization: This is when you take offense or blame yourself in most situations.
  • Mind Reading: This is when you presume to know someone else’s thought process.
  • Mental Filtering: This is when you focus exclusively on the negatives.
  • Discounting the Positive: This is when you refer to positives as luck or coincidence.
  • “Should” Statements: This is when you fixate on how you should act or think.
  • Emotional Reasoning: This is when you conflate emotions with the truth or reality.
  • Labeling: This is when you choose to define yourself as one descriptor (e.g. “failure”). 

As we mentioned earlier, these cognitive distortions—entrenched as they might be—can impact your mental health and narrow your potential to thrive in this world. But since we do NOT want this outcome for you, here are some strategies to help defeat the cognitive distortions that stand between you and a strong, balanced, healthy mindset. 


How Can We Overcome Our Cognitive Distortions?

It’s important to underscore that cognitive distortions stem from two origin points: the beliefs we hold about ourselves based on our unique lived experience, and the systemic conditioning we absorb from the culture around us. So in order to reframe these cognitive distortions, we need to tackle both the personal and systemic messages that fuel them. 

To start with, Harvard Business Review has a useful take on how we as a collective can address the systemic barriers that feed our cognitive distortions and inform how we posture in various spheres of influence, from the workplace to our relationships. 

The solution to overcoming those distortions, HBR points out, “is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and where the diversity of racial, ethnic and gender identities is viewed as just as professional as the current model.” In other words, as a society, we must work together to eliminate the false assumption that everyone should conform or assimilate into a predetermined construct. 

At a macro level, cognitive distortions are internalized because too many people are told—either through overt or covert means—that how they exist in the world is “too much,” “not enough” or problematic in some way. It’s on all of us to challenge this notion.

Meanwhile, at a micro level, we must hold ourselves accountable to change the fallacies and inaccuracies in our own thought patterns—whether or not the surrounding culture does its part. We each are ultimately responsible for what we think, feel and believe which means that our cognitive distortions can only persist if we allow them to. 

Ways to Drown Out Thought Distortions

Below are some quick, actionable techniques to drown out those cognitive distortions and tune your mental frequency to thoughts which inspire, motivate, empower and galvanize. (Pro Tip: if you want to unpack this subject in even more depth, then be sure to give this episode of The SunDaze Journey podcast a listen!)     

  • Identify and celebrate your areas of expertise—without apologies.
  • Process the roots of your cognitive distortions with a therapist or qualified mentor.
  • Understand that no one is perfect, and mistakes are to be expected. 
  • Notice your thoughts or emotions as they surface, then evaluate whether they are based in concrete reality or subjective perception. 
  • Practice meditation and learn to experience feelings without the burden of judgment.
  • Set clear, measurable and realistic goals for yourself, then commit to pursuing them no matter what negative emotions, beliefs or thoughts unfold in the process.
  • Create external boundaries around your internal compulsions. (For instance: rather than spending 10 hours on a work project, intentionally unplug after 8 hours.)

Now Here’s to Un-Distorting Our Cognitive Functions!

What cognitive distortions do you battle, and what strategies work for you to dismantle those negative beliefs and reach your full potential? We want to hear your feedback on the topic, so help us continue this dialogue in the comment section below!

About Author

Mary-Elizabeth Meagher is a freelance writer, social media marketer, travel enthusiast, musical theatre nerd and self-described bohemian. She lives and seeks adventure in the Arizona desert, and she also blogs over at Health Be a Hippie—her personal contribution to making the internet a more authentic, vulnerable and empowering place.

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