Unhelpful Thinking: When Thinking can make you feel very stuck
Sometimes it can be really useful to identify ways that you feel leave you feeling more stuck. You may find that these unhelpful habits appear more frequently when you are stressed or upset, or that they actually make you feel upset or stressed. We ALL have times when we think in unhelpful ways; however, being able to identify these moments helps you to have some distance from your thoughts. Just because we think about things in a certain way does not mean that this is the way things are and always will be.
In cognitive behavioural therapy these ideas are often explored, as they help to highlight how certain thoughts we have lead to us feeling a certain way - which in turn makes us behave in a certain way. It is this link between thoughts-feelings-behaviours that is at the core of cognitive behavioural therapy.
Let’s look at some of the more common unhelpful thinking patterns and some of the alternative ways of thinking:
BLACK AND WHITE THINKING – This is when we see things as either/or, good/bad, right/wrong e.g. I can’t get anything right; either this will be successful or a complete failure. We might want to ask ourselves; it is truly only one or the other? Aren’t there always shades of grey - is there a balance between these two possibilities?
MIND READING – This is when we assume we know what other people are thinking about us, e.g. They think I’m such an idiot for blushing and stammering through that sentence. Instead, we might ask ourselves; how could we possibly know what others think? Do they really know what we are thinking, or is it possible that these impressions are our own worries about ourselves? What alternatives might they be thinking instead?
CATASTROPHISING – This is when we assume that things have gone completely wrong, or will do. We imagine the worst possible scenario and believe that this is what will happen, e.g. Now I’m going to get fired as this is the worst mistake I could possibly make; they are going to dump me and I will be alone forever. Sometimes it can be important to think about how likely this is to really happen, or to consider whether this expectation is realistic - is there something else that is more likely to happen? Also, it's helpful to notice when you're in the process of 'catastrophising' and label it as such rather than treating it as a realistic prediction about the future.
SHOULDS, MUSTS AND OUGHTS – We often internalise the expectations the world puts on us as unrealistic expectations, e.g. I should always be the best at what I do; I must get everything right; I ought to know what to do in this situation. Recognising the pressure we put on ourselves and challenging the obligation we place on ourselves is important here - where does this pressure come from? Do we think it is fair to measure ourselves against these ideals? How could we be fairer on ourselves?
EMOTIONAL REASONING – This is when we believe that our (often anxious) feelings about something mean that it becomes true, e.g. It feels like something bad is going to happen therefore it will; I feel so anxious, there must be something wrong with me. Often it is important to remember that feeling something to be true doesn’t mean that it is going to be/come true. Our feelings come from how we think about things and not always an external reality.
These are some of the more common thinking errors that one may experience, but this list is by no means exhaustive. By being able to recognise them for yourself, you can take the first step towards being able to distance yourself from them and free yourself up to more helpful ways of thinking.
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About Sara Trayman
I am a Counselling Psychologist working in South Woodford and Redbridge. I work with children, adolescents and adults offering individual therapy. I also offer parent consultancy for parents struggling with relationships or behaviours of their children. I hope that the ideas here are useful and connect with some of your own experiences, Sara.