Over our lifetime we all develop unhelpful thinking styles.
These are ways of thinking that are not useful and actually prevent rational thought; over time they can become a habit and occur automatically.
This is particularly the case for people who are struggling with depression or anxiety. They can be caught in a pattern of unhelpful thinking styles that maintains their symptoms – so recognising and identifying these thought patterns is often one of the first steps in the therapy process.
Common Unhelpful Thinking Styles
Here are some of the most common unhelpful thinking styles:
- Catastrophising – This is when we blow a situation out of proportion, making a mountain out of a molehill – or we automatically think about the worse case scenario. Statements such as “My life is over”, “I’ll never work again”, or “They are all going to hate me”, are good examples of this.
- Selective Mental Filter – We’ve all known somebody who never seems to hear any compliments you give them, focusing instead on the negatives. This unhelpful thinking style allows us to only notice certain aspects of a situation, and dismiss everything else. Usually this means that we focus on the negative, and discount the positive parts.
- Black and White Thinking – This is a type of “all or nothing” thinking – everything is seen in extremes and there is no room for middle ground. Things are either right or wrong, good or bad – with black and white thinking, there are no shades of grey.
- Over Generalisation – This is when we take one instance in the past or present and apply it to all current and future situations. For example, “I will always be a failure in social situations”. Statements that begin with the words “I’ll always”, “I’ll never”, or “Everyone will”, are usually indicative of over generalisation.
- Jumping to conclusions – When we assume we know what will happen in the future (predictive thinking), or what someone might say before we ask (mind reading). Jumping to conclusions really limits your opportunities to experience new situations, as if you never try you never know! (It can also lead to catastrophising, as described above).
- Personalisation – When you blame yourself and put yourself down for events that are outside of your control. Whether you are partly to blame or not to blame at all, you believe that external events are entirely your fault.
- Emotional Reasoning – This is when you believe that if you feel something, then it must be true. For example, feeling stupid and boring, does not mean that you are stupid and boring. Emotional reasoning is not rational, as feelings can have many causes and do not necessarily reflect reality.
- Comparing – This is when we only see the good and positive aspects in others, and compare ourselves against them negatively. We often over exaggerate the good qualities in others, as well as our own negative qualities.
- “Should” and “Must” – Using words like “I should” (or “I shouldn’t”) and “I must” (or “I mustn’t”) excessively, can put a lot of pressure both on yourself and others. Although there are times when using “should” and “must” are not unhelpful (eg “I should get my assignment done before the due date”) they can sometimes set up unrealistic expectations (eg “I must get a High Distinction in this assignment”).
If you recognise that you have fallen into any or even many of these unhelpful thinking styles, then you have taken the first step towards a more positive and helpful mindset. Once you can identify them, you can start to notice when they occur. Once you can notice them, you can start to challenge these thoughts, or distance yourself from them, to try to see the situation in a different and more helpful way.
How CBT Can Help Change Your Thinking
Of course this is not always easy to do, as often these unhelpful thinking patterns have become automatic. This is where Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be very useful, as it not only helps you to identify and challenge any unhelpful or negative thinking styles, but it then helps you to explore and practice ways of thinking (and acting) more positively.
Author: Jayani Jayatilake, BA (Soc Sc), M Social Work, AMHSW.
With a Masters degree in Social Work and a strong interest in the cultural considerations in counselling, Jayani considers each individual client to be the expert in their own life. As such, she encourages her clients to take an active role in therapy. By helping them to recognise and draw on their own strengths, resourcefulness and resilience, Jayani supports them to overcome obstacles and create the life they want. Jayani is able to provide English and Sinhalese counselling.
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