For the last two days now, I’ve written about overcoming negative thinking; by either consciously only noticing evidence that matches an alternative positive belief; or by weighing up all evidence from a situation, aiming to prove or disprove its validity.
Today, I’m going to go over the 10 types of unhelpful thinking styles. The first time I was introduced to these labels, I let out a nice long ‘ahhhhhhhhh sound.’ While it was the first time I’d learnt their names, I knew these thoughts; I’d made a lifetime out of practising these thoughts; I’d watered, cared for and nurtured these thoughts like flowers in a garden.
I’m going to base all of my examples here on the same scenario of public speaking, so that you can see the subtle differences between these thoughts. Regular readers will know that I had a huge phobia of public speaking, so all of these thinking styles are rooted in reality; they’ve all made an appearance in my head at some point.
- All or Nothing: everything is black and white.
I did the presentation but I looked and sounded visibly nervous so I’ve failed and it was total rubbish. I’ll never be any good at this.
- Over-generalising: making sweeping generalisations/assuming a pattern from a single event.
I had a bit of a ‘wobble’ in this presentation means that I’ve failed in every presentation I’ve done and I’ll never be any good at this.
- Mental Filter: only noticing certain types of evidence (confirmation bias.)
In case you missed it, the ‘thought records’ mentioned in yesterday’s blog are a brilliant way of combatting this thinking style.
The headteacher didn’t personally thank me for my presentation, and the deputy looked awkward when I was speaking – this means I did a terrible job and they wished they hadn’t asked me to speak.
- Disqualifying the positive: ignoring anything positive about yourself or a situation you’re in.
That person came to tell me how much they’d enjoyed my presentation, and how much they’d got out of it. It doesn’t count though because they were just being nice, probably because they saw I was nervous and felt sorry for me.
- Jumping to conclusions: this comes in two parts.
A) Mind reading: imaging we know what others are thinking.
That person ‘looked awkward’ in my presentation and shuffled uncomfortably. They must have been thinking how absolutely awful it was and how pathetic I am.
B) Fortune telling: predicting the future.
I’ve been asked to speak tomorrow and I know it’s just going to go terribly! I’m bound to completely embarrass myself.
- Magnification (catastrophising) and minimisation: blowing things out of proportion or shrinking something so it seems less important.
I’m the worst public speaker in the entire world! I looked absolutely ridiculous! I’ve totally embarrassed myself – I just want to run away and hide!
- Emotional Reasoning: assuming that because we feel a certain way, it must be true.
I felt so nervous – my heart was racing; I was sweating and shaking everywhere; my throat was so dry… therefore it just went terribly. A terrible experience and a terrible presentation.
- Shoulds and Musts: using critical words like ‘should’ or ‘must’ or ‘ought,’ which makes us feel guilty or like we’ve failed. Remember… ‘should’ is my word for the dustbin this year!
I should be able to stand and talk in front of people, without feeling this like! What the hell is wrong with me?
- Labelling: assigning labels to ourselves or others.
I looked nervous in that presentation. I’m pathetic. I’m a loser.
Why can’t I be like X,Y and Z, who are clearly naturally confident people and will never have had to work at it like me.
- Personalisation: blaming yourself or taking responsibility for something that wasn’t entirely your fault. Or blaming others for something that was your fault.
I did a terrible job. I didn’t distract myself or focus on by breathing. I let the panic take over. I’ve done this to myself. It’s all my fault.
Although I’d pretty much made a lifestyle out of these thinking styles, being formally introduced to them really allowed me to invest in them less. Gradually, I began to watch the flowers I’d nurtured grow from a distance – like a scientist in a lab, observing which thoughts came up when and how often. The more I observed, the more I could see that the flowers were actually weeds; weeds that were working together to pull down my self-esteem and propel my fears and anxieties above the surface.
A great exercise to do is just to watch your thoughts mindfully for one whole day, and note down a tally every time you notice one of these unhelpful thinking styles.
Once you’ve done this, you can start going even further, to the root of the weeds. When I did this activity, I realised that I was particualrly inclined towards mind reading (because I cared too much about what other people thought); that my mental filter was out of control because I was using confirmation bias to prove my worst thoughts; that I was completely invested in my emotions and feelings in a situation, rather than the actual reality of what had happened; and that a huge amount of my problems stemmed from my own ridiculously high expecations of myself. If my 5 minute INSET talk to staff wasn’t worthy of the TED stage, then I was apparently human dog turd.
Awareness of where your thinking habits work against you is essential if you want to actually change them. Once you can see the weeds as they really are, you can begin the process of uprooting them and planting pretty flowers in their place.
Have you seen this thought labels before? Are you prone to any particularly one of these, or do you seem to use them all in combination like me? Comments welcome: