Unhelpful thinking styles are also known as ‘cognitive distortions’ in the psychology world. And our brains really want to distort reality.
All a cognitive distortion really is, is a shortcut your brain decided was the best route – even though it takes you through a muddy swamp.
The two most unhelpful thinking styles we want to talk about are “all or nothing thinking,” and “overgeneralization.” The two go hand-in-hand, often playing off each other to keep you stuck in a bad emotional place.
How do I stop the cycle?
Your best bet is to challenge these types of unhelpful thinking habits, in the moment when they come up. But to do that, you’ll have to notice when a cognitive distortion is running your brain – and we’re here to help with that.
Below, find out how to recognize and handle these unhelpful thinking styles, for improved mental health and happiness.
Unhelpful thought style: all or nothing thinking
What is all or nothing thinking? You can think of this as the tendency to jump to a ‘hot and cold’ assessment of a person, situation, or yourself.
You’re either successful or a failure.
Your friends love you or they hate you, and you decided based on a single, small nonverbal cue.
That restaurant was your favorite, until they got your order wrong — now you’re never going back.
This type of unhelpful thought habit makes it really easy to give up, because when something goes wrong, you feel you’ve already lost the battle.
Unhelpful thinking style: overgeneralization
What is overgeneralization? It’s when you come to a conclusion from a single example, and incorrectly think that conclusion applies to all examples.
Your dentist messed up? You’ll never trust another dentist.
Last test went badly? You never do well in school.
Just fought with a friend? Nobody likes you.
This makes it really easy to get frustrated. It may also lie at the heart of social anxiety, allowing us to believe that all people are dangerous, judgmental, etc.
Overgeneralization is also the cognitive distortion at the heart of more sinister thought processes – like xenophobia and racism. It’s definitely a key unhelpful habit to tackle.
How you can challenge unhelpful thinking styles
Now you know what overgeneralizing and all or nothing thoughts look like — and how to notice them. Next step is to intentionally get in the way of your stupid brain.
Swap out black and white thoughts
When something goes wrong, it doesn’t help for you to see the whole situation as wrong.
Failed a test? Swap “I never do well on exams and have no hope,” with “I didn’t do well this time. But I got a B+ on the last test!”
Crush doesn’t like you? Swap “I’m ugly and unlovable,” for “They don’t appreciate who I am, but someone else will be really lucky to have me.”
Weekend plans fell through? Swap “The whole weekend is shot now,” for “Now I have some free time to make use of!”
Look for redeeming opportunities
When you catch yourself thinking that one speed bump ruined everything, look for ways to redeem the situation. How can you recover from what went wrong and get things back on track?
Luckily, this method doesn’t involve convincing yourself the bad thing was ok – overcoming unhelpful cognitive distortions often isn’t that simple.
Instead of asking you to sugar-coat reality, this method simply helps you keep things moving forward – so you don’t get stuck on what may or may not be a really negative event.
Another tool: peer support
When you have trouble catching your unhelpful thoughts as they pop up, enlist others to help you out.
You can ask friends or peers in an online chat to gently point out whenever you are reasoning in these unhelpful ways. It’s much easier to be reminded in-the-moment than to keep on alert for your own unhelpful habits!
When you accidentally adopt the habit of thinking in an unhelpful way, it’s like you set your brain’s default to Apple Maps instead of Google Maps. You’re processing the world, but not in the most effective, efficient, or productive way.
And by letting these cognitive distortions, like overgeneralization or all-or-nothing thoughts, run your life, you become more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles.
So work on these unhelpful thought processes, and you really might feel a lot better.