Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Today for the Skill of the Month I will be discussing a bit of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that I find extremely useful. Over the years, the terminology has changed a bit and has now moved away from the more judgmental language that was originally used. In the early years, we referred to “Cognitive Distortions” and this term is still used especially in more scholarly work, but I prefer the newer term which is “Unhelpful Thinking Styles”.

These ten Unhelpful Thinking Styles have a big impact on our feelings about situations so identifying these thinking styles can then begin a process of changing them and thereby changing our feelings. I will not go into this part in much detail due to time constraints but it is, I think, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in a nutshell.

The ten Unhelpful Thinking Styles follow with a brief discussion of what they each mean as well as an example or two of each. Before I go any further, though, it is important to understand that I’ve never run across someone that doesn’tengage in several if not all of the following unhelpful thinking styles and we all tend to have our “favorites”—ones that we personally use more frequently.


All or Nothing Thinking Sometimes called “black and white thinking” this is looking at all situations as being one of only two possibilities—usually polar opposites of one another. Either I am perfect or I have failed. Either I do it right or not at all. Either he loves me or he hates me. This is unhelpful because it promotes discouragement and anger as there is no middle ground or grey area. When we engage in this thinking style, we may not allow ourselves to experience things for fear of “not doing it perfectly” so we also prevent ourselves from learning new things. After I had learned to knit, I decided I wanted to knit a sweater. I was fearful of starting that project because “what if my sweater is not perfect?” I decided, after thinking it through “So what! Even if I make mistakes, which I’m sure I will, I’ll learn so much from the experience of trying. I won’t have this learning experience if I don’t try.”

Overgeneralization This is sometimes very close to the previous one but is different in a few ways. This thinking style is characterized by seeing a pattern based upon a single event or being overly broad in the conclusions we draw. For me, this is one that I can be fairly certain I’m using if I hear myself think or say the words “always”, “never”, “everything” and similar such extreme words. The example I frequently give for this one is saying about my daughter “she NEVER puts her dishes in the sink! She ALWAYS leaves them in the living room!” As you can tell, this leads to a feeling of anger and resentment. It expands a specific problem to an everlasting issue as we think it will ALWAYS be this way (because it has been at least once!) A funny example of this I recently encountered when I was on vacation. A sign on some establishment read “Surely not everybody was Kung Fu fighting”. I laughed at the apparent randomness of the comment (as the song it was referencing came out in 1974 and then got a second boost in popularity with the release of the movie Kung Fu Panda in 2008) but then recognized it as a wonderful retort to the overgeneralization of the line “EVERYBODY was Kung Fu fighting”!

Mental Filter This unhelpful thinking style is at play when we are only paying attention to certain types of evidence. Usually, the “evidence” that we’re citing is negative—noticing our failures but not seeing our successes. In other words, this thinking style makes the positive invisible even when there is a lot of it. An example of this would be saying something like “This was a horrible day! I had a late start, I spilled my coffee, and my client was late!” Yep, that sounds kind of bad but what about all the good things that DID happen? Despite my spilling my coffee, I avoided spilling it on myself; despite my client being late, the rest of my clients were on time and I did good work with them… Obviously this thinking style is unhelpful because it makes you feel rather angry or sad, frustrated or generally just negative.

Disqualifying the Positive A flip side of the previous style, this one is discounting the good things that have happened or that you have done. We often say “that doesn’t count” if these good things are pointed out. My example here is when I was in high school, I was really good at making posters for dances or clubs or whatever. People would sometimes say “Oh, you make such good posters!” and I would quickly say “its nothing. Anyone could do that!” The result, over time, of engaging in this unhelpful thinking style is the elimination of joy, pride, and the satisfaction of having done something well.

Jumping to Conclusions This one is probably the most common one for folks that struggle with anxiety. It is broken down into two sub-categories:

                Mind Reading which is imagining we know what others are thinking and

                Fortune Telling imagining that we can accurately predict the future

The consequence of either of these is an increase in anxiety—possibly even leading to panic, as well as a dread of the future as we envision disaster. There are multiple examples of this. For a lot of my socially anxious clients the mind reading is highly problematic: “I know she is talking about me and saying how stupid I look in this shirt” and then this often leads right into the second part: “She’s going to tell everyone how I have no fashion sense and all of my friends will decide not to hang out with me anymore.”

