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The human brain is wired to interpret everything around us. We try to make sense of the events that happen in our lives, either consciously or unconsciously.
Unfortunately, sometimes, it’s not easy to understand the meaning behind the things that happen to us. Our minds might take shortcuts, so our thinking can become biased.
Biased thinking is an important topic in psychology because unhelpful styles of thinking can lead to various mental health problems. Therefore, it’s important to recognise such thinking patterns if you want to overcome depression, anxiety, or other issues that stop you from living a fulfilling life.
A little bit of history
Biased thinking, also known as cognitive distortions, was first described by Aaron Beck back in the 1960s. The concept of cognitive distortions became the basis of his cognitive theory of depression, which in turn developed into cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
This approach aims to identify the unhelpful thinking patterns and alter them by using cognitive restructuring techniques. CBT has proven to be effective in treating anxiety, depression, and many other mental issues. Distorted thinking is one of the central concepts in CBT. Beck described five common distortions in 1963. In his book Cognitive Therapy of Depression, Beck added two types of distortions, and this list was later extended by David Burns.
According to Burns, the ten common cognitive distortions are:
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Mental filtering
- Jumping to conclusions
- Discounting the positive
- Emotional reasoning
- Minimisation and magnification
- Excessive use of ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements
Now let’s take a closer look at these unhelpful thinking styles.
10 Unhelpful styles of thinking
This thinking style implies considering one event or situation and imposing it on all the situations and events that happen afterward. If you’ve had an unpleasant conversation with a certain person and think, ‘Everyone is like that,’ that’s a typical example of overgeneralisation.
People who overgeneralise things tend to think that they already know what will happen in the future: ‘That’s what always happens,’ ‘I’ve been there before,’ ‘This never works.’
The truth is that such overgeneralised conclusions are based on little evidence and limited experiences.
Overgeneralisation often makes people feel helpless and think that they have no control over their lives. This way of thinking is especially common in relationships. Imagine if your partner kept telling you that you ‘always’ or ‘never’ do something. The chances are that such overgeneralisation would only make you feel misunderstood, annoyed, and frustrated.
All or nothing
All-or-nothing thinking is particularly common in sports and other types of activities that involve competition. Perhaps, you’ve heard somebody say that there’s only one winner, and the rest are losers.
This is an example of cognitive distortion because it downplays the real value of achievements. For instance, getting a silver medal at the Olympics is a tremendous accomplishment, but all-or-nothing thinking can turn it into nothing.
All-or-nothing thinking can destroy one’s motivation, stop personal or professional growth, or lead to burnout. It’s impossible to always be the best at everything, but this simply means that there’s some room for improvement. The world isn’t all black and white, and there are millions of shades in between.
Mental filtering, also known as selective abstraction, implies focusing on one aspect of a situation and ignoring everything else. Quite often, this means emphasizing negative aspects and ignoring the positive ones.
If a person only focuses on negative aspects of their experiences, they won’t be able to enjoy the good things that happen in their life and may quickly forget them.
Jumping to conclusions
Sometimes, it’s easy to jump to conclusions, especially if a person uses overgeneralisation and thinks they know everything about a certain situation or person.
It’s important to keep in mind that, even if we’re usually right about something, we may not have enough information about a particular case.
Most often, people jump to conclusions because of predictive thinking or mind reading.
Sometimes, you may think that you know what other people think, what motivates them, and what the hidden meaning behind their words is.
The truth is that we cannot know what other people think. For instance, if someone looks at you, and you immediately think, ‘There might be something wrong with my dress,’ the chances are that you’re just projecting your insecurities onto another person.
We may also jump to conclusions when making predictions about what might happen in the future. Quite often, predictions focus on the negative events and emotions that a person may experience later.
For instance, if you’re late to work, you may start thinking that you’ll get fired, even though it may not be a sufficient reason to fire someone, and your boss may not even notice that you’re late. Obviously, such predictions can make you feel very anxious.
Discounting the positive
This is another way of thinking that can contribute to the development of depression and anxiety. Sometimes, people ignore the positive aspects of an event or situation and only focus on the negative aspects.
For example, you may complete a project at work but think that you could do everything better or quicker. As a result, you won’t feel a sense of accomplishment. Such a way of thinking may not let us enjoy our lives and appreciate what we have.
This style of thinking implies formulating opinions on people, events, yourself, and your environment based on the emotions they make you feel.
For example, you may think that you’ll be unable to complete a project because you feel anxious when you start working on it. Or, you may think that you’re talking to a bad person because you’re in a bad mood.
Obviously, such reasoning isn’t based on any real evidence. So, the best solution is to build your opinions based on what actually happens.
Minimisation and magnification
Such a style of thinking is also called the binocular effect. In this case, you may minimise the positive aspects of events and people while maximizing the negative aspects, or vice versa.
For example, when you accomplish something, you may think that it was pure luck, but when something bad happens, you may blame it on yourself. When someone says that you look great today, you may think that they’re just being polite.
It’s important to challenge such a way of thinking because it can seriously damage our self-esteem.
A great example of labelling is defining people by one of their traits or actions. For instance, one may label someone irresponsible because they forgot something important once. Or, you may call yourself clumsy because you broke a glass.
While it may be difficult to realize that we label others, understanding that we label ourselves can be even more difficult.
Defining yourself and other people by one specific trait or action won’t let us see the whole picture and come to objective conclusions. Therefore, it’s often better to step back from the situation and consider it in a more general context.
‘Shoulding’ and ‘musting’
There’s nothing wrong with using the words ‘should’ and ‘must’, as long as you use them in moderation. If you think that you should do something over and over again, even though you cannot do it now for some reason, such a way of thinking can make you feel a lot of pressure.
You may start to feel guilty and disappointed in yourself. Instead, focus on your needs and take your pace. For the same reason, try not to use too many ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ when thinking of other people.
Sometimes, you may also feel tempted to blame everything on yourself. When something doesn’t go as planned, you may ignore the circumstances and think that you’ve done everything wrong.
Quite often, people feel anxious because they put too much responsibility on themselves. This is yet another unhelpful way of thinking that’s often not supported by real facts.
Your emotions and experiences largely depend on not only what you think but also how you think. Unhelpful thinking styles may not let you see the bigger picture and distort your perception of yourself, other people, and your environment.
As a result, these thinking styles can contribute to the development of depression, anxiety, and many other mental health issues.
If thinking styles from our list look too familiar to you, you might benefit from talking to a licensed counsellor or therapist. They can use CBT techniques and strategies to help you challenge unhelpful thinking styles.
If you don’t have enough time for visiting a counsellor in-person or your budget is limited, you can always use online counselling platforms. Online counselling enables you to get the necessary emotional support remotely, no matter where you are. Besides, online counselling is more affordable than face-to-face counselling.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He tweets @dennisr_howell.
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