We humans

5 irrational thinking patterns that could be dragging you down — and how to start challenging them

Mar 12, 2019 /

If you’d like to see the ways your mind is leading you astray, it’s not enough to look at what you’re thinking. You need to examine how you’re thinking, too. Psychologist Joan Rosenberg names five faulty thinking patterns and tells how you can start to change them.

If you looked at the contents of your mind, would most of your thoughts be positive, optimistic and accepting, or negative, pessimistic and cynical? An appreciable amount of our sense of well-being is tied to what we think, or the content of our thoughts. Do your thoughts suggest calm and contentment, or anger, disappointment and anxiety?

What’s on your mind — or what you think — is determined by how you think — or your thinking patterns. And in fact, certain assumptions and cognitive errors can contribute to an experience of depression and leave people feeling more unhappy about their lives, says psychiatrist and cognitive behavioral therapy pioneer David Burns in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. These thinking errors may leave one with a poor view of self, no interest in connecting with others, and no desire or energy to pursue goals.

Psychologists use the phrase “cognitive distortions” to describe irrational or faulty thinking patterns. Although many more can be found in the psychology literature, below are several that I hear my own clients express. Some overlap with one another, or several may occur simultaneously.

After reviewing the list, select the cognitive distortions that best describe how you think. If there are more than one, work on one at a time. This process will take effort — you need to be aware of the distortion, catch yourself using it, and then replace the thought pattern with more constructive and optimistic thinking.

When you begin to decrease these distortions, you’ll create a path toward a more fully expressed life. You develop more emotional flexibility, the ability to be responsive to changes rather than reactive, and the resilience to bounce back when things are difficult. There is so much more for you to experience in life; all you need is to be willing to break out of thought patterns that are keeping you artificially constrained and distracted.

1. All-or-nothing thinking

What it is: You see people and situations in either/or categories (for example, a new colleague is amazing or boring, a night out is “the best” or “the worst”), without allowing for complexity. In reality, our lives unfold in shades of gray.

How to challenge it: Notice the times that you do this. For example, you may spot yourself thinking, “I have to be perfect on the dance floor, or I’ll look like a fool.” Question the pattern by generating one possibility that exists between the two options — you might think, “I love to dance, so I’ll just go out there and try to enjoy myself.” Take this a step further by coming up with two more possibilities, such as “I may not be a great dancer, but I’ll never see most of these people again” or “I’ll get out there for two songs, and if I still feel awkward, I’ll consider sitting down.” Finding one alternative can help break the pattern, and conceiving of a few more develops your skill in seeing the nuances in every situation.

2. Overgeneralizing

What it is: You draw general rules from specific events, and apply them across unrelated situations. Your rules are usually negative rather than positive. For example, when you don’t get a job you want, you think, “People don’t like me — and I’m going to die alone, too.”

How to challenge it: Every time you find yourself indiscriminately applying one past outcome to another anticipated or upcoming situation, keep telling yourself: “This one outcome is just that — one outcome.”

3. Disqualifying the positive

What it is: You reject positive statements or occurrences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or another. For example, your boss praises you in front of your colleagues. When someone mentions it to you later, you say, “She said that because I was standing in front and she couldn’t avoid me.”

How to challenge it: Whenever you disqualify the positive, you’re wrongly reinforcing negative beliefs about yourself and your world. If you find it difficult to accept praise or compliments, you can start by saying a simple, sincere “Thank you” or “I appreciate that.” Then, take a little time later to imagine what your life would be like if you believed the words were true.

4. Personalization or excessive responsibility

What it is: You see yourself as the cause of a negative event for which you probably weren’t responsible (or you weren’t the only one responsible). Self-blame for others’ misfortunes or for everyday mishaps, or relating external events to oneself when there’s no basis for it, can negatively impact your daily life and how you see yourself. This can take many forms. Let’s say you made an online dinner reservation for you and your friends, but when you show up at the restaurant, your name isn’t on the list. You blame yourself and say, “It’s all my fault.” Or, in a more extreme example, you book a beach vacation for you and your family, it rains most of the week, and you say, “It’s my fault because I wished too hard for good weather.”

How to challenge it: Personalizing appeals to our deep desire to be seen as responsible and effective — except it ends up adding unnecessary and unjustified pressure and strain to life. In situations where you’re quick to take responsibility for something that’s out of your control, notice how you might have contributed to the problem. In the case of the missing reservation, perhaps you could double-check that you chose the right date and time and that you didn’t miss a confirmation email or text from the restaurant. In addition, consider all of the other factors that may have contributed to the problem — the reservation software? the restaurant’s computer? — and who else might hold responsibility.

5. “Should” statements

What it is: Your internal dialogue is full of statements that include the words “should,” “ought to” or “must.” These words sting — using them frequently can result in feelings of frustration and anger. Let’s say your boss tells you that she wants you to hand in a proposal on Monday. You tell yourself, “I should have this project completed by Friday; otherwise, I’m a lazy failure.”

How to challenge it: Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Stop ‘should’-ing on yourself.” “Should,” “ought to,” and “must” are words of constraint and constriction; they can lead to your feeling like you have few options and too-high expectations. Expanding your sense of choice starts with changing the language you use in your self-talk. Whenever you catch a “should,” “ought to” and “must,” replace it with “can,” “choose to” or “decide to.”

Watch her TEDxSantaBarbara talk here:

Adapted from the new book 90 Seconds to a Life You Love: How to Master Your Difficult Feelings to Cultivate Lasting Confidence, Resilience, and Authenticity by Joan Rosenberg. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown Spark, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Joan Rosenberg.