We all have unhelpful thinking styles (also known as cognitive distortions). In any given situation, our brains find multiple ways to try to trick us into negative thinking patterns. Learning about unhelpful thinking styles in cognitive behaviour therapy was a game-changer for me. It helped me realize that I had the power to change the way I think. Although this change comes with hard work, it’s very doable. The first step is to notice the unhelpful thinking style. The second step is to challenge it when it’s happening in real-time. You can either do this in your head, write it down in your journal, or print out worksheets—whatever works for you. If you find yourself struggling with challenging them in real-time, doing it retroactively is fine too. The third step is to notice and track the benefits. What happens when you challenge your minimization? Observe it and write it down. Once you practice these three steps, challenging your own unhelpful thinking styles will become second nature.
Everyone has their go-to unhelpful thinking styles, which you’ll soon realize after reading this list. When you see yourself in one (or most likely more) of these, I urge you to come up with your own examples of how your thinking styles manifest themselves in your day-to-day life. Placing a personal example to each relevant thinking style will actively help you catch yourself thinking in these ways.
My advice is to just have fun with it! I kind of see this as a psychology personality test. In many ways, it’s validating and refreshing to identify with these unhelpful thinking styles—it means you’re not alone, and that you have the power to change them. I rewired my brain, and you can too.
Here are 10 unhelpful thinking styles:
All or Nothing Thinking
Otherwise known as “black and white thinking,” this thinking style causes us to only see things in one extreme or another. If we can’t do something right, we might as well not do it at all. With all or nothing thinking, we often forget the nuances of life or result in giving ourselves ultimatums. When this type of thinking style clouds your mind, I challenge you to notice it and ask yourself if it’s true or beneficial. Why not try something new, even if you don’t do it right? What’s the worst that could happen?
We tend to only pay attention to the evidence that supports our point. If we are having a bad day, we narrow in on the unfortunate events rather than focusing on what we are grateful for. When we are failing, we forget about all the successes that have led us to where we are now. This mental filter skews our perception and only allow us to see a small portion of the big picture. When you can’t help but focus on the negative evidence, I suggest you write a list of positive evidence. Think of it as a debate with your mind. Until you can reach a mutual agreement, you deserve to advocate for the positives in your life before your mind immediately clouds your thoughts with negativity.
Have you ever told yourself after a long, hard week that “nothing good ever happens to me?” This would be an example of over-generalizing. When we over-generalize, we see a pattern based upon a single event and tend to draw broad conclusions. If you find yourself over-generalizing, try to challenge your thoughts. If you feel as though nothing good ever happens to you, grab your journal and write three good things that have ever happened to you. You’ll quickly come to realize that your over-generalization wasn’t as true as you once thought it was.
Jumping to Conclusions
There are two key types of jumping to conclusions: mind reading and fortune telling. Mind reading is when we imagine we know what others are thinking. Fortune telling is when we predict the future. Both types can happen at the same time and can also be mutually exclusive. I hate to break it to you, but none of us are mind readers or fortune tellers—try to keep that in mind the next time you’re convinced you know what others are thinking or what catastrophes the future will hold.
Disqualifying the Positive
“That doesn’t count,” or “I shouldn’t feel accomplished, so many people are struggling right now.” We are often quick to discount the good things that we have done or that have happened to us. Sometimes we even excuse the positive things in our lives because others don’t have the same opportunities. Although it is great to add perspective to your accomplishments and acknowledge your privilege, that does not mean that you have to disqualify the positives in your life. Remember to celebrate the good things in your life and try not to put yourself down.
Magnification (catastrophizing) & Minimization
Magnification or catastrophizing is when we blow things out of proportion. Minimization is when we inappropriately shrink something to make it seem less important. Both extremes can be unhelpful, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t change these thinking styles. Whether you’re minimizing or catastrophizing, try putting yourself in the shoes of your best friend, family member, or any trusted individual. How would they react to your situation? Would they tell you to treat yourself with compassion? Would they tell you that you might be overreacting? Allow yourself to take the space that you need to process your feelings, but make sure to assess your reaction from another perspective.
This is when we attribute truth to emotion. Emotional reasoning can appear in many ways. “Because I have trauma, I am undesirable,” “because I hold a lot of shame, I am a bad person,” “because I need time for myself to recharge, I am selfish.” Although we think our emotions define us, the truth is that they are separate from our identities. When you feel like you are falling into emotional reasoning, try to remember that you and your emotions are two different beings.
“Should” or “Must”
Using critical words like “should” or “must” or “ought” can make us feel guilty—as though we have already failed. Instead of telling yourself that you “should” go to the gym, try saying you would “like” to go to the gym. This simple word change goes a long way and can help remove guilt or shame around our self-image or actions.
Have you ever heard a voice in your head on loop saying, “I’m so stupid” or “I’m a loser?” That’s labelling. We label ourselves because we are our harshest critic. We are not stupid. We are not losers. We are merely human beings that are trying our very best. Labelling is unhelpful because it attributes negative emotions to our actions. Next time you find yourself labelling, try to identify the label and ask yourself why you used it. You’ll soon come to realize that you are not your label. Through these small corrections, you will start to rewire your brain to default to a state of self-compassion.
There are two ways to look at personalization. You either blame yourself or take responsibility for something that wasn’t completely your fault, or you blame others for something that was your fault. As you can tell, the overall theme in personalization is blame. Sometimes blame is unproductive and can be used as a mask for underlying emotions. Sometimes blame is a direct line to heal trauma. How do you use blame? When resulting to blame in any given situation, try to stop and ask yourself why.
Which unhelpful thinking style(s) do you most identify with?