Cognitive Distortions

Since this is mental health awareness week, I thought I’d share a little from my own experience around mental health and in particular cognitive distortions. I must start with a disclaimer – I am not a mental health professional, I don’t have a qualification in psychology, psychiatry or anything related.

So, why do I want to talk about cognitive distortions and what are they?

Cognitive distortions are an exaggerated and/or irrational negative bias in your thinking it ranges from subtle to delusional misinterpretation. They’re also often called negative thought patterns.

I’m a tester and thus I have a hypothesis, I think testers suffer from depression/anxiety and cognitive distortions more than most.

I want to check my hypothesis (unscientifically) to see if it holds any credence so if you have 3 mins I’d love it if you fill in this short 5 question anonymous survey.

My hypothesis comes from the view that testing/delivery culture helps to reinforce some of these cognitive distortions and perhaps that people with these distortions are attracted to testing? We train ourselves as testers to get better at spotting risks and issues, to analyse software and think about what and how they might work or fail. Then we ideally test those hypotheses if we have time. Also, how often have we heard someone say “a tester broke it”, “testing found some bugs so we’re delayed”, “are you sure you are using it right”? Often testers seem to get challenged a lot or portrayed negatively. We don’t celebrate our testers by saying  “our testers found this bug and saved us annoying 1000’s of customers, great job tester!

I don’t think it’s all bad, because as testers we tend to also have good analytical skills so we have the potential tools to be able to help ourselves by spotting cognitive distortions and analysing them in ourselves and others.

Looking at cognitive distortions helped me around depression, anxiety and stress-related issues and perhaps knowing more can help you too. I learnt I had some bad patterns that were keeping me trapped in a negative loop, I’d recover as the stimulus was removed but then I’d eventually fall back to the same patterns as the stimulus was reintroduced. Once I became aware of my negative thought patterns and how my patterns influenced my feeling, I learnt how to challenge them and think differently the majority of the time and my mental well being improved and stabilised!

The other reason for sharing is mental health is as important, you matter, it matters.

Did you know…

One adult in six had a Common Mental Disorder: one in five women and one in eight men.

Mental Health and Wellbeing in England in 2014

Read that again, yes 1 in 6 had a common mental disorder when surveyed in 2014. If you have mental health disorder you are definitely not alone!

I mentioned cognitive distortions were a problem for me, I should quantify what my issues were. Throughout my 20’s I had several mental health issues, at different times I was diagnosed by health professionals with General Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Clinical Depression, Social Anxiety Disorders. I tried to take my own life twice, was hospitalised and I self-harmed regularly. If you feel like this please PLEASE seek help, call a friend, family member or find a local charity like the Samaritans.

I think it’s safe to say that I and the professional both knew that I had mental health issues but they couldn’t quite work out what the cause was and how to help me recover or I wasn’t ready to recover and so I kept relapsing.

It took losing my dad, and a month later being diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer when I was 30 before the tide to really turned for me. At the time, I had been a Test Team Leader at AXA for just a few months. I found the right help at the right time from Macmillan cancer support and worked through my cognitive distortions in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Having a therapist helped me and may help you, it got me started, pointed me at materials and helped me challenge myself, my therapist asked me questions to make me think but most of the work you have to do yourself.

So do you have exaggerated and/or irrational negative bias in your thinking pattern, do you have damaging cognitive distortions? To look into this you need 3 things.

  1. Awareness of the different automatic cognitive distortions
  2. Record your automatic negative thoughts
  3. Analyse your thoughts

1. Awareness of the different automatic cognitive distortions

Polarised Thinking

All or nothing thinking, unable to see shades of grey. It’s “all fantastic” or “all awful”. You’re either perfect or a total failure.

  • “I can’t even do this. I never do anything right.”
  • “I’m going to get promoted this year, or I’m going to quit”
  • “I’ll never be any good at automation”
  • “Everyone is faster than me at …”

Jumping to Conclusions

This comes in two forms, mind-reading where you predict negative feelings or thoughts towards you without evidence, or fortune-telling where you can foretell the future misery you’ll suffer as fact.

  • They think I’m boring. I know they have better things to do than hang out with me.”
  • “Dave didn’t wave at me in the street, he’s ignoring me and mustn’t like me”
  • “My team didn’t invite me for a coffee, they must not like me”
  • “There is no point running this test, they’re going to release it no matter what we find”
  • “No point applying for the job as I won’t get it anyway”

Over generalisations

When we draw conclusions from one or limited examples we over generalise, we create broad assumptions which can be distorted as fact.

