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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Cognitive Distortions, also known as

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 2nd 2009

 I have to credit a depressed patient of mine from many years ago who coined the phrase, "stinkin thinkin" to characterize her negative thoughts. Today, we refer to those types of thoughts as "Cognitive Distortions." Identifying and changing those distortions form part of the work of what is known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The problem with cognitive distortions is that they are either partly or entirely untrue or inaccurate. These distortions are very negative and influence how we come to feel depressed. Over a long period of time, these distortions become hardened and repetitive so that they "automatically" enter a person's mind when something stressful occurs. This is why those hardened thoughts come to be know as "automatic thoughts" in the language of cognitive behavioral therapy.

An example of an automatic thought could be something like the following:

"I am a High School student taking an exam in mathematics. Instead of achieving my usual grade of "A" on the exam, I score a 70, or "C" on this particular test. I immediately become upset and instantly tell myself "how really dumb and stupid I am. Now the teacher knows how my good grades in the past were really a fake. I will fail this class and not go to college."

If you are thinking that this example is exaggerated, I can assure the reader that not only is it not but that I have worked with many young people who quickly slip into these types of thoughts if they do not score well on a test, essay or term paper. This is "stinkin thinkin."

Categories of Automatic or Distorted Thoughts:
(This is not a complete list but only a sample).

1. "Musterbation": I believe it was psychologist Albert Ellis who came up with this term to describe an inflexible type of thinking that makes a person feel awful. This can also be referred to as "should" or "have to" types of thoughts. For example, a young woman is invited to the beach on the first warm, sunny and beautiful day of Spring. All of her friends are going and it is most likely to be a wonderful experience. Instead of going, she tells her friends that she "must" stay home and clean the house. She remains home and ends up feeling miserable.

2. Generalizing: A young man is dating a girl who turns him down for a date because she is unavailable this weekend. He hangs up the phone with a heavy heart and a depressed feeling when he thinks to himself, "she hates me and I will never get another date with anyone ever."

3. Jumping to conclusions: Your boss calls you in to his office this morning to tell you that you took too long to complete an important task for a particular account. In fact, you have a wonderful record and this is your only error. You leave his office with a heavy heart and thoughts that, "I will be fired and he does not like me." In actuality, your boss is very grouchy this morning because of a fight he had at home, thinks very highly of you and even calls you in later to apologize for his miserable behavior. You spent the whole morning feeling depressed for no reason.

4. Mental filtering: You have an ability to think with fine surgical skill. The trouble is that this so called skill gets you into trouble all the time because you minimize or reject the positive in your life while remembering and giving heavy weight to anything negative. In fact, you seem to learn only from the negative and make awful conclusions about yourself, while rejecting or downgrading anything positive that happens.


With regard to example number 4, Mental filtering and rejecting the positive, an important piece of research was recently done in the psychology department of Ohio State University. The study appears in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. What this very cleverly designed study showed was that depressed and non depressed people were equal in their ability to learn negative information. However, depressed people were far less capable of learning positive information. The study clearly showed that depressed people showed a bias against positive information. Everyone seems to remember negative events but those who are depressed have an easier time retaining the negative events.

Cognitive restructuring is one of the methods used in cognitive behavioral therapy. What this means is that more realistic and far less distorted ways of thinking are learned so that things like positive events are remembered and given more weight than was previously so.

However, along with cognitive restructuring methods such as meditation, deep muscle relaxation and visualization are used to help people relax and reduce stress, tension and worry.

Self Help: One of the nice things about all of this is that it is possible for people to learn the techniques of cognitive behavior therapy and use them to help themselves. Of course, if that does not succeed and depression persists then a consultation with a psychotherapist is always recommended.

So, see if you can replace your "stinkin thinkin" with more realistic and positive thoughts and memories. Remember that ancient song: "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,..."

Your comments and questions are always encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD











Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Typo - Allan N. Schwartz, PhD - Apr 21st 2009

I want to thank the reader who caught and helped me correct my typo error. Try as I might, I end up making many of these errors. It is one of those things that come with ADD. I have learned to compensate a lot but things still slip through. I want everyone to know that I appreciate the corrections and that I always go back and do the necessary editing. Thank you.Dr. Schwartz (smiling).

Typo/Error - - Apr 21st 2009

Everyone seems to remember negative events but those who are depressed have an easier time retaining the positive events.Yeah, "positive events" should be "negative events".  good try though

Dogged positivity wanted - kaudio - Apr 3rd 2009

When I read this article it confirmed my suspicion that I was not the only one who had “stinkin thinkin”. Some of the examples provided were very close examples of my own thoughts, namely the high school one, musterbation, and generalization. Even after I managed to let such thoughts go, they left quite a strong, lasting impact.

But, despite how I often talk about setting goals and next actions, I still find myself a bit resistant to thinking positively. During my undergrad days, I even prided myself for using a “realist” political perspective; but, in fact, I was probably more of a crank than a realist. Thus, positive thinking is a like a skill I must actively apply.

Thank you for the article, Allan.

Zig Ziglar - - Apr 3rd 2009

The credit for that phrase should go to Zig Ziglar. He came up with it back in the 60's.

Do I relate to this in any way? - Paula - Apr 2nd 2009

I have read your article and can only ask, "Do I relate to this in any way?"

 The reason I ask this is, I tend to jump to conclusions! I tend to speak before my mind has got it self in gear!

Because of the way that I've been treated throughout my growing life, I seem to get the same assumption that everyone's out there to blame me for what they can?

With me having serious trust issues, this is what relates to me feeling like I do! Like I'm a... No gooder! Reject! That I am not worthy to be a part of this population? 

Why? Because that is what I was taught! So... that is what I believe! No matter what people say to you, that everyone deserves a life... I don't want a life if all you know, is not being wanted!

People say it's all in your head and this is not necesserly what they mean! Or what is meant by this? People shouldn't say things what they don't mean!

 For instance Allan! You mention about an Employer having a go at his Employee, but calling her back to the office later on, apologising for having a go at her. You mentioned that he was in a mood before attending work and these issues actually started at home, before he reached work? Because he was already stressed out, he decided to have a go at the worker!

 My point is: He would probably of never gotten away with this incident, if he was not her employer? So... what gives him the right to have a go in the first place?

This method of thinking should be applied to everyone and not just some of us?

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