Common Thinking Errors

Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that can cause you to feel bad and sometimes act in self-defeating ways. If you feel more upset the more you think about a situation, you may want to try thinking about it differently. I know this sounds like pretty generic advice, but...

it's important we check the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening in our life

Challenging Your Thinking Errors

Black & White Thinking

When you’re thinking in black and white, you see everything in terms of being either good or bad with nothing in between. For example: either you’re successful and high achieving, or you’re stupid and lazy; if you don’t look perfect, you must be disgusting to look at; if you do something wrong, then you can’t do anything right.

The challenge: Look for shades of gray

It’s important to avoid thinking about things in terms of extremes. Most things aren’t black and white, but somewhere in-between. Just because something isn’t completely perfect doesn’t mean that it’s a total disaster.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it really so bad, or am I seeing things in black and white?
  • How else can I think about the situation?
  • Am I taking an extreme view?

Unreal Ideal

Another common thinking error is to make unfair comparisons between certain individuals and yourself. When you do this, you compare yourself with people who have a specific advantage in some area. Making unfair comparisons can leave you feeling inadequate.

The challenge: Stop making unfair comparisons

I know, I know. This clearly isn’t as easy as it sounds, but hear me out. You can spend your energy tearing yourself down for things you don’t have or know how to do, or choose to consistently be compassionate with yourself instead. Your journey is completely unique; everyone’s journey is. Where someone else excels at one thing, you excel at another. Humankind has reached their current state because we are all different and can offer different skills and experiences to benefit the whole. If we all looked, behaved and studied in the same way…how would that help?

Ask yourself:

  • Am I comparing myself with people who have a particular advantage?
  • Am I making fair comparisons?

Filtering

When you filter, first you hone in on the negative aspects of your situation before ignoring or dismissing all of the positive aspects. For example, maybe you decided to start getting fit and working out. Instead of celebrating your growing strength and the care you’re giving your body, perhaps you focus on how weak you are and how you don’t like the way your body looks. Filtering is holding onto a negative mindset and disregarding the positives.

The challenge: Consider the whole picture

Sometimes, it can be hard to have an optimistic outlook on things, especially if our mental health hasn’t been the best lately. However, if we keep our negative outlook, it’s more likely we’ll stay in that negative mindset for longer. Try to dispute the situation and look at it from a neutral position. When one door closes, another door opens. Perhaps there’s a silver lining to your situation after all.  

Ask yourself:

  • Am I looking at the negatives, while ignoring the positives?
  • Is there a more balanced way to look at this situation?

Personalizing: The Self-Blame Game

When you personalize, you blame yourself for anything that goes wrong, even when it’s not your fault or responsibility.

The challenge: Find all the causes

If you’re used to being blamed for things or have low self-esteem, it can be easy to resort to this kind of thinking. Try your best to think fairly when analyzing a situation.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I really to blame? Is this all about me?
  • What other explanations might there be for this situation?

Mind-Reading

We often think we know what other people are thinking. We assume that others are focused on our faults and weaknesses—but this is often wrong! Remember: your worst critic is probably you.

The challenge: Don’t assume you know what others are thinking

Generally, people don’t REALLY care what’s happening in other people’s lives because there’s so much going on in their own life to worry about. Even if you did mess up, you’re likely to remember it far longer than anyone else. Who knows what they’re thinking. All you can control is you.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the evidence? How do I know what other people are thinking?
  • Just because I assume something, does that mean I’m right?

Exaggerating

When things go wrong, you might have a tendency to exaggerate the consequences and imagine that the results will be disastrous.

The challenge: Put it in perspective

Imagine a snowball rolling down a hill, collecting more and more snow as it plummets to the valley below. Those thoughts that snowball, growing bigger and more disastrous, are out of control. We need to take a step back and slow down. Recall things in the past that were triggering for you and how they turned out. Did those things ever happen?

Ask yourself:

  • What’s the worst that can happen?
  • What’s the best that can happen?
  • What’s most likely to happen?
  • Will this matter in five years?
  • Is there anything good about the situation?
  • Is there any way to fix the situation?

Over-Generalizing

Over-generalizing is a lot like exaggeration. When you over-generalize, you exaggerate the frequency of negative things in your life, like mistakes, disapproval and failures. Typically you might think to yourself: I always make mistakes, or everyone thinks I’m stupid.

The challenge: Be specific

Hey! You! You are wonderful and amazing and trying your best. Give yourself some slack. Everybody makes mistakes, and that’s okay. That’s how we learn. We can’t be 100% all the time, ya know? We just gotta take it day by day and one step at a time. When you have these thoughts come up, challenge them with some compassion for yourself by saying nice things to yourself or leaving nice little messages for yourself around your house or room to be reminded of.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I over-generalizing?
  • What are the facts? What are my interpretations?

