Cognitive Distortions are All Black and White

My favorite color is grey.

OK, not really. But perhaps it should be, considering what I’m about to say.

I believe that we live life in the grey area. That nothing is black and white, right and wrong, cut and dry. I’ve been working on writing new content for Pacifica (look for exciting stuff soon!) and have found myself coming back to this idea several times. Often when we are struggling it’s because we’re looking for things to fit into boxes, to be neat and clean, and they aren’t. Life is full of exceptions to rules, qualifiers, maybes, and “that depends”.

One of the key points of Cognitive-behavioral therapy, upon which Pacifica is largely based, is that our thoughts have a major role in determining our emotions and behaviors. CBT holds that negative thoughts or cognitive distortions are one of the most important factors in maintaining mental illness.

A cognitive distortion is an error in thinking which can lead you to perceive the world inaccurately. Cognitive distortions are often negative self-statements and typically reinforce negative beliefs you have about yourself, others, or the world. One example would be telling yourself “I’m a loser. No one likes me.” You probably don’t have evidence that this is true, and this thinking trap will undoubtedly make you feel worse about yourself. If you are able to recognize that telling yourself “I’m a loser” is an exaggerated negative thought, you might then be inclined to try to convince yourself of the opposite: “I’m fantastic. I’m great. I’m the best.” But you may or may not have evidence for that either.

The fact is that, for most of life, we are in the grey area. Sometimes we are great, other times, not so much. Everybody has off days and makes mistakes. We also all have days where we feel like we’re doing well and things are going our way. The sum total of all this up-and-down is that we are all somewhere in the middle. In the grey.


The key to accurate, non-distorted thinking is to recognize that nothing in life is simple or absolute (there’s probably even an exception to this!).

Finding Balance

One of the most innovative and helpful aspects of CBT that we’ve integrated into Pacifica is the ability to identify and challenge your thoughts. Once you notice that you are engaging in black-and-white thinking, you can take a step back and start to question whether the event or issue you are thinking about is really all one way or the other, or if perhaps you’ve made an inaccurate interpretation. Reframing or restating those extreme thoughts can be very helpful when trying to find emotional balance. It’s not always easy, but with practice you will get into the habit of seeing your thoughts and recognizing when you’ve fallen victim to a distortion. This often decreases the intensity of negative emotions and makes it possible to move forward.

So the next time you are trying to swing your views of yourself strongly one way or the other, remember that, probably, the truth is somewhere in the middle. An excellent goal would be to identify those balanced, realistic views.