UNHELPFUL THINKING STYLES: Identifying Cycles of Obstructive Thinking
UNHELPFUL THINKING STYLES: Identifying Cycles of Obstructive Thinking
One of the primary components of sustaining our mental health is maintaining a positive perspective. How we think about the world dictates how we respond to the world. For example, some people believe that every time they face a problem that it must be the result of persecution; they are being picked on. On the other hand, some people face challenges every day and, instead of becoming bitter or feeling persecuted, they rise to the occasion. So, what is the difference between these 2 types of people? Well, everyone is different, with varying histories and experiences that influence how each individual responds to what life brings his or her way. These experiences leave deeply rooted markers in our minds that remind us of what happened and cause us to respond accordingly. For some people those reminders are positive and adaptive, causing the person to rise to present challenges. For others, those reminders are negative and disruptive and therefore, cause a multitude undesirable behaviors. These damaging experiences can include anything that the mind perceives as painful and, if your mind is anything like mine, it does whatever it can to avoid pain; even at the cost of avoiding potentially positive experiences in the future. Since our past experiences are such powerful motivators to present behaviors, how in the world are we supposed to overcome and force ourselves to face the day; both proverbially and literally? Well, the starting point for anything and everything begins in the mind, and we have to look to our thoughts for the answers.
In the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Jack Sparrow stated that, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.” The funny thing is, Captain Jack is right. What he is referring to is how a person’s mindset guides that individual’s attitude toward the circumstances they face. This is a crucial element in obtaining a mastery of problem-solving skills. It’s important to note that this is not an original idea from the captain though. The concept of Unhelpful Thinking Styles, technically referred to as Cognitive Distortions, is actually derived from a clinical approach called Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT. According to CBT, there are 10 common Unhelpful Thinking Styles. Some sources cite up to 50 styles, but for the sake of this discussion, we will stick to the basic 10.
The first thinking style, All or Nothing Thinking, is also known as Black or White Thinking and can lead a person to believe that if something is not just right, then it is ALL wrong. This can cause difficulties, not only because of personal expectations that may be unrealistic, but it also becomes problematic when we expect perfection from others as well. After all, no one is perfect.
The next thinking style is called Over-Generalizing and the key words to look for here are always, ever, and never. For example, you may catch yourself thinking that “nothing good EVER happens” or “that child is ALWAYS behaving badly.” But, if you stop and think about it, can you honestly say that nothing good EVER happens? Thinking this way is unhelpful because it causes our minds to focus on the negative and disqualify the positive. And since we are on the subject of disqualifying positives, let’s move on to the next thinking style on our list.
Disqualifying the Positive simply means discounting any positive experiences or accomplishments. What this does is feeds our negative perspective and gives us a rationale for negative behavior and thus, whatever positive things that we ourselves or others do just “don’t count.” This style sounds a lot like the next one on our list, the Mental Filter.
Using a Mental Filter happens when our minds only take the time to process what we choose to see and therefore, unrealistic thinking is perpetuated. This can affect the way we view ourselves, as well as how we view others. For instance, it may become a habit to only notice that your child’s room is usually dirty and not pay attention to when his or her room is clean. Can you see how this can lead to Over-Generalizing or Disqualifying the Positive?
The next thinking style on the list is called Jumping to Conclusions and there are 2 different subcategories within this style: Mind Reading and Fortune Telling. Mind Reading is when we are sure that we already know what a person is thinking and Fortune Telling is when we think we already know what will happen in the future. For example, someone might want to ask his doctor to switch to a different antidepressant but doesn’t because he “knows” the doctor will say no. Do you see any problems with Jumping to Conclusions and how that might lead to utilizing other Unhelpful Thinking Styles?
Magnification and Minimization are next on the list and happen when we either blow things out of proportion or inappropriately shrink the importance of something. If I magnify a small problem, like getting cut off in traffic, there is a possibility that I will take my frustration out undeservingly on others. Of course, if I minimize large problems that need to be dealt with, perhaps because I do not want to face the reality of the situation, then I run the risk of those problems becoming more significant issues than what they should be.
The next 2 thinking styles on our list include Emotional Reasoning and Should Statements. Emotional Reasoning occurs when we feel a certain way so therefore, we think it must be true. For example, I feel embarrassed that I missed so many questions on my exam, therefore I must be an idiot. This style is closely related to Should Statements, which lead us to believe that we always SHOULD have done something different in order to prevent any results in life that we deem negative. Therefore, a lot of times in life we think, “I should have done something different, therefore I must be a failure.” This is a way that we put ourselves in a box and lend ourselves to a negative mindset.
The next style of thinking on our list is called Labelling and it involves assigning harmful categorizations to people. Labelling is what happens when we brand ourselves or others as a failure, a loser, stupid, etc. Labelling is definitely something we should consciously avoid while interacting with others. Sometimes it is easy to classify someone as “mentally ill” and therefore, minimize all of that person’s problems as symptoms and his/her reactions as negative. We should not be dismissive of his/her plight and remember that we are all human beings with everyday thoughts and feelings, struggling to do the best we can. For this same reason, remember that we should not label an individual as a “schizophrenic”, a “bipolar”, or a “diabetic.” When used this way these terms become labels and our minds shape our perspectives of PEOPLE accordingly.
The final thinking style on our list is called Personalization. While using this unhelpful style, we blame ourselves for something that was not our fault, or blame others for something that is our fault. This is the way our minds tend to deflect blame which either gives us a reason to feel negative by assuming responsibility, or by easing the tension brought about by a guilty conscience as we blame someone else. At any rate, until responsibility is assigned to the appropriate person, the problem will persist and cultivate more issues as a result.
I believe it is safe to say that we have all used some or all of these Unhelpful Thinking Styles at some point in time. These Cognitive Distortions are very common, based from our personal experiences since childhood, deeply rooted within our thought processes, and oftentimes very difficult to change. But, the good news is they can be changed and you have the tools to change them; you just have to know what you are looking for. Whether unhelpful styles of thinking are dictating your perspective of others, or causing you to maintain an unhealthy self-concept, the first thing you must do to make changes is to recognize what unhelpful styles you are using.
Once you pinpoint how it is that your mind is distorting your perspective, then you can work on replacing negative thoughts with a more positive, realistic outlook. For example, when thinking about someone whom you disagree with, instead of utilizing the thinking style of Labeling and referring to that person as an “enemy” refer to them as “someone whom you disagree with.” It takes a little more time to say but in doing so we condition our minds to focus on the person and not the difference of opinion. When we shift the way our minds process life by the language we use to describe ourselves and others, we actually change our perspective regarding life itself. When we change our perspective from negative to realistic, our minds begin to use productive thinking styles and we become a positive influence on ourselves and those around us. Believe me, it works. Productive thinking is a good habit to get into, and it is contagious.