David burns cognitive distortions

109: David’s Top 10 List!

by Dr. Burns | Oct 8, 2018 | Feeling Good Podcasts, Podcast

A fan named Tanuj asked:

“I’ve heard Dr. Burns mention that he is most proud of a few of the techniques he’s developed, and he mentioned that the Disarming Technique would be near the top of the list. I believe he said there were three or five of them. I was wondering what the others were. Does he have a top 5?”

Thank you, Tanuj. I got to thinking and actually came up with 10. Fabrice and I will briefly discuss each one on today’s podcast. So here they are!

  1. The list of Ten Cognitive Distortions that I created for my first book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. This list has been reproduced enormous numbers of times in the media and has been translated into more than 30 languages.
  2. The Disarming Technique and Law of Opposites. This means that you can nearly always put the lie to a criticism by finding the truth in it. However, this can be difficult because it requires the death of the ego, or self, the so-called “Great Death” that the Buddhists have emphasized as a key to enlightenment. This method has transformed my clinical practice and personal life and has been very helpful to many of my patients as well. However, it is not easy to learn, in part because it does involve the death of the “self.”
  3. The Externalization of Voices plus Acceptance Paradox. This was one of the first cognitive therapy techniques I developed, and I have used it more than any other technique during my career. It’s totally mind-blowing.
  4. The two classic Uncovering Techniques: the Individual and Interpersonal Downward Arrow. You can use these techniques to quickly pinpoint the Self-Defeating Beliefs that trigger painful mood swings, such as Perfectionism, Perceived Perfectionism, the Love Addiction, and Brushfire Fallacy, and more.
  5. The Feared Fantasy and Acceptance Paradox. This is a powerful and innovative exposure technique that can help people overcome the fear of being judged or rejected. It can also help people modify Self-Defeating Beliefs like Perfectionism and the Achievement Addiction, and the Approval Addiction.
  6. The Experimental Technique for extremely rapid treatment of patients with Panic Attacks. With this technique, you can sometimes—often—cure Panic Disorder in a single session. But this requires great courage on the part of the therapist and patient, and a great therapeutic alliance with lots of trust.
  7. My published research with colleagues in the mid-1970s did not support the popular notion that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. In other words, we found that depression probably does NOT result from a deficient of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Although we published this research in the top psychiatric journal, it was largely ignored for 25 years because people were so hooked on the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression. Now the study has been quoted frequently, and most neuro-scientists no longer give that theory a great deal of credibility.
  8. Brief Mood Survey. I believe I was the first, or one of the first, therapists in the world to require testing of every patient at every treatment session. I started with the Beck Depression Inventory, but have since developed briefer and more accurate scales that patients can complete in the waiting room before and after every sessions. These scales indicate the severity of symptoms such as depression, anxiety, anger, suicidal urges, positive feelings, and relationship satisfaction or conflict. Patients also rate therapist empathy and helpfulness after each session. This simple procedure has revolutionized treatment, because therapists can now see, for the first time, how effective, or ineffective, they are in every single therapy session. The testing has also made data-driven, science-based psychotherapy possible. However, it requires courage on the part of the therapist because the information will often be surprising to the therapist, and disturbing!
  9. Positive Reframing, and all of the new, paradoxical Agenda Setting techniques have made super-high-speed TEAM-CBT treatment methods possible. I now see recovery at speeds I would have thought impossible 20 years ago.

  1. The use of extended, two-hour therapy sessions rather than weekly 50-minute sessions has also been huge. That’s because I often see a complete elimination of symptoms of depression and anxiety in a single extended session of TEAM-CBT, as opposed to months or even years of conventional treatment. Many of my students are reporting similar results. This, I think, is truly revolutionary!

Well, that’s it. That’s what I’m the most proud of! I suppose I could also include my first book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, and has helped many people recover, as well as the development of TEAM-CBT.
Thank you again for your question, and please accept my apology if I am bragging too much, which can be really offensive. However, my mother once said, “If you don’t toot your own horn, no one else is going to toot it for you,” so hopefully the podcast and write-up will be okay.


Coming Soon!
October / November / December 2018–
Cool Workshops for You!

Step by Step Training for Therapists

Live in Palo Alto plus online streaming

Learn how to reduce patient resistance and boost motivation to change. Master skills that will enhance communication skills and increase intimacy with loved ones. This workshop will be highly interactive with many case examples and opportunities for practice using role plays.

