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Understanding Unhelpful Thinking Patterns

The development of Unhelpful Thinking Patterns

As we grow up, the upbringing we receive, the messages we get taught, the society influences around us, and the experiences we have all feed into the ways we think about ourselves, others, and the world in general. These ways in which we think directly connect to how we feel, and in turn how we feel influences how we behave and navigate the world. This is fine as long as our thoughts are helpful, realistic and accurate, but often our thoughts are full of errors. Although everyone is unique, there are some patterns in unhelpful thinking that are common. In this blog I will explore the most common unhelpful thinking patterns, give some examples, and introduce a way to start tackling this.


Vicious cycles

The way we think about ourselves, about others, and about the world in general can significantly influence our emotional experiences throughout life. The more unhelpful thinking we have, the more likely we are to experience feelings such as sadness, anxiety, stress, anger, self-hatred, guilt, disappointment and so on. If we believe our thoughts, inevitably it will change our actions.


Trigger: I make an accidental mistake at work
Thoughts: I’m such an idiot, I always do this, They’re going to think I’m useless, I shouldn’t still be making mistakes, I’m so stupid, It’s completely my fault, I’m such a failure.
Emotions: Disappointment, anger, stress, anxiety, shame
Behaviours: Apologise profusely, Overcompensate, Punish myself, Don’t ask for help, Tell people how stupid I am, Work late, Count myself out of future opportunities

You can see in the example above that if the thinking was different, the emotions and behaviours would have been different. Often in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) we go through vicious examples in session to help people to make sense of these connections. They are also a useful between session task to keep increasing self-insight and awareness.


The 5 most common unhelpful thinking patterns

It can be helpful to group together common errors in our thinking to help us to recognise themes. We will all experience aspects of each of these at times, but some of them will be more problematic and significant to us than others. Being able to recognise these is a good step forward.

Black and White Thinking

This is when we think in absolutes, with only two options, and ignoring the spectrum in between. This could be believing you’re a failure if you’re not 100% succeeding, or believing you’re a bad person if you don’t always do what others want, judging yourself as lazy if you’re not always productive. In each of these examples there’s an over-simplification, if it’s not black it’s white, there is no grey, there’s no middle ground, no range of possibilities, just two opposing fixed absolutes.
This unhelpful thinking pattern can come up quite a lot in Perfectionism, People-Pleasing, and Low Self Esteem.

Should and Musting

Each person has developed their own set of ‘rules’ both for themselves and for others in their lives. These rules tend to contain words like should, shouldn’t must, mustn’t. These rules dictate how we act in different situations. For example – I should always be nice, I shouldn’t say no, I should put others first, I shouldn’t make mistakes, I should be able to deal with this by myself, I shouldn’t ask for help, I should be productive, I shouldn’t lie, I should follow the rules, I shouldn’t be selfish etc. Often the problem with these statements is they have no flexibility in them, hence referring to them as rules.


With Personalisation we tend to turn everything back on ourselves, taking responsibility and blame. If something goes wrong or doesn’t work out, it’s an assumption that it’s something that’s our fault, our flaw, our error, our responsibility. This can happen despite the fact that we had very little control, influence or involvement in the situation or outcome. It is frequently accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. It can lead to  actions such as giving unnecessary apologies or trying to fix something we didn’t even cause. It is not surprising that those that engage in the Personalisation thinking pattern can often experience low self-confidence.

Jumping to conclusions

This unhelpful thinking pattern is when we imagine or predict a negative outcome. This could be for what others think of us, or how an event will pan out. Each time the conclusion we jump to is a negative one. This is really common in Generalised Anxiety Disorder/with Worriers, as we as with Social Anxiety. Examples could be – They’re going to fire me, They’re going to hate me, They’ll never want to see me again, Something bad has happened to them, It’s going to be a disaster etc.


This is a particularly toxic way of thinking. It is characterized by defining ourselves using labels, and often very cruel and untrue ones. It’s a boiling all we are and all we do down to single words. These labels could be ones we have given to ourselves, but often have a history to them of ways others have labelled us in the past, messages others have given us. Examples can include – Un-loveable, Stupid, Failure, Ugly, Loser, Boring, Idiot, Weak, Lazy etc. Many people’s labels of themselves are much harsher than these, with swearing, curse words, outdated derogatory phrases etc.

How to start moving forwards

A cognitive strategy that is used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that can be really helpful is called reframing. This is when we take a negative thought, and we help to correct it. I simplified way to do this is to use the structure “Just because … that doesn’t mean …”. Examples could include – Just because I made a mistake doesn’t mean I’m an idiot, Just because there’s others achieving more than me that doesn’t mean I’m a failure, Just because I make mistakes that doesn’t make me a bad person, Just because something has gone wrong that doesn’t mean it’s my fault etc.

There are lots of other highly effective strategies used within CBT to tackle these common unhelpful thinking errors. Get in touch with an Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist to find out how they can help you.

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