Thinking Errors

Let’s talk about thinking errors! These are also called cognitive distortions, or some sort of variation of the two. Pick what name speaks to you most- they’re all referring to the same thing! Thinking errors are incredibly common and often go unchecked or unnoticed because they have become so engrained into the way you interpret and view the world. Thinking errors are, essentially, patterns of thinking that are distorted or irrational. Thinking errors can be symptomatic of depression, anxiety, and countless other mental health diagnoses, but can also be present in the absence of a mental health diagnosis.

My goal in working with clients on exploring thinking errors is two-fold. 1. Increase awareness. I want clients to be able to recognize when they are operating from the place of distorted thinking. 2. Challenge distortions. Once you are aware of when a thinking error is occurring, you can begin to challenge the thinking error and replace it with something that is more realistic (and often more helpful in terms of improving your mental health).

What Are Common Thinking Errors?

I’ve just chosen a few common examples! When you have some examples in mind, it becomes easier to spot when they pop up in your day-to-day life.

1.     All or Nothing Thinking

All or nothing thinking is also referred to as black or white thinking, and it is a thinking error that most of us have experienced! As humans, it is comforting and familiar to place things in categories. It is either “this” or “that”, “good” or “bad”, a “success” or “failure”. The problem is that there are very few things that can realistically be placed into an either/or category. The vast majority of the time, it falls somewhere in the middle.

2.     Mindreading

It is so easy to assume that you know what someone else is thinking! Or to assume that someone else can know what you are thinking. This is not a reliable practice. When you create a narrative of another person’s perception or experience based solely on your assumptions, you set yourself up to experience behaviors, feelings, or thoughts that may not actually be grounded in reality. When you assume another person’s motives or perception, you will likely respond in a way that treats this assumption as truth. This then influences how the other person responds to you, and on and on and on.

3.     Catastrophizing

This thinking error refers to a pattern in which you jump to the worst possible conclusion. One mistake, one misstep, one wrong turn, and suddenly you are imagining yourself at the end of the world. In reality, most mistakes will not lead to the end of the world. They may represent a setback; you might experience some uncomfortable emotions; you may try to avoid a similar mistake in the future… but you will, in all likelihood, survive and be able to move on from it.

4.     Overgeneralizing

This occurs when you draw a conclusion from one specific thing and then apply it to all things. Maybe you have one negative interaction with a family member, and then conclude “They are always picking on me.”. Maybe you have a particularly challenging day and, despite the rest of the week going fairly well, you conclude “This has been the worst week of my life.” Or you are working on reducing your anxiety and conclude “My anxiety was horrible this week” in response to one afternoon of anxiety, despite not having any other significant instances of anxiety.

How Can I Begin to Challenge Thinking Errors?

1.     Look for the gray.

If you find yourself thinking categorically or absolutely, stop and ask yourself what the gray area is. In all likelihood, there is a bit of gray. Work on shifting your focus to this “in between”, rather than keeping your focus on the extremes.

2.     Identify the evidence.

This requires you to step out of your immediate experience and ask yourself to find the facts. Be as objective as possible. This may leave you with unknowns- that’s ok! Separate what is known, what is unknown, and what you are assuming. From there, you can take steps to make the unknown known, and you can remind yourself that your assumptions are not facts.

3.     Identify the possible outcomes.

Ask yourself three questions: 1. What is the best case scenario? 2. What is the worst case scenario? 3. What is the most likely outcome?

This can be similar to identifying gray areas. Oftentimes, most likely outcomes have some negative aspects and some positive aspects. This can help you steer away from only focusing on the worst case.

4.     Anticipate how you may feel about this in the future.

This is a good follow up to #3, and you can do this with best case, worst case, and most likely case scenarios. Consider the possible outcomes, and then try to objectively ask how you will feel or how you will be affected by this in 1 week, 1 month, 1 year, etc. It is important to be able to remind yourself that this immediate feeling will not last forever.

To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.

Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.