Challenging cognitive distortions – a guide for students

February 19, 2018

Two weeks ago, we explored 11 cognitive distortions that are commonly seen in students. The aim there was to learn to recognize and identify them when they arise in our everyday lives. Today, I’d like to help you to redirect these cognitively distorted thoughts toward healthier alternative thoughts. I want to reiterate that everything here is a practice, and it will take some time to develop.

Now, I’ve chosen to write this series directed toward high school and college/university students. This is mostly because I could not find a readily-available article on combating cognitive distortions for this demographic. However, don’t worry if you are not within this demographic. I strongly believe that learning about these mental pitfalls is an important practice for all ages, and will provide some links at the end of the article to other resources I have found on this topic that look at other populations.

Here’s how this guide will work: For each cognitive distortion category, I will take one example (from my previous post) and I will introduce some ways to redirect the thoughts through the example. These methods are found within the easy-to-read book, “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies”. Personally, I find it beneficial to write out how a person might talk to themselves in that moment, so this is how it will be presented. One aspect that is consistently missing from thought redirection articles is the importance of self-validation…it is so much more effective to be your own best friend than to berate yourself for having these cognitively distorted thoughts. Thus, each example I give will first give an example of self-validation. The methods I will explain are all transferable to other situations. I hope you will do your best to think critically and apply them to your own thoughts! But remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself) through the process – again, it is a practice.

Photo by Berwin Coroza

*This content contains affiliate links. For my full affiliate disclosure, please click here.

Cognitive Distortions

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-or-White Thinking)

Example: “I failed my midterm. I may as well loaf through the rest of it. I can’t get an A anyway. I’m a complete failure.”

Notice and self-validate:

Alright, Giselle. Yes, I failed the midterm. It is okay to be feeling upset about it – I had a much higher goal after all.

Remember that people make mistakes all the time:

I should remember that people make mistakes all the time, and that it is not realistic to expect myself to always be perfectly on top of things.

Practice ‘both-and’ reasoning: it is possible for two seemingly opposite things to occur together:

I failed the midterm, but it does not mean I have to fail the course. I still have two more midterms left, and a final exam. Failing this one midterm does not mean I am a complete failure. There are other things that define my success much more than this one grade. Besides, there are things I can do to do better next time. I can make a study group, go to office hours, and ask questions during class.

2. Fortune-Telling

Example: “I’m really interested in Kevin…but if I try to ask him out, I know I’m going to be too anxious and I’ll say something really stupid. Even if I don’t, he’ll definitely say no. Besides, he probably has a s/o already. There’s no way a guy like him isn’t taken.”

Notice and self-validate:

It’s understandable that I’m feeling nervous about asking Kevin out. He’s incredible, and I really don’t want to mess this up or make a fool of myself.

You don’t know until you try:

I guess I don’t actually know if he has a s/o already, and it’s worth asking him. Who knows? He might even take the hint?

A ship is safe in a harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for:

What’s better, honestly? Not asking him out at all and then wondering what might have happened and possibly missing out on an opportunity to get to know him better? Or asking him out, hearing his answer, and getting on with my life, with him or without him? I gotta take some risks sometimes! That’s the spice of life!

Your past experiences don’t determine your future experiences:

The last time I did this, I got rejected. But this is a totally different guy, and a totally new situation. It is not effective to assume that I will be rejected again just because it has happened before.

3. Mind-Reading

Example: “I was sick for the last meeting. Allie just told me to check the meeting notes for my assigned task. Of course I did that already! She thinks I’m freeloading off of the group. She must have loved it when I wasn’t at the meeting. She thinks I’m stupid.”

Notice and self-validate:

Okay, first of all, I’m not feeling super great myself right now. I just got over this nasty stomach bug, so it must be affecting how I think about things.

There may be alternative reasons for the other party’s behaviour:

But also, Allie looked a little tired herself…maybe she wasn’t having such a great day? I wish she didn’t use such a dismissive tone in her voice, but it’s possible that she didn’t mean it.

Consider that your guesses may be wrong:

I wonder why I immediately jumped to thinking she was looking down on me and thinking I am a freeloader? Maybe I’m thinking that I actually am freeloading so it is altering how I think of my group members’ interactions with me. Is that fair? I don’t have any evidence to suggest that my group members think I’m riding everyone’s coattails. In fact, objectively speaking I’ve been getting all my tasks done except for last week.

Get more information (if appropriate):

We haven’t talked about a group feedback session yet. Maybe I could suggest it? It’d be a good chance to hear from everyone about things I’m doing well and things I could improve on so that I am not wading in the dark. I can also give valuable feedback to the others in the group as well. It’ll improve our overall group cohesion and function.

4. Overgeneralizing

Example: “I thought Rex was my friend – why did he just brush me off like that when we haven’t seen each other in ages? Everyone abandons me. I always get this kind of treatment from people.”

