Have you ever thought ‘Why do bad things happen to me all the time?’ Or perhaps you think that you are a loser or that things are always your fault? If so, you could be stuck with unhelpful thinking styles that are stopping you from achieving growth in your life.

Unhelpful thinking styles, or cognitive distortions, typically occur in times of stress. These are the very times we need some positivity and helpful ways to navigate through tough situations. But sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We get stuck in unhelpful thinking styles.

The problem is, if we continue to think these unhelpful thoughts, then eventually we come to believe that our thoughts are reality. Once this happens, it changes what we actually do about the situation.

There’s a saying that states: “The body achieves what the mind believes” and this is true. If you think you are a loser for long enough, you’ll turn into one.

Here are the 11 most common unhelpful thinking styles that hinder your growth.

11 Unhelpful Thinking Styles

  1. Personalization/Critical Self


  • “I always mess up, no wonder no one likes me.”
  • “I’m such a loser.”
  • “Everything is my fault.”

Taking responsibility when things go wrong is certainly the right thing to do. But blaming yourself for every little thing is an unhelpful style of thinking.

Just imagine if a friend or loved one kept telling you that you were a loser. What would you start to believe after a while? Personalisation is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Treat yourself with kindness. After all, you wouldn’t call a friend or loved one a loser every day, would you? So why are you doing it to yourself?

  1. Mountains and Molehills/Binocular Effect


  • “I only scored an A on that test because the questions were easy.”
  • “It was just luck that they offered me a job, they must have been desperate.”
  • “She didn’t really like my hair, she was just being polite.”

I’m all for being humble, I mean, no one likes a show-off. However, I draw a big line in the sand when it comes to constant self-deprecation. This leads to an unhelpful thinking style called the Binocular Effect, where you minimise your attributes and magnify other people’s.

By doing this, you are devaluing your efforts whilst over-egging the accomplishments of others. If you do this constantly, you run the risk of not only minimising your positive attributes but actually turning them into negatives.

Find the right balance between self-deprecation and putting yourself down all the time.

  1. Stewing or ruminating


  • “If only I hadn’t said that.”
  • “I really don’t want to go out later.”
  • “If I do that, I’ll get anxious.”

You could call this unhelpful thinking style ‘worrying constantly about the same thing’. There’s a big difference between thinking about a problem, coming up with a solution, and just dwelling on the problem.

What tends to happen in these cases is that your thoughts become more and more negative. The problem takes on a life of its own and you end up not tackling it at all.

This is your mind at its worst. Instead of constantly worrying, give yourself a time limit to come up with practical solutions.

  1. Being right all the time


  • “I don’t care what you think, I’m right about this.”
  • “What I would have done is this…”
  • “What you should have done is that…”

I have firsthand experience of this unhelpful thinking style. I have a friend that no matter what you tell her, has to be right about the situation. She won’t wait until you finish your story. She jumps in with her version of what is right and what I should have done.

It has got to the point now where I don’t bother telling her anything because I know what her reaction will be.

Being right all the time might make you feel good, but it really gets on other people’s nerves. Try to be more open-minded and see if you can learn something for a change. Statistically, you cannot always be right.

  1. Labelling


  • “I’m so stupid.”
  • “She’s an alcoholic.”
  • “They are rude and inconsiderate people.”

Human beings use labelling as a survival technique. We need to make instant judgements about people so that we know whether to trust them or not.

But of course, human beings are nuanced creatures. Our identities are created from many different aspects; our upbringing, race, religion, wealth, class, and much more.

The problem with labelling is that more often than not, we are usually defining people with negative traits. It’s impossible to give a person a label that encompasses all of their attributes. Think how you would feel if someone labelled you? They are effectively putting you into one category, and it probably isn’t a good one.

  1. Catastrophising


  • “If my car breaks down, no one will help me and I’ll be stuck all night!”
  • “I felt anxious at the party, what if I always feel anxious in social situations? I’ll lose my job!”
  • “My heart is racing. I think I’m having a heart attack!”

I catastrophise a lot. It’s how I came to develop my travel phobia. I always imagine the worst-case scenario. If I’m driving somewhere new, I feel anxious before I leave and start to think about everything that can go wrong with the journey.

Catastrophising is not over-reacting or becoming hysterical. It is one of those particularly insidious and unhelpful thinking styles that can eventually paralyse you.

If you always assume the worse, try acknowledging the thoughts and using logic to combat your emotional responses.

  1. Black and White Thinking


  • “I am a complete failure at everything.”
  • “My mother is an absolute angel.”
  • “The evening was a total disaster.”