Join us for a day of fun and inspiring learning on site in Palo Alto
OR online from anywhere in the world.

Learn from David and Jill–a dynamic teaching duo!

To register, go to the Feeling Good Institute

Rapid Recovery from Trauma

October 4-5, 2018–Pasadena, CA

The November workshop includes Live Streaming
if you cannot attend in person)

Powerful, Fast-Acting, Drug-Free Treatment Techniques
that Defeat Anxiety & Worry

November 29 and 30, 2018–San Francisco, CA (in person only)

December 3 and 4, Portland, Oregon (in person and live streaming)

PESI is proud to offer an exciting workshop by David Burns, M.D., a pioneer in the development of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Achieve rapid and lasting recovery with all your anxious clients, just as Dr. Burns has done in over 35,000 therapy sessions with severely troubled clients. Become skilled at treating every type of anxiety without drugs.

In this unique 2-day certificate course you’ll master more than 20 treatment techniques to help your clients eliminate the symptoms of anxiety quickly – even your most challenging, resistant clients.

Dr. Burns will illustrate concrete strategies that provide rapid, complete recovery and lasting change for your patients. You’ll learn…

  • How to integrate four powerful treatment models to eliminate symptoms.
  • How to enhance your client’s engagement in therapy.
  • How to develop a treatment plan that specifically targets each client’s unique problems and needs.
  • …and so much more!

David will provide you with guided instruction and share powerful video sessions that capture the actual moment of recovery. You will take away practical strategies to use immediately with any anxious client. Leave this certificate course armed with tools you can use in your very next session!

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from one of America’s most highly acclaimed psychiatrists and teachers!

Cognitive distortions, a concept from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), refer to biased ways of thinking about oneself and the world around us. The model essentially states that there are specific (and common) ways people distort their thinking. These irrational thoughts and beliefs (i.e., distortions) can lead to problematic emotional states and behavior, like anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and relationship conflicts. That’s why you want to be aware of them, so that you can shift your thinking to more rational and objective thoughts whenever possible. More rational thinking tends to lead to more positive emotional and behavioral experiences.

Below is a list of 10 common cognitive distortions, from Dr. David Burns, author of the best seller “The Feeling Good Handbook.” All human beings use these cognitive distortions to greater and lesser degrees. See which ones apply to you.

Once you become aware of the patterned ways of thinking on this list, you can use it in conjunction with other practical psychology tools on healthy psych, including: Identifying Cognitive Distortions or Challenging Cognitive Distortions.

List of Cognitive Distortions

(Source: Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Company)

“1.) ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2.) OVERGENERALIZATION: 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 becomes 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 other. 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.) FORTUNE TELLING: 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: 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 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: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’t, 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 consequences are guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

9.) LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. 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 damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10.) PERSONALIZATION: You see your self as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.”

Certainly every human being can identify with at least a few of the distortions on this list, if not all of them. The ones I seem to see most often in my Northern California therapy practice are: personalization, jumping to conclusions, all-or-nothing thinking and should statements. I’d be curious to know if there’s any correlation of prevalence among certain cognitive distortions and cultural backgrounds (and here I’m defining “cultural” in the broadest sense, not just in terms of ethnicity and geography, but in terms of other types of conditioning along the lines of gender, race, class, etc.), seeing that all types of cognitive distortions are learned in some fashion or another.

Psychcentral.com also has a good, expanded list of cognitive distortions adapted from Dr. Burns and Aaron Beck, one of the founders of CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy).

Try the exercise “Identifying Cognitive Distortions” as the next step in applying what you’ve learned here, to help increase your level of happiness, ease and well-being.

