unhelpful thinking habits

Unhelpful thinking habits and how to Identify them


Despite all of our best intentions, we can be our own worst critics. At times you might find yourself getting stuck in negative ruminations or unhelpful thoughts  that  seem to make everything worse. Did you know these unhelpful thinking patterns can actually contribute to depression, exacerbate anxiety and make painful emotions feel overwhelming.  And our kids aren’t immune to these unhelpful ways of thinking either!

If your child wasn’t invited to a birthday party, for example, they may decide that everyone who went to the party dislikes them.  Perhaps they miss a line in the school play, and so insist that the whole performance was ruined because of them, or leave their schoolwork at home and convince themselves they are stupid for being forgetful! Psychologists refer to them as cognitive distortions or cognitive errors, but it’s easy to think of them as “unhelpful thinking styles”.

How do I learn what my unhelpful thinking styles are?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches us to recognise ways in which our thinking interacts with our feelings and behaviours. By identifying common cognitive distortions that are contributing to making us feel bad, we can then challenge them in more helpful ways.  Whether or not you or your child is receiving psychological support, it can certainly help to recognise any unhelpful thinking patterns you might be using without even knowing it!

These are the commonly identified unhelpful thinking patterns:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking ( Black-and-White or Dichotomous Thinking)

Seeing things in only two categories, so they’re either good or bad, black or white, with no shades of grey.   This is a very common distortion that makes you think – and therefore feel – that if something is not all of what you want, then it’s none of what you want.   This also encompasses perfectionist  type thinking: believing you have to perform well on everything or else you’ve totally failed.

  1. Emotional Reasoning

Believing that because you feel something,  it must be true! Even when there’s no evidence other than a feeling.  For example: I feel lonely, therefore I am alone and no one likes me.

  1. Over-Generalisation

Taking one negative event or detail about a situation and making it a universal pattern that then becomes the truth about your whole life.  For example: A friend did not want to hang out with me today, therefore no one ever wants to hang out with me any day.

  1. Labelling

Applying a negative label to yourself, or others, so that you no longer see anything other than the one aspect attached to that label.  For example: I fell over trying to score a goal in soccer today. I’m completely uncoordinated or I’m useless.

  1. “Fortune-Telling”

Predicting that something is going to turn out in a negative way, irrespective of evidence or truth. This can become quite a pessimistic way of viewing the future, and impacts your behaviour by always anticipating that things will turn out badly, before they’ve even happened! For example: I know that I’m going to do horribly on that test (so you panic, worry too much you can’t study effectively and end up performing poorly).

  1. Mind Reading

Assuming that you know and understand what another person is thinking, and being certain that it reflects poorly on you.  For example:  I’m talking, and the person I’m talking to  just looked at thier watch, I know they don’t want to be here and have somewhere better to be. I’m sure they don’t like me.  In reality…it might be  the person was just distracted or running late!

  1. Catastrophising (also called Magnification)

Taking a problem or something negative and blowing it up out of proportion “making a mountain out of a molehill”.  For example: If I don’t pass this exam I will never get a job and my whole life is ruined.

  1. Discounting the Positive (also called Minimising)

Taking something positive that happened and reducing it’s importance so that it doesn’t “count” as a good thing in your life or experience. This thinking style discounts evidence that supports the positive view of ourselves, fixating only on the negative. For example: I did well on that one quiz, but I just got lucky.

  1. Mental Filter (also called Selective Abstraction)

Seeing only the negative instead of looking at all the positive or neutral aspects of an experience.  For example: You write a paper for a teacher and they give you plenty of positive feedback, but you had a few spelling errors.  All you can focus on is the misspelling.

  1. Personalisation

Making things about you when they are not. This includes blaming yourself for what is beyond your control and taking things personally when they aren’t intended to be harmful to you.  For example: If I hadn’t demanded so much of my parents, maybe they wouldn’t be getting a divorce.

  1. Imperatives (also called “shoulding & musting”)

Thinking in “shoulds” and “musts” (and the inverse, “should nots” and must nots”).  For example: I should be able to give presentations in class without feeling any anxiety. What’s wrong with me? (Of course, thinking this way, on top of feeling nervous, makes you even more nervous about speaking!)

It’s  important to acknowledge that some amount of unhelpful thinking is normal.  We all make thinking mistakes.  It is when these thoughts becomes more entrenched, and a part of your daily life, they can create a bias.  These negative ways of thinking are often unrealistic, and can have significant impact on our emotions, behaviours, and world views.  If you would like to learn more, or speak with one of our psychologists about changing your thinking habits, please contact us at Educare.

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