11 Unhelpful Thinking Styles
From anxiety to eating disorders, thinking styles have been associated with many mental health issues. When we experience negative emotions, they are usually preceded by negative thoughts. They often occur in patterns, which allows us to identify them as thinking styles.
When a person consistently uses these unhelpful thinking styles, it can lead to major emotional stress. The next sections introduce you to the 11 most common unhelpful thinking patterns, tips on how you can change them, and how therapy can help.
What Are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortion refers to automatic thinking patterns that are defined as a distortion of reality. In other words, we experience a bias or errors against ourselves, which can increase our stress and heavily impact our mental health.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to change the way we think in order to influence our behavior and feelings. One of the first research papers in this field dates back to 1963, when Aaron T. Beck identified five cognitive distortions, and then added two more several years later:
- Arbitrary interpretation, or when the person interprets something without any factual evidence;
- Selective abstraction — defined as when we focus on details out of the context;
- Minimization and magnification;
- Absolutistic, dichotomous thinking.
11 Negative Thinking Patterns
Below, we discuss each of the cognitive distortions mentioned above, along with some additional negative thinking styles.
When we go through a difficult time and we need to deal with problems, we often resort to “stewing.” This unhelpful thinking style means that we go through the situation over and over in our minds. In turn, stewing makes the problem seem more important to us than it actually is.
In this case, the thinking pattern is associated with a lack of action being taken – we simply run things over and over in our minds without seeking solutions.
Magnification & Minimization
Many people tend to exaggerate or minimize the importance of events. For instance, we tend to exaggerate the inputs of others and minimize our own contribution or positive traits.
This happens, for instance, when you think your achievements are “not so impressive,” but you stress yourself excessively over your mistakes.
If you’ve ever said “this is the worst ever,” you were definitely catastrophizing a situation. This means we tend to see an existing situation as more severe than it actually is – horrible, overwhelming, regardless of its actual importance.
Also, some people tend to focus on the negative aspects of a situation. For instance, when you receive feedback, you tend to focus on the critical parts and ignore all the positive aspects.
Overgeneralization occurs when you tend to make an interpretation without any factual evidence. For instance, you go to a job interview and you feel embarrassed afterward, stating that “I am always so awkward.” This, in turn, can be associated with stewing, as you replay the embarrassing event over and over in your mind.
Jumping to Conclusions
Another unhelpful thinking pattern is jumping to conclusions. In other words, we have little to no information regarding an event, but we tend to draw our conclusions already.
For instance, if you felt awkward during an interview, you could jump to the conclusion that you didn’t get the job, even though you haven’t received an answer yet.
Personalization refers to blaming ourselves without any reason. This happens in situations that are not under our control or when we put ourselves in the center of the story without this being the case.
For example, we all have those “bad days” when we forget our keys at home, miss the bus, and are late at work. Thus, we conclude that we are at the center of the story and the world is against us. This can lead to feelings of powerlessness, as though we have no control over our life.
This happens when we make assumptions without any evidence. For instance, during the job interview, you think “the manager will not hire me, they probably think I’m too awkward for this position”.
This is when you think you “know” what others think, even though you have no evidence for this. Mindreading often refers to assuming that other people make negative judgments about ourselves.
Predicting the Future
We sometimes tend to predict the future often in a gloomy way. We assume that a situation will turn out badly, even if we don’t have any evidence towards this. We may expect the worst simply because “we feel” like something bad is about to happen.
Shoulding and Musting
Shoulding and musting refers to using “should/should not” and “must/must not” to put pressure on ourselves. For instance, you may state “I shouldn’t/must not have an unhelpful thinking style.” T
his is not helpful as it creates a demand for unrealistic expectations and does not highlight any solution to this problem.
Labeling refers to describing others or ourselves through global statements. For instance, you make a mistake and you say to yourself “I am such a loser!”. Or, you label others with negative terms, such as “She forgot her assignment, she is such an idiot!”.
The main problem with labeling is that it shortens your entire identity to only one shortcoming or a single mistake.
Also known as absolutistic, dichotomous thinking, seeing in black and white is quite a common unhelpful thinking style. For instance, you often use words like “never” and “always.” There is no in-between.
People arguing with their significant other may say “You’re never listening to me” or “You’re always saying this.” This all-or-nothing thinking is unhelpful and can also hurt others feelings as they feel unappreciated while you wipe away all the positive inputs.
How to Change Unhelping Thinking
Call it for what it is
If you find yourself in the loop of these unhelpful thinking patterns, try to identify them. It may be one of the examples above or another one.
To help you identify it, you can ask yourself if these thoughts get you anywhere – or help you find a solution. If the answer is no, then it’s time you tried another approach.
It’s best to go for another activity to distract yourself from the thinking pattern. Call your friend or a loved one, go outside for a walk, or listen to music. These activities can help you break the vicious cycle of unhelpful thoughts.
Meditation and deep breathing can help you find your focus. It also relaxes your body, eliminating physical stress. Try yoga or other techniques to regain your calm, so you can find solutions to your problems with a clear mind.
Working with a mental health professional is beneficial for your emotional health. You can get help from a specialist trained in evidence-based treatment approaches to challenge negative thinking patterns. CBT is proven to be effective. It helps identify and challenge unhelpful thinking styles.
All in all, all of us experience unhelpful thinking styles at some point. It is important to stay optimistic and call it for what it is. Jumping to conclusions, seeing everything in black or white, and other unhelpful patterns will only increase our stress and prevent us from leading a happy life.
You may also opt for online cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT on Calmerry, working together with a professional to boost your well-being and mental health.
Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has been working in healthcare since 2017. She mainly treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, grief, identity, relationship, and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience is focused on individual and group counseling.
Follow Kate here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kate-skurat-5348381b9/
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