Checklist of cognitive distortions 1 all or nothing

Checklist of Cognitive Distortions 1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories. If you’re not a complete success, you think you’re a total failure. 2. Overgeneralization. You view a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. You may tell yourself, “This always happens,” or “I’ll never get it right.” 3. Mental Filter. This is like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water. You dwell on one negative detail, such as an error you made, and ignore all the things you did right. 4. Discounting the Positive. You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count. 5. Jumping to Conclusions. You jump to conclusions that aren’t warranted by the facts. There are two types:  Mind-Reading. You assume that people are terribly judgmental and are looking down on you.  Fortune-Telling. You tell yourself that something terrible is about to happen: “I just know I’m going to blow it when I take my test next week.” 6. Magnification and Minimization. You blow things way out of proportion or shrink their importance. This is also called the binocular trick. When you look through one end of the binoculars, all your shortcomings seem as huge as Mt. Everest. When you look through the other end, all your strengths and positive qualities seem to shrink down to nothing. 7. Emotional Reasoning. You reason from how you feel, such as “I feel anxious, so I must really be in danger.” Or “I feel like a loser, so I must really be one.” 8. Should Statements. You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts,” “oughts,” “musts,” and “have – tos.” For example, “I shouldn’t feel so shy and nervous. What’s wrong with me?” 9. Labeling. You generalize from a single flaw or shortcoming to your entire identity. In- stead of saying “I made a mistake,” you label yourself as “a loser.” This is an extreme form of Overgeneralization. 10. Blame. Instead of pinpointing the cause of a problem, you assign blame. There are two basic patters of blame:  Self-Blame. You blame yourself for something you weren’t responsible for or beat up on yourself relentlessly whenever you make a mistake.  Other-Blame. You blame others and deny your own role in the problem. © 1980 by David D. Burns, M.D. Revised 2003.

50 Common Cognitive Distortions

Becoming mindful of these common cognitive distortions will help you understand yourself (and other people) better and improve your decision making.

1. Personalizing

Taking something personally that may not be personal. Seeing events as consequences of your actions when there are other possibilities. For example, believing someone’s brusque tone must be because they’re irritated with you.

2. Mindreading

Guessing what someone else is thinking, when they may not be thinking that.

3. Negative predictions

Overestimating the likelihood that an action will have a negative outcome.

4. Underestimating coping ability

Underestimating your ability cope with negative events.

5. Catastrophizing

Thinking of unpleasant events as catastrophes.

6. Biased attention toward signs of social rejection, and lack of attention to signs of social acceptance

For example, during social interactions, paying attention to someone yawning and assuming you’re boring them—but not paying the same degree of attention to other cues that suggest they are interested in what you’re saying (such as leaning toward you).

7. Negatively biased recall of social encounters

Remembering negatives from a social situation while not remembering positives. For example, remembering losing your place for a few seconds while giving a talk but not remembering the huge clap you got at the end.

8. Thinking an absence of effusiveness means something is wrong

Believing an absence of a smiley-face in an email means someone is mad at you. Or, interpreting “You did a good job” as negative because you were expecting to be told that you did a “great” job.

9. Unrelenting standards

The belief that achieving unrelentingly high standards is necessary to avoid a catastrophe. For example, the belief that making any mistakes will lead to your colleagues thinking you’re useless.

10. Entitlement beliefs

Believing the same rules that apply to others should not apply to you. For example, believing you shouldn’t need to do an internship even if that is the normal path to employment in your industry.

11. Justification and moral licensing

For example, when you’ve made progress toward a goal and therefore feel that it’s ok to act in a way that is inconsistent with it.

12. Belief in a just world

For example, believing that poor people must deserve to be poor.

13. Seeing a situation only from your own perspective

For example, failing to look at a topic of relationship tension from your partner’s perspective.

14. Belief that self-criticism is an effective way to motivate yourself toward better future behavior

It’s not.

15. Recognizing feelings as causes of behavior, but not equally attending to how behavior influences thoughts and feelings

For example, you think, “When I have more energy, I’ll exercise” but not, “Exercising will give me more energy.”

16. All or nothing thinking

For example: “If I don’t always get As, I’m a complete failure.”

17. Shoulds and musts

For example, “I should always give 100 percent.” Sometimes, there are no important benefits of doing a task beyond a basic acceptable level.

18. Using feelings as the basis of a judgment, when the objective evidence does not support your feelings

For example: “I don’t feel clean, even though I’ve washed my hands three times. Therefore, I should wash my again.” (This is an example that may be indicative of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.)

19. Basing future decisions on “sunk costs”

For example, investing more money in a business that is losing money because you’ve invested so much already.

20. Delusions

Holding a fixed, false belief, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, believing global warming doesn’t exist. Or, believing you’re overweight when you’re 100 pounds.

21. Assuming your current feelings will stay the same in the future

For example, “I feel unable to cope today; therefore, I will feel unable to cope tomorrow.”

