Unhelpful thinking styles or when our thoughts lie to us


If we are feeling that life is stressful right now, it might not be so easy to step back and examine our thoughts in an objective way. However, if we could, we might see how unhelpful thinking styles (known as cognitive distortions), which are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns, may have crept into some of our thinking.

These unhelpful thinking styles have been identified as one of the main blocks in our resilience. In particular they stop us being mentally agile.

There are 15 cognitive distortions that have been identified by psychologists. Here’s our list of six of the more  common ones and some tips on how we can manage them:


1. Catastrophising

Many of us at times can find ourselves exaggerating things to a degree which creates anxiety and stress. In lockdown we may have found that small thoughts such as “how long is this going to last?” were very quickly leading to all-encompassing ones such as: “how is my life ever going to be normal again after this?” Worrying about how long lockdown was going to last seems proportionate but worrying about whether our lives are ever going to be normal again might be going a little too far. Because the truth is we cannot control what the ‘new normal’ will look like; and neither should we try to. 


2. All-or-Nothing thinking

‘Everything is great’ or ‘everything is terrible’. Also known as ‘Black-and-White Thinking’, this distortion manifests itself as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of grey. What we have all been through over the past year is pretty terrible, but that doesn’t mean everything is terrible. The new vaccine rollout is going well; lockdown is easing up once again; and we still have Zoom to keep in contact with those we cannot see face-to-face. These are the shades of grey. 


3. Over-generalisation

This distortion involves taking one instance and generalising it to an overall pattern. For example, we may find that adapting to the ‘new normal’ is completely draining us and therefore conclude we are totally unable to be flexible. But for many of us this new way of working and socialising is just very, very difficult right now and finding it difficult should not lead to overly negative thoughts about ourselves. Or we may dwell on a single negative comment made by someone close to us and consequently view the entire relationship in a negative light. Personal relationships are bound to be strained somewhat at present and we should not base their entire worth on a single comment but instead all the years we have known this person. 


4. Jumping to conclusions or mind-reading

The inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking. Of course, it is possible to have an idea of what other people are thinking, but this distortion refers to the negative interpretations that we can jump to, on very little evidence. For example, seeing a stranger in the supermarket with an unpleasant expression and jumping to the conclusion that they are thinking something negative about us. This can be especially problematic now that everyone is wearing a mask in public places, making subtle facial cues hard to detect. Again, it’s important to ask ourselves: can I possibly know this to be true or is this just something I am feeling? Which takes us on to… 


5. Emotional reasoning

The acceptance of one’s emotions as fact. This can be described as ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’ But just because we feel something does not mean it is a fact. At present our emotions are likely to be running on high a lot of the time, possibly making us think all kinds of fanciful notions about ourselves and our lives. But if we try to stick to the objective facts of the situation, we will be better placed to judge what is real. 


6. Should statements

And finally…’should’ statements – statements that you make to yourself about what you ‘should’ do, what you ‘ought’ to do, or what you ‘must’ do. At present we might be saying to ourselves: ‘I should be able to get on with my life as normal because everyone else is’. But is this really fair? When we hang on too tightly to these kind of statements, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. Also we do not really know how other people are baring up and if we cling to statements like this about others, we can be disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, which can lead to further anger and resentment.