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“Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.  These are thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately”. (Aaron Beck and David Burns).  While cognitive distortions can be common, they have the potential to create problems and negatively impact your career.  They can trigger disappointment and frustration, encourage you to set unrealistic expectations and interfere with your motivation. 


During stressful times such as preparing for an interview, cognitive distortions and automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) can become even more prominent.  The internal voice can turn critical and it can become a pessimistic monologue stuck on repeat saying things like: “You’ll never get that job” or “You should stop trying”.   


There are at least 10 common distorted thinking patterns that have been identified by researchers and  I have outlined 4 of these Cognitive Distortions below.


Cognitive Distortions

1.Polarised Thinking

This is sometimes called all-or-nothing, or black and white thinking.  This distortion occurs when people habitually think in extremes, rather than finding a more realistic middle ground.  This way of thinking makes someone evaluate themselves in contrasts; an absolute winner or a total failure.  If things are going well in work, they are on top of the world, whereas, in contrast, if they are unsure of how to overcome a challenge, they will feel like a failure.  Another sign of polarised thinking is failing to recognise your potential to grow.  You might believe you are bad at something, but you forget about your ability to learn new things and grow. This can be harmful if you start a new job or get a new promotion, as there will always be a period of growth and learning so beware of any polarised thinking that might creep in. 

Some questions to consider:

  1. Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms?
  2. What new skills can I learn?
  3. What is a more realistic view of this situation?


2.Jumping to Conclusions

This is where you interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusion.  There are two types of this distortion, both of which occur when one judges a situation or person without knowing all the details. 


  • Mind reading: You assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there’s no definite evidence for this. This distortion rears its ugly head if an error was made in work and instead of thinking about it logically, thoughts such as “my colleagues are going to think I am bad at my job now or my manager could fire me”. The mind goes into overdrive with negative mind reading thoughts.


  • Fortune-telling: You predict that things will turn out badly before the event. Some people will avoid even trying and instead they will tell themselves “I didn’t go for the interview because I wouldn’t have got it anyway”. This distortion holds so many professionals back from reaching their full career potential.  They don’t feel ready or prepared yet to apply for the promotion or change jobs, so they stay in the exact same position for years. 

Some questions to reflect on:

  1. Do I really know this to be true?
  2. Am I confusing a thought with a fact?
  3. What alternatives are there?



This cognitive distortion occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control e.g. “I am the one to blame for his work being done incorrectly”. Personalisation leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy.  In a work environment it is important to not to place unnecessary blame on yourself for the actions and responsibilities of others.  New managers and leaders have a tendency to fall victim of this cognitive distortion and it is one to be aware of if you are looking to move into a people management position. 


Some questions to help you avoid personalisation: 

  1. What was the learning from this situation?
  2. What will I do differently the next time?


4.Should Statements

This distortion imposes rigid rules on yourself and others.  You criticise yourself and other people with should statements such as “I should do well.  If I don’t then I am a failure.  I expect everyone to work as hard as I do”. You interpret events in terms of how things should be rather than simply focusing on what is.  In a work environment should statements that are directed against yourself lead to guilt and frustration. Should statements that are directed against other people lead to anger and frustration.  Everyone wants to work in a supportive team environment so dropping the should is a great way to achieving that goal.


If you see yourself falling into this thinking error, ask yourself:

  1. What rigid rule have I created?
  2. How can I see this differently?


Hopefully this article has helped you to identify what cognitive distortions are.  Please share this article with anyone you feel might benefit from it.


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