22. Cognitive labeling

For example, mentally labeling your sister’s boyfriend as a “loser” and not being open to subsequent evidence suggesting he isn’t a loser.

23. The Halo Effect

For example, perceiving high calories foods as lower in calories if they’re accompanied by a salad.

24. Minimizing

For example, “Yes, I won an important award—but that still doesn’t really mean I’m accomplished in my field.”

25. Magnifying (aka cognitively exaggerating)

For example, blowing your own mistakes and flaws out of proportion and perceiving them as more significant than they are. Magnifying is making a mountain out of a molehill, but not quite to the same extent as catastrophizing.

26. Cognitive conformity

Seeing things the way people around you view them. Research has shown that this often happens at an unconscious level. To learn more, see the Asch experiment.

27. Overgeneralizing

Generalizing a belief that may have validity in some situations (such as, “If you want something done well, you should do it yourself”) to every situation. This is a type of lack of psychological flexibility.

28. Blaming others

29. Falling victim to the “foot in the door” technique

When someone makes a small request to get a “Yes” answer, then follows up with a bigger request, people are more likely to agree to the big request than if only that request had been made.

30. Falling victim to the “door in the face” technique

When someone makes an outlandish request first, then makes a smaller request, the initial outlandish request makes the smaller request seem more reasonable.

31. Focusing on the amount saved rather than the amount spent

For example, focusing on the amount of a discount rather than on whether you’d buy the item that day at the sale price if it wasn’t listed as on sale.

32. Overvaluing things because they’re yours

For instance, perceiving your baby as more attractive or smart than they really are because they’re yours, or overestimating the price of your home when you put it on the market because you overestimate the added value of renovations you’ve made.

33. Failure to consider alternative explanations

Coming up with one explanation for why something has happened and failing to consider alternative, more likely explanations.

34. The self-serving bias

The self-serving bias is people’s tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors.

35. Attributing strangers’ behavior to their character and not considering situational/contextual factors

36. Failure to consider opportunity cost

For example, spending an hour doing a low ROI task and thinking, “It’s only an hour” and not considering the lost potential of spending that hour doing a high ROI task.

37. Assumed similarity

The tendency to assume other people hold similar attitudes to your own.

38. In-group bias

The tendency to trust and value people who are like you, or who are in your circle, more than people from different backgrounds.

39. “You don’t know what you don’t know”

Getting external feedback can help you become aware of things you didn’t even know that you didn’t know!

40. The tendency to underestimate how long tasks will take

41. The belief that worry and overthinking will lead to problem-solving insights

In fact, overthinking tends to impair problem-solving ability and can lead to avoidance coping.

42. Biased implicit attitudes

Psychologists use a test called the implicit association test to measure attitudes that people subconsciously hold. Results show that people subconsciously associate “fat” with “lazy,” for instance.

It’s useful to be mindful that you may subconsciously hold biased attitudes; then, you can consciously correct for them.

43. The peak-end rule

The tendency to most strongly remember

  • how you felt at the end of an experience
  • how you felt at the moment of peak emotional intensity during the experience.

Biased memories can lead to biased future decision making.

44. The tendency to prefer familiar things

Familiarity breeds liking, which is part of why people are loyal to certain brands and may pay inflated prices for them instead of switching.

45. The belief you can multi-task

46. Failure to recognize the cognitive benefits of restorative activitIes and those that increase positive emotions

For example, seeing humor or breaks as a “waste of time.”

47. Positively biased predictions

For example, expecting that if you sign up for a one-year gym membership, you will go—even though this hasn’t been the case in the past.

48. Cheating on your goals based on positive behaviors you plan to do later

For example, overeating today if you expect you’ll be starting a diet next week. Often, the planned positive behaviors don’t happen.

49. Repeating the same behavior and expecting different results (or thinking that doubling-down on a failed strategy will start to produce positive results)

For example, expecting that if you nag more, your partner will change.

50. “I can’t change my behavior” (or “I can’t change my thinking style”)

Instead of telling yourself “I can’t,” try asking yourself how you could shift your behavior (or thinking style) by just five percent.

How Can You Become Mindful of Your Cognitive Distortions?

Try printing this article and highlighting the cognitive distortions you think apply to you. I suggest you then pick one cognitive distortion at a time and keep a running list for a week of how that cognitive distortion manifests in your life.


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