Black and white thinking is all about extreme or polarised views. You are all or nothing, good or bad, amazing or a failure. There’s no grey area in this style of unhelpful thinking.

Of course, life is full of different shades, tones, and grey areas. We don’t move from one extreme to the other. We inhabit the middle ground.

What makes this thinking style unhelpful is that it can lead to stereotyping people, situations, or relationships. A person isn’t all good or all bad. Situations and circumstances change. This kind of thinking will keep you stuck in a rut, unable to make progress.

Try looking at things objectively with an open mind. Seek the middle ground and act as if you are the neutral referee.

  1. Overgeneralization


  • “You never help me with the housework.”
  • “She always has a go at me as soon as I get home.”
  • “Everyone hates me.”

Overgeneralisation is characterised by certain words such as ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘every’, and ‘all’. For example, if you tend to start sentences with “She always”, “He never”, “They all”, “Everyone”, then you overgeneralise situations.

Perhaps you have been frustrated in the past over someone’s behaviour and now this is all you can see. The problem with this style of unhelpful thinking is that it will eventually cloud your perspective. You will approach new situations with an old and prejudiced mindset; unable to form new opinions.

You wouldn’t want someone you know to judge you on past behaviour? Start by really analysing the situation. Look at it logically. Try not to make broad statements and instead look for alternative examples.

  1. Jumping to Conclusions/Mind reading


  • “I messed up, they must think I’m an idiot.”
  • “His parents will hate me.”
  • “No one will like me at my new college.”

This thinking style is unhelpful because you are assuming you know what others are thinking. Although you can empathise with someone, you can never assume another person’s thoughts.

There are two ways to identify this style of unhelpful thinking. If you make assumptions about future behaviour, you jump to conclusions. If you assume you know what a person is thinking, you are mind-reading.

Have a think about whether you tend to make quick judgements about people or situations without fully examining the facts. Or maybe your assumptions are based on feelings and not hard evidence?

Continuing this style of unhelpful thinking will lead you down the wrong path. Take your time in future and don’t assume you know everything about a situation.

  1. Mental Filter


  • “Why did he compliment my dress but not say anything about my hair?”
  • “She only asked to take the pudding home because she didn’t like it.”
  • “The reason I passed that test was that the questions were easy.”

Mental filtering is one of those unhelpful thinking styles that focuses on the negative and discounts the positive. For example, you might score A’s on all your tests except one which is B. Instead of being pleased about all the A’s you achieved, you are disappointed with the B.

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Or perhaps your partner took you out for a romantic meal, but all you can remember was that they didn’t open the car door for you.

Filtering out the positives and focusing on the negatives is associated with evolutionary survival. In the past, negative situations were potentially threatening. Our early ancestors needed to quickly evaluate a negative situation to survive. They did this by filtering out all the unnecessary information and tuning into the negative aspects.

However, unless we are dealing with a life-threatening situation, we don’t need to use this filter in modern-day life.  Always casting yourself in a negative light can lead to lower self-esteem, anxiety, and even suicide.

  1. Emotional Reasoning


  • “I feel scared so I must be in danger.”
  • “I feel helpless, so there’s nothing I can do.”
  • “I feel like a bad mother. so I must be one.”

You might have noticed that all the above statements start with ‘I feel…’ Emotional reasoning is when you base your reality on your feelings.

I often do this when I’m about to start a journey and I get anxious about travelling. I’ll begin to feel anxious and this anxiety makes me think that something bad will happen. It perpetuates my panic disorder.

“Emotional reasoning refers to the use of subjective emotions, rather than objective evidence, to form conclusions about oneself and the world.” – David Berle

You believe that your emotions are the truth of the situation. Some people find this hard to understand, as we all behave emotionally. So when it is not appropriate to think in emotional terms? I mean, what is love if not emotional?

Emotional reasoning is a distorted view of the world because feelings come from your thoughts. Thoughts can be wrong. Therefore, if your thoughts are wrong, then your reality becomes misleading. You might see threats where there are none. Or think about suicide because you believe things are hopeless.

When these thoughts come into your mind, instead of reacting to the feeling, examine the situation logically. Looking at the evidence around you will help to break through this unhelpful thinking style.

Final Thoughts

unhelpful thinking styles

It’s obvious that there are many unhelpful thinking styles, but this doesn’t mean you have to stay trapped in this mindset. Whenever you start to think in an unhelpful way, stop, and evaluate.

Think to yourself, is this your true reality or are you basing your thoughts on something else? In time, this simple approach can become effective and you can break free of these disruptive traps.

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