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5 Unhelpful Thinking Patterns That Get In Your Way

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Cognitive distortions

Do you ever find yourself being particularly sensitive to certain types of feedback/ comments from others? Are there moments in the day when you have a thought, and it immediately brings down your mood?

We all have these thinking patterns from time to time - and being aware of them is the first step to stop them from getting in our way.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapists make people aware of cognitive distortions, inaccurate or exaggerated thought patterns that could lead to negative emotions and behaviours.

Here are some of the unhelpful thinking patterns:

  1. Catastrophising: This involves always anticipating the worst possible outcome. For example, if a person is late to a meeting, they might immediately think they'll be fired, rather than considering more probable outcomes, like simply receiving a reminder about punctuality.

  2. Black-and-White (Polarised) Thinking: This distortion involves seeing things in extreme, all-or-nothing terms. If things aren't perfect, then they're a total disaster. This could lead to taking minor setbacks or imperfections very seriously.

  3. Overgeneralisation: Here, a person may take a single event or piece of evidence and generalise it to an overall pattern. For example, if someone makes a mistake at work, they might think, "I always mess things up. I'm a failure."

  4. Personalisation: This involves taking everything personally or blaming oneself for events that are not entirely within one's control. For example, if a friend cancels a get-together, a person might immediately think it's because they've done something wrong, rather than considering other reasons.

  5. Should Statements: This involves operating by a strict list of what one 'should' and 'shouldn't' do and beating oneself up if they break any of the rules. For example, someone might think, "I shouldn't ever make mistakes." This can lead to taking things too seriously when they don't go as planned.

Can you relate with any of these? All of us are prone to these cognitive distortions from time to time. Here are 4 strategies you can use to deal with them:

  1. Identify and challenge cognitive distortions: This is a key strategy in CBT. It involves recognising when you're engaging in cognitive distortions (such as catastrophizing or black-and-white thinking), and then challenging those thoughts. You might ask yourself, "Is this thought realistic? Is it helpful? What's the evidence for and against this thought?"

  2. Mindfulness practice: Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. This can help you to step back from your thoughts and see them as just thoughts, rather than facts. You're thus less likely to get caught up in cognitive distortions.

  3. Problem-solving techniques: According to Spinhoven et al. (2017), effective problem-solving strategies can mitigate the impact of cognitive distortions. This might involve defining a problem clearly, brainstorming possible solutions, evaluating these solutions, and then implementing and reviewing the chosen solution.

  4. Group therapy and shared experiences: Cognitive Behavioural Group Therapy can provide a supportive environment where individuals can learn from others' experiences. Seeing how others successfully challenge cognitive distortions can provide new perspectives and strategies for managing one's own distortions.

Note: These are only a few first steps based on research, and I hope they have been meaningful to you. For more customised and detailed support, I would recommend personal therapy.

About the Author

Diya John is a counselor and psychotherapist with a Masters in Psychology and a Diploma in Counselling from Australia. She founded Therapy Garden to make evidence-based counseling more accessible to expatriates, immigrants and the international community. She is based in Japan, but works with clients in different parts of the world via online therapy. Read more about her areas of specialisation and services here.

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