  • “This relationship didn’t work out. I’m never going to meet someone.”
  • “I struggled to write my first automated test, I’ll never be able to automated tests”
  • “My estimate was too low on that last task, I can’t do estimates”
  • “I missed a bug, I’m a useless tester”
  • “I confused my words a little during my first presentation, I can’t do presentations”

Mental filtering

You only see the negative of a situation or event and filter out the positive ignoring them whilst often magnifying the negative too.

  • “I’m terrible at maths as I only got a B” (Usually always gets A’s)
  • “I didn’t finish my test tasks this sprint I’m useless” (usually always finishes on time)
  • “I’m terrible at helping out on releases as I can’t figure out why this test script falls over” (usually they’re the go-to person for working out why things don’t work)
  • “I can’t write automated tests, one of my 100 tests fails when I run it now”

Discounting the Positives

Similar to mental filtering, you discount the positives and show a negative bias. People tend to explain away positives as luck or fluke and undeserved.

  • “No one can love me, I’m unlovable” – though they’ve had relationships and friends and family who do love them
  • “I can’t make friends, I’m a horrible person” – though they’ve made many friends over the years
  • “I’m useless, I can never learn anything” – though they got a degree and often show others how to do things
  • “I can’t do a presentation I’m terrible” – though they have given many sprint demos with great feedback from their team
  • “I only got a good review, as my boss is scared to talk about my weaknesses”


This is a distortion when we skew our perspective and exaggerate the impact of a situation. A small event can snowball into feeling like it’s going to impact everything.

  • “My friend hasn’t replied to my text in 3 hours. She hates me. Nobody likes me.”
  • “I should be fired as I can’t even execute this test, if I get fired how will I pay the mortgage and if I can’t pay the mortgage I’m going to be homeless. ”
  • The build failed, this code is crap, these developers are useless, we’ll never get this working, we’re useless”
  • If I mess up this presentation, they’ll laugh at me, and they’ll never take me seriously again, and laugh at me whenever they see me. I’ll have to get a new job”

Others distortions

There are several more recognised distortions, I’ve listed the few I know most about, you can read more about distortions with a google search but here is a link to an infographic by John M. Grohol, Psy.D found on this lists and give a good explanation of the most common ones.

2. Record your automatic negative thoughts

Recording your thoughts has got a bit easier since online tools are now so prevalent, you can easily knock up a table in Evernote or Google docs so it’s always at hand. When I did it, I had to put 30 mins aside each evening to think back over the day and record any automatic negative feelings I had.

I recommend using the following columns:

I’d encourage filling the final column after a pause of a few hours, at least initially. As you get more practised, you will be able to analyse your thoughts closer to the situation. Eventually, you’ll be able to train your brain to avoid the automatic response, which is the ultimate goal. I’ll be honest, I’m still finding I slip into old habits on occasion, don’t expect perfection.

3. Analyse your thoughts

The distortion itself often leads the best form of analysis, for example, if you Catastrophise and spot that as the distortion then think about:

  • how terrible it would be if the situation did come to pass – worst case, most likely?
  • what has happened in the past, in a similar situation?
  • how likely are these scenarios?
  • how likely is it you’d be OK in one week, one month, one year?
  • how do you feel now?

Another form of analysis that works well for Over Generalisation and Jumping to Conclusions can be checking if you’re recognising the difference between fact or opinion, “I’m a failure”, “I can’t do anything right”, “he hurt my feelings”. Are these facts or opinions, practice distinguishing the difference (the last one is the only fact, how someone made you feel).

An analysis exercise that might sit well with testers is to examine your irrational thoughts, put them on trial like you would be debating whether it’s a bug or not with a developer. Provide evidence to evaluate the merit of the thought why is it valid, why is it invalid and see what decision you make?

If you find your self-thinking in a polarised way, try to give a scale to your thoughts for example “I’ll never be any good at automation” what’s the likelihood? 100%? Have you tried everything, every tool, every tutorial, every coach, every method of learning, do you have enough time aside to learn?

Another analysis method is breaking down big challenges into smaller achievable tasks “I can’t do it” or “it’s too hard“, “no one likes me as they don’t email me“. Break it down the epic challenge like a sprint backlog, into smaller tasks. e.g. “I’ll never learn how to automate” turns into I’ll learn how to write “hello world” in python and then complete a one hour training course on python or “no one likes me” so break that down to message a friend and see if they want to meet up.

The final technique when analysing your thoughts that I’d recommend is switching places. What would you tell someone else in this situation, e.g. when someone hasn’t called back in three hours, and you’re upset. If this was a friend complaining to you about someone else not calling them what would you tell them?

I hope some of this long blog post is useful to you and perhaps it might inspire to reflect on cognitive distortions especially if any are harming your mental health. You can find a lot more on the subject of cognitive on the internet and there are some great books out there.

Stay safe