Notice and self-validate:

It kinda sucked that Rex left so soon after we said our hellos. I really missed him, after all. It makes sense that I feel shafted.

Try thinking about the situation from another perspective:

But I know Rex. He’s not trying to abandon me. And I don’t always get brushed off like that – there must be tons of people who, without even knowing it, brush people off. Even I do it sometimes. There are so many reasons it could happen that have nothing to do with how they feel about the other person.

Catch it if you see that you are making a judgment:

Just because someone leaves in a hurry, it doesn’t mean they are abandoning me. I admit that Rex and I are drifting apart after our summer work contracts were done, but there is nothing wrong with drifting. There’s no abandonment here.

Be specific:

Even if Rex really did have something against me, it doesn’t mean everyone thinks of me that way. It’s not reasonable or effective to assume that everyone will treat me like that.

5. Low Frustration Tolerance

Example: “Our presentation is next Thursday, right? Let’s just wing it, honestly. I don’t feel like spending hours practicing this.”

Notice and self-validate:

The truth is, I’m terrified of this presentation. I feel like if I start practicing it, I’m going to obsess over every detail and it’s just not going to go over well. Feeling anxious is completely fine – no matter what, I feel uncomfortable with presentations.

Try to push yourself to do things that are uncomfortable or unpleasant by remembering the reward:

But if I start practicing early, then I can be more prepared. Plus, I can work with my presentation partner. If we both know our stuff, then the presentation should go well. Plus, if we wing it…we won’t do well AND I’ll become even less comfortable with presentations.

Remind yourself that you ARE capable of withstanding the discomfort:

I struggle a lot with presentations, yes, but I CAN stand it. I’ve done presentations before, and I’ve pushed through discomfort before. Even if everything somehow falls through, at least I will know that I tried my best. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, after all.

6. Labelling

Example: “I did horribly on my last essay……I’m such a failure.”

Notice and self-validate:

Obviously it makes sense I’m upset that I didn’t do as well as I would’ve liked on this essay. It’s okay that I am feeling down about it.

Allow for varying degrees:

May I remind myself that labelling myself as a failure is a very extreme overgeneralization? This essay is just one part of this course, and just one part of my life. I am doing well with participating in tutorials, and I am doing well in my new part-time job. “Failure”’s connotation is that I am 0% successful. That can’t be right. I have evidence to state otherwise.

Celebrate the complexities of humanity:

People change all the time too. We are all dynamic. Maybe today I will be calling myself a failure, but in a couple of hours, I’ll start thinking more about my successes and start breaking through my BS meter. There’s nothing BS about cold, hard evidence that I am absolutely killin’ it in other areas of my life. This grade is not the end-all, be-all.

7. Making Demands

Example: “I have to get over 90% on this test because I must be perfect – or no one will approve of me.”

Notice and self-validate:

I’m working on my perfectionism, but it’s so difficult to break it. It’s okay that I am feeling anxious about what may happen if I don’t get a 90%.

Replace words like ‘must’, ‘need’ and ‘should’ with ‘prefer’, ‘wish’, and ‘want’:

But getting a 90% is something I want, not necessarily something I HAVE to do. I also don’t HAVE to be perfect all the time…I may wish that I was always perfect, but this is unreasonable.

Limit approval seeking:

It is not effective to need every single person I cross paths with to approve of me. It is okay that I want other’s approval, but I should work on seeing it less as something I definitely must have all the time.

Realize that the world does not play by your rules:

90% is probably not even the threshold that others consider to be ‘perfect’. Other people may consider even higher to be perfect, or somewhere lower to be perfect. This is something I created in my mind, and not everyone in the entire world adheres to it. Given that, it is not very effective to use any threshold for perfection.

Retain your standards, ideals and preferences, but ditch your rigid demands about how you, others and the world ‘have to’ be:

It is okay that I am a perfectionist at the core. It only gets damaging when I neglect my physical and mental health, or self-criticize endlessly, or compare myself incessantly and harshly to others. I would still like to be a consistent high achiever because that is a value of mine, but I should try not to become too upset or angry if I do not get the results I am aiming for every time. I should allow myself room for error – because I am human.

8. Mental Filtering

Example: “I believe that I’m lazy. I spent 2 more hours than I wanted to watching Netflix last night…proving I’m lazy.” At the same time, during the day, you finished an essay early and spent some time learning how to code from your friend in computer sciences.

Notice and self-validate:

First off, it’s okay that I am feeling a little down about thinking I am lazy. That is not a positive thought by any regard. It’s understandable given that I am comparing myself to other peers who may have been doing activities I consider to be more productive at the time that I was watching Netflix.

