Avoiding Common Thinking Errors that Defeat Us

Too often negative thoughts, moods or behavior arise from errors in how we think about the world, others and ourselves. These errors can easily lead us to feel sad, anxious, confused, or , erode our self-esteem, defeat our desires or harm to our relationships. Psychiatrist Dr. David Burns at the Stanford School of Medicine has identified 15 common errors in thinking that lead to obsessive worrying and rumination,  unpleasant thoughts going over and over in our mind until we end up losing sleep, peace of mind the ability to think clearly, and enjoy life.

15 Common Thinking Errors

Read through these 15 errors. Could any of them be causing worries, doubts, concerns, lack of self esteem or negative feelings? If so, notice possible errors. Be alert to the Words to Pay Attention To below that signal errors in thinking and rectify errors by asking the questions that follow under Questions to Ask to Avoid Thinking Errors. If you find doing this difficult, ask your counselor to help you.

  • All-Or-Nothing Thinking – Seeing something as either-or, black-and-white  i.e. something is either all good or all, perfect or a total failure.
  • Over Generalizing – Considering a single negative occurrence as a never-ending problem or permanent pattern with not escape.
  • Mentally Filtering – Picking one negative thought and dwelling on it exclusively so that you leave out the rest of reality. In otherwise seeing only the negative instead of the whole picture.
  • Disqualifying the positive – Dismissing positive  experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason so you can maintain a negative belief that is actually contradicted by the wealth of your everyday experiences.
  • Jumping to conclusions – Interpreting something as negative even though there are no definite facts to objectively support your conclusion. For example:
  • Mind reading – Arbitrarily concluding that someone is reacting negatively to you without bothering to check this out.
  • Catastrophizing or Minimizing  Making a mountain out of a molehill or a molehill out of a mountain by exaggerating the importance of things and  blowing them out of proportion or discounting some important as insignificant.
  • Emotional Reasoning – Assuming that your emotions reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  • Motivating with Guilt– Using musts, ought’s, and should’s and shouldn’ts as mental whips or clubs to motivate or punish yourself before you can actually be expected to do something. We can also direct should statements toward others and feel angry, frustrated or resentful toward them.
  • Labeling and Mislabeling– This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. It involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded, i.e. misnaming an error an error by attaching a negative label to yourself for having made it, i.e. “I’m stupid,” “I’m a loser.” Or attaching a negative label to someone else if you disapprove of a behavior or action he or she has done, i.e.: “He’s a louse,” “She’s crazy.”
  • Personalization – Seeing yourself as the cause of some negative external event that you fact you were not primarily responsible for.

Words to Pay Attention To

Whenever you hear yourself using any of the following words, beware, a thinking error may be lurking there:

  •  Always
  • Never
  • Should
  • Shouldn’t
  • Can’t/won’t
  • Must/Have to/Ought
  • Impossible
  • Good/ bad
  • Better/best/worst
  • More/less
  • Most/least
  • They/them

Questions to Ask to Avoid Thinking Errors

When we talk to ourselves or others we inevitably leave out a lot. Missing are often the culprits behind thinking errors. To avoid these errors, challenge your thoughts by filling in what’s missing. Ask yourself such questions as:

  • What specifics have I left out?
  • Is this always true or only in some specific occasions under or some particular conditions or circumstances?
  • This is never been or could never be?
  • Can you think of examples in your life when this has/has not been the case?
  • What, when or how specifically does this occur?
  • What possible exceptions or special conditions am I overlooking?
  • How specifically to I know this?
  • Is this really that simple? How specifically do I know this?
  • Is it really this awful? How specifically do I know this?
  • This is true according to whom?
  • What/when/who specifically am I referring to?
  • “They/Them” as in who?
  • This would be the case as compared to what?
  • How, specifically, has this been the case?
  • How do I know this?
  • What would happen if I were to do what I am thinking I can’t do?
  • What prevents me from doing this?
  • What other possibilities are there?

 Copyright 2013 Sarah Anne Edwards