Identifying Thinking Errors

by | Personal Growth & Empowerment

Thinking errors, also known as cognitive distortions, are patterns of biased and irrational thinking that can lead to inaccurate perceptions, negative emotions, and unhelpful behaviors. These errors often contribute to distorted views of reality and can impact decision-making and problem-solving.

Identifying and challenging these thinking errors is a key aspect of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other therapeutic approaches aimed at promoting healthier thought patterns.

Common thinking errors include:

  • All or Nothing Thinking (Generalizing, Black or White) – Seeing things in extremes without acknowledging a middle ground.  You maybe see a project as either a success or failure, or someone is all good or all bad and ignore the totality of their characteristics.  You can correct it by seeing shades of gray rather than putting things in terms of absolutes.
  • Overgeneralizing – Drawing broad conclusions based on limited evidence or a single incident.  Thoughts include:  Everyone in my family is rude.  Nothing good ever happens to me.  Things always go wrong.  Take notice all areas of life rather than to only one specific situation.
  • Filtering Out the Positives or Focusing on the Negatives (Selective Abstraction) – Focusing only on negative details while ignoring positive aspects of a situation.  If nine good things happen and one bad thing, sometimes we filter out the good and zoom in on the bad.  Maybe we look at our performance and declare it was terrible because we made a single mistake.  Filtering out the positive can prevent you from establishing a realistic outlook on a situation.  Develop a balanced outlook by noticing both the positive and the negative.  Discounting the Positive: Minimizing or dismissing positive experiences, achievements, or feedback is in the same ballpark.
  • Mind-Reading – We can never be sure what someone else is thinking.  Yet we assume we know what is going on in someone else’s mind.  You think things and make inferences that aren’t necessarily based on reality.  Remind yourself that you may not be making accurate guesses about other people’s perceptions.
  • Catastrophizing – (making a mountain out of a mole hill).  Sometimes we think things are much worse than they actually are.  Expecting the worst-case scenario and dwelling on potential disasters is a symptom of PTSD.  Falling short on budgeting one week and thinking “I’m going to end up bankrupt”.  Even though there is no evidence that the situation is nearly that dire, you may think the worst will happen or has happened.  It can be easy to get swept up into catastrophizing a situation once your thoughts become negative.  When you begin predicting doom and gloom remind yourself that there are many other potential outcomes.
  • Emotional Reasoning – Believing that because you feel a certain way, it must be true.  Our emotions aren’t based on reality, but we often assume those feelings are rational.  You might assume “If I’m this scared about it, I just shouldn’t change jobs” or “If I feel like a loser, I must be a loser.”  It’s essential to recognize that emotions, just like our thoughts, aren’t always based on the facts.
  • Labeling / Stereotyping – Assigning global, negative labels to oneself or others based on specific behaviors.  Labeling involves putting a name to something.  Instead of thinking “he made a mistake” you label that person as “an idiot.”  Labeling people and experiences place them into categories that are often based on isolated incidents.  We tell ourselves that this is the rule.  We don’t want to be bothered with dealing with the reality of the situation and untrue. 
  • Cynicism – This is another form of over-generalizing and simplifying.  If you tell yourself “everyone is out to make a buck” you don’t have to figure out what really is motivating people.  “All women want… or all men want…” does not acknowledge that people are individuals and are looking for different things.  Notice when you try to categorize things and work to avoid placing mental labels on everything.
  • Fear-Based Thinking or Fortune-Telling – None of us know what is going to happen in the future yet we think things like “I’m going to embarrass myself tomorrow” or “If I quit smoking, I will gain weight.”  These types of thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies if you’re not careful.  When you’re predicting doom and gloom, remind yourself of all the other possible outcomes.  When reacting ask yourself what the fear is that you are worried about as an outcome such as “I’m afraid this means I am being disrespected or misunderstood.”
  • Personalization – Taking responsibility for events that are beyond one’s control or unrelated to them.  Thinking the world revolves around us; taking personally what others do or say.  If someone does not call you back thinking “she must be mad at me.”  When you catch yourself personalizing situations, take time to point out other possible factors that may be influencing the circumstances.  Identify what other possibilities might be.
  • Immediate Gratification – I must get what I want right away, or I will feel angry or frustrated.  I do not believe I can tolerate frustration or uncertainty.  Thinking you ‘deserve’ to have something right this moment.
  • “Should” statements – Imposing unrealistic expectations on yourself or others; and an expectation is a premeditated resentment.  Telling yourself that things should be a certain way; the way you hoped or expected them to be.  Must, ought to, and have to all have the same meaning.  “I should have said XYZ” or “my spouse should have taken care of this or that in a certain way”.  Consider that everything is exactly the way it should be, work on not taking someone else’s inventory and believing to know what is best for others and keep your attention on yourself which is all you can control and are responsible for.
  • Wishful Thinking – Something will happen because I want it to not because I’ve got a plan or because I’m working to make it happen, but just because I want it to.  “I know smoking causes cancer, but I won’t get it” or “I’m going to win the lottery to pay off my debt.”
  • Schemas – Assumptions made about the intentions of another person.  This affects your response and reaction and is based on your own experiences as we can never know someone else’s intentions.  Instead of making assumptions, ask the other person to elaborate on what is happening with them and further discuss it.

In summary, recognizing and addressing thinking errors is a crucial step toward fostering mental and emotional health, improving relationships, and leading a more fulfilling life.

For additional information on fostering improved well-being:

Therapeutic Journaling | Better Life Inc

A Compassionate Exploration of Complex Trauma | Better Life Inc

Overcoming Self-Sabotage | Better Life Inc