Examine your filters closely:

I’ve been pretty hung up about how lazy I am for a long time, actually. If I think that I’m lazy, it makes sense that I am only considering evidence that supports that thought. But I don’t think that my friends are lazy. I see their achievements and activities without this ‘I am lazy’ filter. So of course they seem to be much less lazy than I am in my eyes.

Gather evidence that your negative thought is not true:

I did finish my essay early today. It’s not like I didn’t do any work at all. I also spent some time learning how to code from Sam. It’s a skill I’ve wanted to learn for a while and I asked him to teach me the basics.

9. Disqualifying the Positive

Example: “I believe I’m a failure. I know I got a 95% on my last test, but anyone could ace that easy test. It doesn’t count.”

Notice and self-validate:

I realize that I am underestimating my success, and that this is a habit of mine that I am trying to get rid of. It is okay that I slipped up this time. It is partly a result of me comparing my mark to Alyssa, who got a 98%.

Build awareness of your automatic responses to positive information:

I got the 95%. Objectively speaking, I really did do a fantastic job. I did well because I put a lot of effort into understanding the content. I know it’s hard not to compare myself to Alyssa, but in the end we both put in a lot of effort and we both did well. It is unreasonable to think that everyone could have gotten the same grade, because they definitely did not.

Practice accepting a compliment with a simple thank you:

Alyssa complimented my hard work when the teacher handed back the test. I shrugged her off with, “anyone could ace that easy test”, but next time I should just say, “thank you”. Because she is right! I did work hard.

10. Personalizing

Example: “Our group got a low mark on our last presentation. It must be because I messed up that one sentence during my part.”

Notice and self-validate:

I am feeling guilty and disappointed that I messed up that sentence. It is alright that I am feeling this way, because I really tried my best to memorize and understand every detail of my part.

Brainstorm other factors that may have contributed to the outcome that you are assuming personal responsibility for:

It is possible that the TA thought we were missing an important part in our presentation. It might’ve been a product of groupthink – something we collectively overlooked. Maybe one of our more important slides was unclear or too crowded. Did we use the correct reference style? How did we answer the class and TA’s questions afterward?

Consider why people may be responding to you in a certain way:

My group members look dejected, and I thought that it might be because they blame me…but thinking about it again, maybe they are also wondering if it was something that they each did. Maybe we are all feeling guilty for our own reasons.

11. Emotional Reasoning

Example: “I just woke up and I feel anxious. Why am I feeling anxious? There must be something I’m forgetting. Some reason why I’m anxious. Let’s think – what happened recently? There must be something that happened that’s making me anxious.”

Notice and self-validate:

Alright, let’s calm down for a second. My mind is starting to race. I am feeling anxious. All of this is okay, but let’s try to stay present. Where am I? I’m in my bed. What do I hear? Some chatter in the living room. What do I see? My wall, with some posters on it. What do I smell? Someone’s making coffee.

If you cannot find any obvious and immediate source of your unpleasant feelings, overlook them:

I just got up. There’s nothing directly making me anxious right now. If there actually is something I am forgetting about, then it will come to me naturally in time. But right now, I just need to get refreshed and head downstairs for breakfast.

Give yourself time to allow your feelings to subside:

I’m feeling a little better now, but I’m still anxious that I’m forgetting about something important. It’s going to come to me. I just need to focus on the present for now.

The importance of recognition and self-validation

If you take away anything from this post, I want it to be the message that before you can do any productive work on redirecting your cognitive distortions and your negative automatic thought patterns, you need to a) notice, and b) self-validate. These two steps are often the most difficult in this whole process.

Noticing means that you are able to recognize when your thoughts are cognitively distorted and when you are feeling (an) intense emotion(s). Self-validation means that you validate your emotions and thoughts and speak to yourself as you would speak to your best friend. This is always far more effective than using phrases like, “Why am I doing this again?”, “Why can’t I stop thinking like this?”, and “I’m so weak – why can’t I handle this?”. Speaking invalidating comments to yourself will only exacerbate your unpleasant emotions and make it more difficult to formulate alternative thoughts.

If you would like a different way of combating these cognitive distortions or to practice noticing and self-validating, you may be interested in thought records. A thought record is a common and effective practice used in cognitive behavioural therapy. My guide includes a free printable template with some examples from my past thought records. This is challenging work, everyone! It is important to continue reminding yourself that this is all a practice. But even the practice itself has immeasurable benefits for your mental health.

Additional resources on cognitive distortions

Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),

Nicole (nicomochi)


Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

Branch, R., & Willson, R. (2010). Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies, 2e. John Wiley & Sons.

Burns, D. D. (2012). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.


Challenging cognitive distortions is a difficult but important practice for anyone's mental health. My guide is geared toward high school and college/university students, but also I include resources for other demographics! #cognitivedistortions #distortedthinking #depression #mentalhealth #mentalillness #endthestigma #anxiety #bipolardisorder #bpd #mentalhealthawareness #selfcare #cbt #socialanxiety


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