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Unhelpful Thinking Styles 

Written by Neehara. R | Provisional Psychologist 

Clients experiencing mental distress quite often interpret the world with what is known as unhelpful thinking styles. For example, for clients who are depressed, they tend to see things in a negative light and overlook the positives (Williams and Garland., 2002). Unhelpful thinking styles are patterns of thoughts or ‘traps’ that individuals fall into with their thinking. To put simply, these unhelpful thinking styles can be thought of as wearing a blacked-out pair of sunglasses. When individuals find themselves in situations that can/does cause significant mental distress, these events are seen through a darker pair of lenses which makes any thoughts, emotions and behaviours quite biased. A big part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is recognising when you may be displaying unhelpful thinking styles. It is then important to evaluate how accurate these thoughts are, and come up with alternative thoughts regarding the situation (Beck, 1963). 

Examples of Some Unhelpful Thinking Styles

There are a number of unhelpful thinking styles, below are listed some of the most common ones:  

  • All or nothing thinking: This can also be called ‘black and white thinking’. This type of thinking usually involves acting or thinking in extremes. E.g., “If I don’t do well in this test, I have failed at life.”
  • Mental filter: Involves ‘tunnel vision’ and only paying attention to certain parts of a situation, usually the negative parts. E.g., Recognising failures and ignoring previous or current successes.
  • Jumping to conclusion: Sometimes also known as ‘mind reading’ where we imagine what others may be thinking. Can also be known as ‘fortune telling’ where we predict what may happen in the future.
  • Emotional Reasoning: Basing your views on what you are feeling in that moment. E.g., “I feel embarrassed so I must be an idiot”
  • Labelling: Labelling ourselves or others through global statements based on certain behaviours exhibited in certain situations. E.g., “I’m useless”, “They’re stupid”
  • Over-generalising: Taking a pattern seen in one single event and imposing it on future and current situations. E.g., “Nothing good ever happens”, “Everything is rubbish.”
  • Disqualifying the positive: Discounting anything good or positive that you have done. E.g., Doing well on a test but saying it doesn’t count because everyone else also did well 
  • Magnification (catastrophising) and minimisation: Blowing things out of proportion or making things seem less important that it really is 
  • Should and Must: Using these critical words can put unreasonable demands/pressure on yourself. This can make us feel guilt when we don’t accomplish these tasks. In some instances, however, these statements can be helpful. E.g., I shouldn’t drink tonight, so I can drive home safely
  • Personalisation:  Blaming yourself when things go wrong when it isn’t your fault. Additionally, this can be blaming others for something that was your fault

What do you you find yourself displaying an unhelpful thinking style? 

Be kind to yourself, and recognise that these thoughts can be automatic and engrained into your thinking patterns. Training yourself to spot these unhelpful thinking styles is a skill on its own, so if you spot one, put your situation back into perspective. Am I thinking about this situation realistically? What is the evidence for and against the thoughts I am having regarding the situation? 


  1. Beck, A. T. (1963). Thinking and depression: I. Idiosyncratic content and cognitive distortions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 9(4), 324-33
  2. Williams, C., & Garland, A. (2002). Identifying and challenging unhelpful thinking. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 8(5), 377-386. doi:10.1192/apt.8.5.377
  3. Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2019). Unhelpful Thinking Styles.—Information-Sheets/Depression-Information-Sheet—11–Unhelpful-Thinking-Styles.pdf