Fact vs Feeling

Sometimes you might confuse your thoughts or feelings with reality. You might assume that your perceptions are correct.

The challenge: Stick to the facts

This is a challenging one. Sometimes we think that our feelings and thoughts are absolute truths, when in reality, our thoughts and feelings are feedback that comes from past experiences. An interpretation I like from Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Fifth Agreement is that our thoughts are simply all the knowledge we’ve ever accumulated talking to us. Who is that voice really? Is it truth?

Challenge the voice in your head and remain objective. If your feelings involve other people, try utilizing effective communication methods to get to the heart of the issue and dissolve your anxieties.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I confusing my feelings with the facts? Just because I’m feeling this way, does that mean my perceptions are correct?
  • Am I thinking this way just because I’m feeling bad right now?

Labeling

When you use labels, you might call yourself or other people names. Instead of being specific, you make negative generalizations about yourself or other people by saying things like “I’m ugly,” or “she’s stupid.” To be specific, try naming the feeling or what’s really happening. Instead of “I’m an awful person”, you might say something like: “I make mistakes sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I’m worth any less”.  

The challenge: Judge the situation, not the person

Is there a practical purpose to tearing yourself down or others? Is that making your life better? Be mindful of the words you use and how you use them. Would you talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself? I’m here to tell you that you deserve the best. Not just from others, but you owe it to yourself to be kind to yourself. You are going to spend the rest of your life with yourself, so working on your own relationship and self-love is necessary. 

When you label others, you put them into a box and make assumptions about who they are. Assumptions are never good. We never know what someone has had to go through or is currently going through. It’s best to remain open about that person’s perspective, even if you don’t really care for them. Just because you have compassion for others doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries, too.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the facts and what are my interpretations?
  • Just because there is something that I’m not happy with, does that mean that it’s totally no good?

‘Can’t Stand-itis’

Some people get intolerant when they have to do things they don’t enjoy. They tell themselves that they “can’t stand” certain things instead of acknowledging that they don’t enjoy them. As a result, they easily become frustrated and angry.

The challenge: Accept that frustration is a normal part of life

Boy, if we could control it all….wouldn’t that be quite the world? Alas, we cannot. So how do we cope? We have to learn to accept some things as being a crappy part of life that we have to just deal with. Doing homework isn’t fun, doing the dishes isn’t fun, going to school/work isn’t fun, but it’s still our responsibility to do. 

If you can, try to find a way to turn those unappealing things into more fun experiences. Maybe doing homework isn’t great, but a study group might make it better (snacks and chill beats help, too). Doing chores can be annoying, for sure, but maybe that’s a good time to throw in some earbuds and blast your favorite songs. Find ways to make the mundane things in life enjoyable.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I make this situation better? 
  • Can I come up with a mantra, or saying, to help me get through this?

The Effect of Challenging Thinking Errors

What is the effect of challenging your thinking errors? It can make you feel better and encourage you to change some of your behavior.

Remember: When you’re feeling down, try to examine your thoughts. If they’re negative or critical, try challenging them. Once you get into the habit of disputing your negative self-talk, you’ll find it easier to handle difficult situations, and as a result, you’ll feel less stressed and more confident and in control.

Write It Down

It can be useful to write down the changes that occur after you’ve challenged your thinking, as this helps you see the advantages of working on your thoughts, and motivates you to keep at it. While you’re learning to identify and challenge your thinking patterns, it’s a good idea to write it all down in a diary or notebook to help you to develop your skills. Initially it might feel like work, but the more often you do it, the easier it will become, and the better you will feel.

Try It Out

Now that you know a few common thinking errors and how to challenge them, why don’t you try it out? It might not be easy at first, and it can take some time. But the rewards can be huge! People who choose the way they think about things, are at peace with the past, live in the present, and are optimistic about the future are generally happier.

When you hear common thinking errors coming from your friends, how do you comfort them? Tell us in the comments below!

Information for this article was provided by:
  • This fact sheet comes from Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
  • Foundation for Life Sciences “Tyranny of the Shoulds”
  • The “Ten common thinking errors” are derived from the work of David Burns, MD, author of Feeling Good
Acknowledgements: This article was originally developed by youth and staff for us.ReachOut.com 

Share This Post

Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on reddit
Share on tumblr
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest

Empower Yourself

Express Yourself

Expressing How You Feel to Release Tension Expressing yourself can help you keep in touch...

Any thoughts?