Am I Seeing Things Clearly? A Guide to Thinking-Mistakes That We All Make

By Marcia B. Kimeldorf, PhD

 “I got a bad grade on my test! I’m such a loser and now I know I’m going to fail the class!”

“My boss gave me one low rating on my work evaluation. He has it in for me, and he hates me!”

Have you ever had a thought like these? If so, you’re not alone. Most of us are prone to thinking in negative ways from time to time. Stress usually makes these thoughts even worse: We may be more self-critical and less likely to notice positive possibilities.

When that happens, we tend to feel anxious, and/or down and depressed. And guess what? When we have negative emotions we tend to think in more extreme ways and we forget that there is almost always more than one way to see a situation or to solve a problem. That just makes us feel worse, and more likely to have negative thinking patterns.

How can we break out of the cycle of thinking-mistakes and emotional distress?? One way is to recognize the thinking-mistakes that we all make. Once we notice our tendency to make thinking-mistakes, we can learn over time to recognize these patterns and balance out extreme thoughts with more helpful ways of thinking. When we see things from broader and less distorted perspectives, we tend to feel better, because changing the way we think can change the way we feel. 

Here are five common thinking-mistakes:

Black and White Thinking: This is when we see the world in All or Nothing, very extreme terms, without any shades of gray. Examples of this include statements like “I am either a success or a failure.” “I love you or I hate you.” “Should I quit this job tomorrow or stay for the rest of my career?” When we think like this, we forget the very important point that things are almost never without nuance, or other less extreme options.

Mind reading: This is when we assume we know what others are thinking (even though logically, of course we can’t know that). Examples include “when she invited me out to dinner, I know she just did it because she pities me.” “I know all the other kids think I’m an idiot.”

Catastrophizing: When we assume the worst. E.g. “If I tell her how I feel, she’ll hate me forever.” “If I try and I fail, I would be unable to stand it.” 

Emotional reasoning: When we believe that if we feel something, it must be true, and we should act upon it. E.g., “If I feel anxious, I shouldn’t go to the party.” “I feel so angry at him, I must express it right now, so he knows how I feel.” 

Disqualifying the positive: Telling ourselves that the positive experiences or feedback we receive doesn’t count. “E.g. I did well in today’s meeting/ presentation/basketball game because I just got lucky”, “Even though he said he liked my work, I know he didn’t really mean it.” 

As mentioned, these are some of the most common thinking mistakes, but there are others too. If you notice yourself tending to think in these ways, here are some questions you can ask yourself to help generate more balanced thoughts. 

“Have I had any experiences that show that this thought is not completely true all the time?”

“If a friend of mine had this thought, what would I tell him or her?” (It’s often easier to think in a balanced way for other people than for ourselves) 

“Are there any small things that contradict my thoughts that I might be discounting as not important?” 

“Are there any strengths or positives in me or the situation that I am ignoring?” 

“When I have felt this way in the past, what did I think about that helped me feel better? What have I learned from previous experiences that could help me now?”

Noticing our tendencies to make thinking mistakes is an important step toward managing our feelings. When you find yourself thinking negatively, try asking yourself the above questions and see if you can balance out your thinking, and thereby change how you feel.

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