Understand & Fix Thinking Mistakes

Have you ever stayed up all night stressing about something that never ended up happening? Maybe you’ve assumed that someone doesn’t like you, only to find out they’d like to be your friend. Or, does it seem like everyone else has their lives together except for you? These are examples of thinking mistakes. Unfortunately, no one is immune to them, but you can learn to understand and fix your thinking mistakes.

Understand & Fix Thinking Mistakes

It is extremely easy to allow a single, irrational thought to multiply and spiral into all-consuming worry and anxiety. Most of the time we are not even aware of how our thoughts grow our moods and shape our outlook on life.

Gaining an understanding of how often you engage in thinking mistakes, and what they sound like for you – will allow you to learn how to fix them. By challenging them you’ll begin to create healthy new ways of interpreting the world around you.

Thinking Mistake #1: Catastrophizing

These often start with “What if…?” You get so caught up in how bad something could be that you begin predicting negative outcomes. This means exaggerating the likelihood that something bad will happen, or how bad it would be if it really did happen.

  • Your partner didn’t call when they said they would because their phone died. You spend the next hour planning for the breakup, figuring out which friends will side with you, and searching Redfin for a new house.
  • Your coworker didn’t say hi to you when she walked past, so you assume she doesn’t like you or that you did something to upset her.

Slow down! Remind yourself of the evidence that you have and that there are far more likely outcomes than the worst-case scenario.

Thinking Mistake #2: All or Nothing Thinking

Also known as: Black & White Thinking. You tend to think and see things in absolutes and extremes. It has to be one way or another and there is no room for compromise.

  • The project you’ve been working on is either going to be a total success or a total failure.
  • Your coworkers are either amazing or terrible.
  • Your side of an argument is either completely right or all wrong.

There are innumerable shades of grey between black and white. Take a step back and look at where you could benefit from “thinking in the grey.”

Thinking Mistake #3: Overgeneralization

Also known as Jumping to Conclusions. This is when you make a broad general conclusion based on one or two pieces of evidence.

  • You did poorly on a math exam and decide “I’m bad at math.”
  • You get in an argument with your partner and decide “This relationship isn’t working; I have to end it.”
  • Your boss gives you critical feedback and you think, “My boss hates me, and I need to start looking for a new job.”

Your brain is very quick to generalize our thoughts and reactions and transfer them to other, unrelated areas of our lives. Without realizing it we’re taking evidence from one event and generalizing it to numerous others. Take a few minutes to write down specific facts that led to an event’s outcome and use them to separate out the unsupported conclusions.

Thinking Mistake #4: Negative Filter

Also known as “Dirty Lenses.” One negative detail becomes the focus of your attention and shapes the entire story.

During your performance review your boss points out all the things that you’ve achieved over the past year and that you’ve accomplished everything expected of you. They end by giving you feedback on areas for improvement, mostly new expectations and responsibilities, and that they would like you to be a bit more decisive instead of asking for approval on everything. When asked how your review went later in the day you respond with, “it was awful, not only did they point out all the things I haven’t been doing, that I didn’t even know I was supposed to do, but they also don’t think I have any confidence.”

See how quick your brain is to filter out the positive details (i.e., you achieved all performance expectations so well that they added new ones) and organize around the negative ones? It’s true that your boss would like you to be more confident in your decision making, but it’s not true that they don’t think you know anything; they’re asking you to increase your decisiveness because of what you know.

Thinking Mistake #5: Overvaluing Negatives

Also known as Discounting The Positives. Accomplishments, compliments, or positive qualities don’t matter as much, or simply don’t count. These typically sound like, “yes, but…”

  • I finally got the promotion I’ve been wanting but they didn’t offer me as much money as I expected.
  • “This is good, but it will be great when…”
  • Someone compliments your new sweater and you respond with, “oh, this? I got it on clearance at Target. It was two dollars!”

Take note of positives. Accept compliments with a simple, “thank you.” Allow yourself to celebrate the positive things in your life.

