3 Cognitive Distortions That Hinder Your Ability To Problem-Solve

A psychologist shares three tips to improve your problem-solving skills.

Last updated on Jan 26, 2023

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In 1976, psychologist Aaron Beck, best known for the Beck Depression Inventory, proposed a theory to explain how negative self-talk — or cognitive distortions — prevent people from defining and solving problems effectively.

Part of his theory was that these errors in thinking lead to feelings of depression, social anxiety, low self-esteem, and a pathological loss of self-confidence.

Fortunately, we're not helpless to turn the tide of low self-esteem.


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Here are three common cognitive distortions that hinder your ability to problem-solve:

1. All-or-nothing thinking

"I can't believe I had a piece of pizza. All the work I put in for the past two weeks is down the drain. I might as well eat the whole thing!"


This is one of the most common examples of negative self-talk.

After a week of sticking to the plan, you slip. But because you're using all-or-nothing thinking, it makes you feel like a complete failure — so much so, that it completely derails you.

This is one of the errors in thinking.

The reality is that for an entire week, you stuck to the plan. If you had three meals a day for one week, that's 21 meals. That means one meal out of 21 was a "failure."

But for 95 percent of the week, you followed the meal plan. A 95-percent success rate is a failure only if you're using all-or-nothing thinking.

Otherwise, it's a resounding success. A failure to recognize this will keep you from solving the problem.


A slip now and then until you get the hang of the new plan is normal. Don’t let an error in thinking rob you of your success!

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2. Perfectionism

"I have to exercise every day for at least one hour. If I don't, I have failed at being physically fit."

Here’s why perfectionism is so dangerous: It focuses on avoiding failure, instead of seeking success, and in so doing raises your anxiety. It can also lead to depression.

The statement above is focused on failing. If, on the other hand, you say, "I try to exercise every day," or, "My goal is to exercise every day."

The focus is on intentionally trying to be more successful at working out. This is a focus on succeeding at solving the problem of being fitter.


People who use perfectionism set themselves up to fail, often again and again. This lowers self-esteem and makes it harder to try, leading to more failure. It becomes self-perpetuating.

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3. Overgeneralization

"Since I overate at the last party I attended, I know I will overeat at every party I attend."

Another way to self-sabotage and fail is to overgeneralize from one negative experience.

Overgeneralization uses a single event to predict all future events. If something bad happens just once, the "overgeneralizer" expects it to happen over and over again.

Negative self-talk can take a single, unpleasant experience and turn it into a never-ending pattern of defeat.


For instance, if a student gets a poor grade on one paper in one semester and they overgeneralize, they could conclude that they are not college material and quit school. This could entirely change the trajectory of their lives.

I actually had that happen.

I was a freshman in college and thought I was failing Geology. I called my mother and explained that I was not college material, based upon this one experience, and could I come home? Mind you, I had As in all the other subjects.

My mother knew better than to argue with me. She was exceptional at building self-esteem by empowering us.

She suggested that I contact student services, which offered testing and sign up to have my I.Q. tested.


I did and when I got the results back, I was so astonished that I accused the evaluator of falsifying the results. He assured me that he had not altered the results but offered to use another test (with a higher ceiling) and test me again.

This time, my I.Q. came back even higher.

This experience changed my life forever. I never got another B again in undergraduate school — straight As. Thank you, mom!

When it comes to eating disorders, overgeneralization sounds like this: "Last time I went to my parent’s house, I overate. I can’t go there anymore, because the same thing will just keep happening."


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How can you beat this error of thinking and do a better job at solving problems?

Next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing, stop and remind yourself, "I have free will. I can decide whether or not to overeat. Just because I overate at the last faculty party, does not necessarily mean that I will overeat at the next one."

Positive self-talk works. If you can have this little heart-to-heart with yourself, you will feel less anxiety and less hopelessness, and be more likely to map out a strategy to handle eating at the next party or family gathering.

There are simple things you can do to cope with bingeing at a gathering, like bring your own vegetable and dip, chili, or dessert.


Or you can pull a Scarlett O’Hara, and eat before you go to the party. Or, you can prepare something you love and have it waiting for you when you get home from the party.

Or do all three.

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Renae Norton is a psychologist and offers an alternative to inpatient treatment for severe cases of anorexia, bulimia, or a combination of the two.