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  • Writer's pictureScott R. Mote, Esq.

Be Aware of These 9 Cognitive Distortions

Every person has internal thoughts that cause anxiety, misery or just an overall bad feeling—they are called cognitive distortions, and they infiltrate our brains in many different ways. Cognitive distortions come in many different forms. The best way to cope with these thoughts is to be aware of these 9 distortions and to learn how to prove them wrong.

“Should” or “must” statements

A judge was on the bench on a busy morning and thought to herself, “I should have been more empathetic to my spouse this morning when I was in a rush. I must be a terrible husband/wife.” This is called a “should” statement, where you feel guilty or lacking and you are not living up to your beliefs or expectations, which makes you believe that there must be something wrong with you.

Black and white thinking, also known as all-or-nothing thinking

Woman on the couch thinking
Woman thinking

Lawyer Terry has received myriad compliments and accolades during his career. He made one small mistake—he called a judge by the wrong name—and he immediately believed he was not fit to be a lawyer. He thought to himself, “I am a terrible lawyer. I cannot do anything right.” Obviously, this is not true. He needs to recognize this thought, challenge it, and figure out why this is not true. Terry has done almost everything the right way, and he needs to focus on those accomplishments. Just because he made one mistake does not mean he is lacking. Everyone makes mistakes.

Jumping to conclusions

Melissa arrived at the courthouse and her co-worker Diane did not say hello to her. Melissa immediately believed that she must have done something to offend Diane, and Diane is angry with her. Melissa does not have enough information to know this is the truth, yet she believes it anyway. If you find yourself jumping to conclusions, try to rationalize why your thought is distorted. In this example, Diane might not have seen Melissa walk in, which is why Diane did not say hello, not because she is angry with her.


Mental filtering is when you come up with a negative of something positive. Instead of thinking about his major accomplishments, Sam only focused on the public scrutiny he received after trying a high-profile case. Yes, scrutiny might be a small part of the job, but there is so much more!


Overgeneralization is when a person applies something from one event to all other events. For example, Stacy has been mentoring a young lawyer named Michael, but the last time Michael came to court, he was late and unprepared. Now Stacy believes she has failed as a mentor. This, of course, is not true. Stacy has taught Michael many positive aspects of being a lawyer. She cannot dismiss this just because Michael was unprepared one time.


Personalization occurs when a person thinks he/she is responsible for negative events that are not in their control. Judge Wyatt believes that the never-ending court docket is his fault because he took a week vacation with his family. There will still be a long docket whether Judge Wyatt took a vacation or he did not. Being out of the courtroom for one week is not going to cause a greater number of cases.


You have probably heard the expression that comparison is the thief of joy. With social media and our constant exposure to other people’s lives and achievements, it is easy for us to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. For example, law student Emily compares herself to another student and says, “I am not as well-liked as that student.” This is an unfair comparison, since Emily cannot read the minds of others. She does not in fact know that others like her colleague better. Instead of comparing herself, Emily can focus on all of the people who support her and that she also is well-liked.

Magnification or minimalization

Magnification is when you exaggerate the importance of an event. For example, Cindy missed a meeting because she forgot to put it in her calendar. She immediately thinks that she is the worst lawyer. One mistake does not make you terrible at something. Instead, she could think of all of the meetings she attended where she was on time!

Minimalization happens when you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny. When Nancy won an award that her colleague nominated her for, she did not believe she actually deserved it. She believed her colleague was just being nice.


“I’m a bad lawyer,” Harry said, after he became overwhelmed one day. Harry is labeling himself. Being a lawyer is complex, and many ups and downs come along with the job. Instead of thinking about all of his achievements, he is labeling himself as bad just because he is overwhelmed. We all get overwhelmed at times. We just need to learn how to cope and think about the positives of being a lawyer.

Do you feel like you can identify with any of these cognitive distortions? It is important to be aware of these thoughts and learn how to change your thinking. If you find yourself comparing, labeling or any other type of distorted thinking, figure out why that is not true. If your all-or-nothing mindset makes you think that you are a bad lawyer, challenge your thinking. Remind yourself of all of your professional accomplishments, how you help people daily, and how committed you are to the legal profession. This should help you to start thinking more positively, which will make you less stressed and anxious.

The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) helps lawyers, judges and law students cope with the stresses of the legal profession. We have saved hundreds of lives and families. We treat depression, mental health disorders, burnout, substance use disorders, anxiety, gambling disorders, and more. We know that it is difficult to ask for help when you are struggling, but asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. We also understand your concerns about privacy, which is why OLAP is governed by strong rules of confidentiality.

(800) 348-4343

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