Magnification and Minimization This unhelpful thinking style is when we are either blowing things out of proportion (making a mountain out of a molehill) or inappropriately shrinking something to make it seem less important. The magnification side is what I frequently see in working with clients: “If I make a mistake, I will lose my job and then my family is going to homeless!” but the other side is especially problematic if we are minimizing some serious action on our or another’s part (e.g. alcohol abuse or domestic violence.) Magnification can lead to again feeling anxious or overwhelmed since we have made it a truly awful scenario while minimization can lead to inaction or enabling when somethingneeds to be done or changed. Another way to look at this is in the view of comparison—seeing others as so much better than ourselves (magnifying their worth and minimizing our own) which then leads to feelings of worthlessness and discouragement.

Emotional Reasoning is when we assume that because we feel a certain way, what we think must be true. This is again a very common issue with people that are anxious. The classic example is “I feel scared when I am on a plane so therefore flying must be a very dangerous activity.” I had a client once liken it to intuition—“I feel that its not safe to drive on the freeway so its not safe and I’m not going to risk it.” The problem, as you may have noticed, is this kind of thinking tends to prevent us from doing many necessary things in life because we fear them without any evidence that our fear is based in reality.

Should Statements Using critical words like “should”, “must” or “ought” can make us feel guilty or defeated. When we apply them to others, we tend towards feeling angry or resentful. This is another one of the thinking styles that leads to “red flag words”. When I hear myself say “should” or another person does, I’m immediately sensitized to the possibility that this unhelpful thinking style is being employed. I have frequently caught myself saying “you should practice mindfulness” or “I should get more exercise”. Now, both of these statements might very well be true but they also come off sounding rather judgmental! Another example is “he should not have said those things to me!” It might be very true but in this case, our statement prevents us from getting beyond the hurt that we feel. In fact, we might actually increase our feeling of hurt or anger at another person because they “shouldn’t” have done whatever it was that they did. It can also make it very difficult to forgive ourselves or others.

Labeling is what we’re doing when we assign labels to ourselves or other people. I have found that if I precede a characterization with “just” I’m probably engaging in labeling. For example “he’s just a jerk” completely discounts everything else about that person when perhaps more accurately he is a person that did something that was not nice or appropriate. It leads to anger at others and may help us to justify retaliatory behavior. As you can see, it can lead to escalation of the feeling of anger or betrayal instead of a decrease in these which could lead to more level headed thinking and reason. We can also apply labels to ourselves and the one I hear the most in session is probably “I’m a loser.” Now, you might have “lost” at something but does this one thing make you now a LOSER? It somehow completely erases every time you “won” or “succeeded” in something when we engage in labeling and this leads to feelings of discouragement and ever in extreme cases, hopelessness in ourselves.

Personalization is what we’re doing when we blame ourselves or take responsibility for something that wasn’t completely our fault. The opposite can also happen when we blame others for things when we or others also hold some of the blame. In other words, we are assuming a single cause instead of seeing that it is very frequently a number of factors that combine to cause something to go wrong. An example of this is “the bake sale was a failure because the cake I made didn’t sell.” Or “the bake sale was a failure because so-and-so didn’t make the sign so no one knew about it.” As is often the case with these unhelpful thinking styles, this leads to discouragement in ourselves or anger at others.

At this point, you may be asking “how is understanding these unhelpful thinking styles a skill?” As mentioned previously, in and of themselves, they’re not skills. In fact, they’re the opposite! Recognizing them, however, the first step in understanding that our thoughts are impacting our feelings and if we can change the thought, we can change the feeling. If we are aware of these thinking styles, we can be better prepared to notice when we’re engaging in one of them and recognize the resultant feelings. The next step, of course, would be to “rephrase” our thoughts to eliminate the unhelpful portion of it and replace it with something that is at least not further contributing to our negative feeling and at hopefully flipping the negative feeling into something more neutral. When I catch myself about to say “I always…” I stop mid-sentence and rephrase it to “I frequently…” This is a minor change but it is also much more accurate and more helpful. If I frequently do something that I want to stop doing, I can now allow for the possibility of change because its no longer the “absolute” of ALWAYS.

I hope you will find the discussion of the ten unhelpful thinking styles as a way to become more aware of your own thoughts and instead of assuming that your thoughts are facts (which they’re not) you can allow yourself to change your thoughts, even subtly, and find that your negative feelings are less intense than before.