Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Introduction

Throughout this module, you will gain awareness of various unhelpful thinking styles and their impact on your thoughts, emotions, and actions. By identifying and challenging these patterns, you will develop the tools to manage these automatic negative ways of thinking in a more controlled and proactive way. 

Overview

When we’ve been stuck in these thinking patterns for a while, it can be tough to even realize they’re happening. That’s why we’ll start by breaking down each thinking style using real-life examples, making it easier for you to recognize them in your own thoughts.

Mountains and Molehills

“Mountains and Molehills” refers to the tendency to blow things out of proportion or to minimize them. It is also known as the “binocular effect” because it is like looking at something through binoculars and either magnifying it or minimizing it.

For example, if you get a B on a test and say “I’m so stupid, I should have gotten an A,” you are making a mountain out of a molehill. On the other hand, if you get a promotion at work and say “It’s no big deal, anyone could have done it,” you are minimizing your achievement.

Judgements

Judgements refers to the tendency to make negative evaluations of people or situations based on limited information or without considering all the facts

For example, if you meet someone who is quiet and reserved and you assume that they are unfriendly or boring, you are making a judgement without considering all the facts.

Prediction

“Prediction” refers to the tendency to make negative predictions about the future without considering all the facts.

For example, if you are going to a party and you predict that you won’t have a good time because you don’t know anyone there, you are making a negative prediction without considering all the facts.

Black and White thinking

“Black and white” thinking is characterized by viewing situations, people, or experiences in rigid, absolute terms. This all-or-nothing mindset leaves no room for nuance or complexity, often leading to oversimplified and inaccurate perceptions.

An example of black-and-white thinking is labeling a person as entirely good or bad based on a single action, rather than taking into account their varied traits and behaviors.

Compare and Despair

“Compare and Despair” is characterized by seeing only the good aspects in other people whilst seeing only the negative ones in ourselves. We compare ourselves by not taking into account the full picture of the other person whilst also not seeing our own good qualities.

For example, a person might come across a post from their friend on Instagram, showing off their perfect vacation pictures in an exotic location with the caption “Living my best life!”. The person might then start comparing their own life to their friend’s and feel a sense of despair and dissatisfaction. To overcome compare and despair thinking, it can be helpful to remember that social media often only shows the highlights of people’s lives and that everyone has their own unique journey, with its own share of ups and downs.

Shoulds and musts

The unhelpful thinking style of “shoulds” and “musts” is characterized by rigid and inflexible beliefs about how things should be. People who think in this way impose unreasonable and unrealistic expectations upon themselves and others, leading to feelings of guilt, frustration, and disappointment.

For example, someone who constantly thinks “I should always be perfect” or “I must never make mistakes” is setting themselves up for failure and an endless cycle of self-criticism. Similarly, holding others to impossibly high standards can lead to strained relationships and resentment.

Critical Self

“Critical self” is characterized by constantly judging and criticizing oneself. Individuals who engage in critical self tend to set impossibly high standards for themselves and are often very self-critical when they fall short of these standards.

For example, imagine a student who has always been an A+ student and has set the goal of obtaining perfect grades throughout their academic career. One semester, this student receives a B+ on a difficult exam. Instead of acknowledging that the exam was difficult and that a B+ is still a good grade, the student engages in critical self-talk, telling themselves that they are a failure and that they will never achieve their goals. This negative self-talk only increases their stress and anxiety levels and makes it harder for them to perform well in the future.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is an unhelpful thinking style wherein a person makes decisions based on their emotions rather than reality. It occurs when a person assumes that their emotional perception accurately represents the whole truth, without considering factual evidence.

For example, when a person believes that they are worthless because they are feeling down, even though there is no objective evidence to support this belief.

Memories

The unhelpful thinking style of Memories involves dwelling on past experiences in a negative light, and using them as a point of reference for interpreting current situations. This often leads to feelings of regret, guilt, and hopelessness, as well as a distorted perception of reality.

For example, someone who constantly remembers past failures and mistakes might interpret their current job performance as also being inadequate, even if they are actually doing well.

Catastrophising

Catastrophising is an unhelpful thinking style where an individual tends to only focus on the worst possible outcomes of a situation and not take into account the possibility of this actually happening.

For example, if someone is planning to go on a trip, they may start catastrophising and imagine all the things that could go wrong, such as missing a flight, losing their luggage, or getting lost in an unfamiliar city.

Mental Filter

Mental Filter is an unhelpful thinking style in which a person focuses only on the aspects of a situation that ‘the filter’ allows. This could mean that you only see information that further proves the thoughts and feelings you already have rather than also seeing the information that disproves those same feelings and thoughts.

An example of this style of thinking would be a person who receives a performance evaluation from their boss. The evaluation is mostly positive, with a few areas identified for improvement. However, this person fixates on the areas for improvement and ignores the positive feedback. They might think, “I’m such a failure. I can’t believe I messed up in those areas, and my boss is probably disappointed in me.”

Mind-Reading

Mind-reading is an unhelpful thinking style where a person assumes they know what someone else is thinking without any evidence to support their assumption. The individual may believe they know the motives or intentions behind another person’s behaviour.

For example, a person might assume that their friend did not invite them to a party because they do not like them. However, there could be many valid reasons why the friend didn’t invite them such as limited space or lack of opportunity to invite everyone they know.

Exercise

Now that we have learned how to identify unhelpful thinking styles, it is time to put our knowledge into practice by examining our own thoughts.

  • Take a few minutes to reflect on your thoughts and write down any that may be biased, negative, or unhelpful.
  • Identify which unhelpful thinking style(s) may be at play. It is possible that multiple styles are present so don’t feel that it has to fit just one.
  • Finally, balance out your thought by stepping back from it and considering other, more positive perspectives. This can be done in practice by imagining that you are given advice to a friend for example or by only examining the facts.


Remember, this takes time and practice, and it is okay if you do not get it right on the first try. If you feel it would be more helpful to practice with prompts, please use the downloadable worksheet below.

If you enjoyed this practice and would like to have a copy in the form of a worksheet. Please feel free to download a copy by pressing the download button.

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