Thinking Mistake #6: Mind Reading & Future Tripping

Also known as Future Tripping. You have a superpower, and it is your ability to tell what other people are thinking and feeling without ever being told! Similarly, you can predict the future and it’s usually not going to end well for you.

  • You walk into a room and you’re sure that everyone is not only aware that you walked in but they’re all judging you.
  • You know for certain your date isn’t going to go well and you’ll leave embarrassed.

These types of thinking mistakes are usually based are your own fears and feelings. When left unchecked, your inner critic can will run wild with doomsday scenarios. It can even convince you that everyone is somehow focused on you and criticizing everything you do, which simply isn’t possible. Try checking in with others using the prompt, “The story I am telling myself is…”

Thinking Mistake #7: Emotional Reasoning

You decide/judge how things really are strictly based on how you feel. Your thoughts are indisputable facts.

  • You feel uncomfortable in your body one day, and decide you are “fat” or “ugly.”
  • Money is tight at the end of the month and you start feeling that your business is a failure.
  • Your partner gives you some feedback about something and you immediately think that they no longer love you or care about you.

Recognize and honor the emotions you’re feeling in response to a situation. Take note of the thoughts as well. Then remind yourself that thoughts and feelings aren’t facts. What facts do you have?

Thinking Mistake #8: Shoulding on Yourself

Also known as Perfectionistic Ideal. Criticizing yourself, mainly, but also others based on “shoulds,” “musts,” and “supposed to’s.”

  • Your regularly make unfair comparisons that sound like, “I should be more…”
  • Thinking things like, “I should be able to do that…” or “I’m supposed to know better.”
  • You hear of another person’s success and think, “they must have cheated” or “must be nice to have luck.”

Stop shoulding on yourself and others! It’s not helpful to measure your success against others. Focus on what you are doing well, what isn’t working, and what needs to change in order to get you to where you’d like to be.

Sound Familiar?

Do any of these sound familiar? Nearly every single person engages in thinking mistakes that diminish joy and add unnecessary stressors. So now that you know what thinking mistakes are, how do you fix them? Awareness is the first step. Recognize when the thinking mistakes are happening and begin to challenge them.

When you challenge a thinking mistake, you’re simply following it up with a more realistic thought. This can be as simple as “what evidence do I have that this is not 100% true” or “if this was 100% true what would that mean?”

How to Fix Thinking Mistakes

There are steps you can take that can help you to reframe your negative thought patterns and create healthy new habits for interpreting the world around you.

1. Identify specific thoughts on a situation that lead to anxiety, worry, or fear. Become aware of: thoughts about yourself, thoughts about others involved, and thoughts about the situation itself.

2. Identify any feelings that are irrational and supporting negative thoughts.

3. Challenge these irrational thoughts and feelings by identifying:

A) Indisputable Facts. What’s true?

B) Feels like a fact. What isn’t true even though it feels like it is.

C) Any catastrophic and absolute thinking.

4. Replace irrational thoughts with rational ones. These thoughts should serve to directly counter illogical and negative thinking. Make sure that they are positive and outcome oriented. Focus on what you want to do, not what you want to avoid.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

It’s important to recognize that challenging them isn’t going to make them go away completely. That is, reframes likely won’t feel as true the first – or tenth – time you do it. Don’t get discouraged, it’s going to a lot of practice. The more you practice reframing the thinking mistakes the truer the reframe will begin to feel. Eventually they will occur automatically, just as the thinking mistakes once did.

If you find yourself engaging in thinking mistakes frequently and can’t seem to break free, it might be time to get some help. A therapist can help you understand the nature of your thoughts and recognize when they’re flawed or overly critical. One of the biggest benefits of working with a therapist is beginning to understand where you learned to think this way or who told you that was true”

Denver Mental Health Collective has licensed professional counselors that are experts at helping people fix thinking mistakes. They will teach you strategies and exercises to help you avoid distorted cognition that keeps you from reaching your full potential at work, in your relationships, or in your daily life. If you’re feeling like something has to change, request a free phone consultation today!



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