Unhelpful Thinking Styles

1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: Also called black-and-white thinking. This is when someone views things or events in terms of categories of good and bad, or yes and no.  When you use this lens to evaluate your behaviour, you can only ever be perfect or a total failure.  The extremes of these two poles don’t allow for more nuanced, more compassionate evaluations of yourself, as someone who has tried hard, found some parts difficulty and managed other aspects well.

2. OVERGENERALISATION:  This is when someone interprets a single negative event as a never-ending pattern.  Absolute statements such as “this always happens to me” is a feature of this style of thinking.

3. MENTAL FILTER:  When a person focuses on only one aspect of an event or one type of evidence to confirm what they are thinking.  Contrary information is filtered out or disregarded.  For example, the person who repeatedly recalls all the disappointments they have encountered to the point that they overlook their achievements.

4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE:  This occurs when positive experiences are explained away as if they don’t count.  In this way, the unhelpful beliefs are maintained, despite the contradictory evidence of positive experiences.  For example, the boss praises you and says you did a good job, but in your head you think, “yes but Fred helped me“.  In disqualifying the boss’ praise in this way you overlook the fact that it wasn’t just Fred who did the work, you made a useful contribution too.  Another example of this is when people down play their skills as if anyone could do it.  For example, the truck driver who reverses his 18 wheel truck into a tight parking space and say “anyone could do it”.  Actually no, it is not a skill that many people have.

5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS:  This occurs when someone makes a negative interpretation of something, even though there are no definite facts to support this conclusion.  It happens in two forms.
a. Mind Reading:  Thinking you know what others think (“She thinks I look stupid“)
b. Fortune Telling:  Predicting the future (“This is going to be terrible”).  We usually behave as if the prediction is an established fact.

6. CATASTROPHISING or MAGNIFICATION:  The importance of an event is exaggerated and a negative outcome is assumed to be inevitable.  One event is seen as a chain of events, which will continue to get worse and worse.  For example, failing one subject means you will fail a whole course and never establish a career.  By predicting the worse possible outcome in this way, feelings of anxiety or depression are  intensified.  You inevitably feel much worse.  Yet, the true probability of any of these outcomes is rarely examined.

7. MINIMIZATION:  Shrinking the importance of things, including (or especially) the importance of your own feelings.  It includes things like saying “it doesn’t matter”, when others have hurt your feelings, or when you are experiencing unpleasant emotions.  It is also commonly discounting your achievements.

8. EMOTIONAL REASONING:  Emotions are interpreted as fact, they become the basis for reasoning or beliefs.  For example, “I feel bad, therefore it must be true that I am bad at this“.  But feelings are not facts.  They can sometimes be unreliable, and at other times they can be modified by what we say to ourselves.  Another example of emotional reasoning might be a child who enjoys building lego but whilst building a new truck, it breaks and he feels extremely disappointed.  He shouts, “I am hopeless at building lego!”.  This sounds true to him in that moment because he feels so bad.  He has also forgotten all great things he’s built in the past, and in this way his feelings begin to take over.

9. ABSOLUTES:  Words or phrases that reflect a certain or fixed point of view.  This is sometimes used as a motivational tool “I should to this, I shouldn’t do that”.  It can be a bit like a whip that you hope might get you motivated to do something, but often this can have the opposite effect and it becomes a way to punish yourself.  This might include terms like never, must, can’t, have to, always, every time.  Guilt is often the emotional consequence when we fail to live up to our own standards.  In relationships, this style can lead to high or unrealistic expectations of others, resulting in feelings of anger, frustration, and resentment.

10. LABELLING AND MISLABELLING:  Using negative labels to describe yourself or others. It is a form of over-generalisation.  Statements such as “I’m a loser”, “He’s a looser”.  “I am stupid”, “she’s stupid”.  It’s far better to try and describe what has happened rather than assign unhelpful labels, where you might not have all of the information.

11. PERSONALISATION:  You see yourself as the cause of a negative event.  If you examine the facts and the complexities of the event, it’s usually unlikely that you were completely  responsible.

12. MAGICAL THINKING:  Occurs when someone links actions and events together, despite the fact that they are not linked.  For example, saying good luck to an actor does not increase the likelihood of bad luck, just as much as saying break a leg does not increase the likelihood of good luck.  Mentioning to an emergency team that it is a quiet day does not cause the day to become busy or emergency calls to occur.
Perceiving a link between certain acts and bad outcomes can increase anxiety.


Many of the unhelpful thinking styles overlap with each other.  If you are wondering about a particular situation and can’t decide, it is possible that fits the description of more than one style.

Below is a video of the unhelpful thinking styles.