Despite the incredible processing power of our brain, it can produce some pretty whacky, irrational thoughts. Thinking errors (commonly called cognitive distortions) are a prime example. This type of thinking causes us to perceive reality inaccurately and can lead to emotional distress. Below are 10 of the most common thinking errors to be mindful of.
Commonly referred to as black and white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking is inflexible and absolute. It doesn’t allow us to consider the “gray area.”
Ex. If we meet a new friend we may think, “They’re great! I love them so much!” However, if we have a disagreement we may think, “They’re the worst. I hate them, and I’m never talking to them again!” Obviously, this can make having long-term relationships difficult.
Outside of relationships, it creates inconsistency and can impair motivation and confidence
Overgeneralization means turning exceptions into rules. When we take the outcome of an isolated incident and apply it to all similar future events, we’re overgeneralizing.
Ex. If we interview for a job and don’t get it, we may believe that we’ll never be employed.
This type of thinking leads to feelings of hopelessness, or inaccurate assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world.
Filtering is the opposite of overgeneralizing. When we hyper-focus on one element of a situation but ignore its entirety, we’re filtering.
Ex. If our manager gives us constructive feedback, they may provide both praise and areas for improvement. Maybe they tell us that our sales numbers are amazing, our customer service could use some work, and our reports are organized. Instead of taking in the praise, we only focus on our customer service skills being insufficient.
Focusing solely on the negative can lead to feelings of depression, inadequacy, and hopelessness.
Discounting the Positive
Discounting the positive is like filtering but rather than being ignored, the upside is completely rejected. Positives may be explained away as coincidence or luck. Even when a positive outcome is the result of direct action, we may discount it.
Ex. Say we submit an original art piece to a competition, and win. Instead of acknowledging our talent and dedication, we may attribute our success to chance.
This thinking error causes us to dismiss our strengths and abilities. Because we believe all positives result from luck, we don’t believe we can recreate successful outcomes. Thus, we don’t trust our own abilities.
Mind reading can otherwise be called jumping to conclusions. It’s the act of trying to predict how someone will react, or how they’re feeling, evidence or not.
The conclusions we reach while mind reading are often incorrect.
Ex. Suppose we’re hanging out with friends at a trivia night. If we answer a question incorrectly, we may think, “My friends think I’m dumb, and won’t ask me to play trivia with them ever again.”
When we mind read, we may think people hold unfavorable beliefs about us. This can lead to depression and anxiety, particularly social anxiety.
Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. It’s the practice of making wide-sweeping judgements about a person (ourselves included), instead of their actions. We then assign them a label; during future interactions, we see them through the label we’ve assigned.
Ex. Perhaps we’re speaking with a friend who didn’t get much sleep the night before and is having a rough day. If they’re cranky with us, we may label them irritable. Now, each time we speak to them we approach them with the expectation that they’ll be grouchy.
This rigid approach doesn’t allow for human error, or forgiveness.
Personalization happens when we blame ourselves or others for circumstances that cannot be entirely attributed to one person.
Ex. If our family home becomes messy, we may call ourselves a lazy, bad homemaker. Realistically, we may have busy careers, family members may not be pulling their weight, and we may not have a chore schedule. We may just be tired.
This thinking error causes us to feel inadequacy, shame, and guilt.
Catastrophizing is when we assume the absolute worst outcome about unknown situations. This is fuelled by anxiety, and contributes to anxiety, thereby creating a feedback loop.
Ex. If we develop a headache, we may worry that it’s caused by a brain tumor. We may fear that the tumor will lead to debilitating disability or death.
Often, those of us who think like this have faced consistently adverse events. Our thoughts may easily spiral out of control when faced with uncertainty.
Should statements stem from self-imposed pressure about what we believe we must do. External pressure (societal, familial, etc.) may also influence this thinking error.
Ex. We may tell ourselves that by aged 35 we should make $100,000 salary, have a house, a family of our own, be “settled” in life, etc.
Should based thinking can lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy. When we don’t meet our self-imposed (often unrealistic) standards, we may feel like a failure.
Emotional reasoning is the practice of drawing conclusions about ourselves based on negative feelings, rather than reality. This doesn’t mean our emotions aren’t real, just that they might not accurately reflect who we are.
Ex. If we feel lonely, we might conclude that we’re a loser who isn’t worth getting to know.
This common thinking error can be a source of depression and anxiety.