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Thinking errors: how CBT can help distorted thinking

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Our conscious thoughts can be realistic and accurate, they can also be irrational and unreasonable, they’re all part of being human. But too many negative thoughts can leave us feeling stuck. What can we do to help ourselves? 

Thinking errors are also known as cognitive distortions, or Alcoholics Anonymous coined the phrase ‘stinking thinking’. They describe a flawed way of thinking that doesn’t match up with reality. Thinking errors are self-defeating and can become habitual. Recognise any of these thinking errors? 

All or nothing mindset

Are you constantly on a diet or not on a diet? Exercising hard every day or glued to the sofa nightly? The all or nothing mindset is typical of many dieters. Finding and accepting that life has grey areas helps balance and consistency. We don’t have to throw the towel in if things don’t go to plan, nor should we berate ourselves either. 


Placing negative or derogatory labels on things – or people – is easily done. Try replacing ‘I’m stupid, I can’t do this’ with ‘I made a mistake, I’ll try again’ or replacing ‘I’m useless at this’ with ‘I’m learning about this’. 


Lots of us overgeneralise after a particular event or part of our life. How many of us have said things like ‘I’m no good at sports’ because we didn’t enjoy PE at school twenty years ago? These thoughts are self limiting and so can stop us achieving our ambitions. 

Mind reading

Much as we’d like to, we can’t read people’s minds, not least Dave from the gym who you think is judging you for the small weights you’re lifting. It’s unlikely Dave’s even noticed how many kgs you’re using, and more likely that he’s absorbed in his own thoughts and/or reflection. 

Fortune-telling and catastrophising

‘I’ll fail, I always do’ or ‘That diet won’t work for me, I’ll just put on weight again’. Nobody can see into the future and we risk our thoughts becoming self-fulfilling prophecies when we make negative predictions. 

When these distorted thoughts happen repeatedly, we become stuck in a thinking error cycle. 

How to stop thinking errors 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help us make sense of our problems by breaking them down into 5 areas: situations, thoughts, emotions, physical feeling and actions. The approach suggests the 5 areas are interconnected and influence each other. CBT is structured and focused on current problems unlike other therapies that aim to address past issues. CBT is a talking therapy that’s available on the NHS, through a GP referral or privately. If you’re looking for a private practitioner we suggest you search through a reputable association such as British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) 

Make the change today 

In order to change our thinking patterns, once we’ve recognised thinking errors we need to challenge them. 

  • Searching for exceptions to your thoughts can prove they aren’t 100% accurate. We don’t necessarily have to replace negative or destructive thoughts with perfectly positive ones, merely realistic ones. 
  • Look for double standards. Our daily lives are narrated with internal self-talk and chatter. But is what you’re saying to yourself fair? Is it kind? Most importantly, would you say it to a loved friend or family member? On contemplating a new fitness activity, internal thoughts for you might be: ‘You’re useless and never stick at anything, don’t bother trying,’ and yet, you’d say to a friend ‘that sounds like a great opportunity for change, go for it’. 

No one wants to succumb to thinking errors and feel stuck forever. The initial effort seems vast but stick with it. Challenge and address those distortions and in time, your outlook will change and you’ll reap the benefits in the way you think, feel and act. 

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