Common thinking errors
ReachOut fact sheets are written by young people for young people and edited by a mental health professional. Want to discuss the topic in more depth? Visit the ReachOut Forums.
Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that can cause you to feel bad and sometimes act in self-defeating ways.
If you feel more upset the more you think about a situation, you may want to consider the possibility of thinking in a different way. (For more information check out the Challenging negative self-talk fact sheet)
Challenging your thinking errors
Here are 10 common thinking errors and ways to challenge them.
1. Black-and-white thinking
When you’re thinking in black-and-white, you see everything in terms of being either good or bad with nothing in between. For example: either you’re great, or you’re a loser; If you don’t look like a model, you must be ugly; if you do something wrong, then you are completely bad.
The challenge: Look for shades of gray
It’s important to avoid thinking about things in terms of extremes. Most things aren’t black-and-white, but somewhere in-between. Just because something isn’t completely perfect doesn’t mean that it’s a total disaster.
- Is it really so bad, or am I seeing things in black-and-white?
- How else can I think about the situation?
- Am I taking an extreme view?
2. Unreal ideal
Another common thinking error is to make unfair comparisons between certain individuals and yourself. When you do this, you compare yourself with people who have a specific advantage in some area. Making unfair comparisons can leave you feeling inadequate.
The challenge: Stop making unfair comparisons
- Am I comparing myself with people who have a particular advantage?
- Am I making fair comparisons?
When you filter, first you hone in on the negative aspects of your situation. Then you ignore or dismiss all the positive aspects.
The challenge: Consider the whole picture
- Am I looking at the negatives, while ignoring the positives?
- Is there a more balanced way to look at this situation?
4. Personalizing: The self-blame game
When you personalize, you blame yourself for anything that goes wrong, even when it’s not your fault or responsibility.
The challenge: Find all the causes
- Am I really to blame? Is this all about me?
- What other explanations might there be for this situation?
We often think we know what other people are thinking. We assume that others are focused on our faults and weaknesses—but this is often wrong! Remember: your worst critic is probably you.
The challenge: Don’t assume you know what others are thinking
- What is the evidence? How do I know what other people are thinking?
- Just because I assume something, does that mean I’m right?
When things go wrong, you might have a tendency to exaggerate the consequences and imagine that the results will be disastrous.
The challenge: Put it in perspective
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- What’s the best that can happen?
- What’s most likely to happen?
- Will this matter in five years?
- Is there anything good about the situation?
- Is there any way to fix the situation?
Over-generalizing is a lot like exaggeration. When you over-generalize, you exaggerate the frequency of negative things in your life, like mistakes, disapproval and failures. Typically you might think to yourself: I always make mistakes, or everyone thinks I’m stupid.
The challenge: Be specific
- Am I over-generalizing?
- What are the facts? What are my interpretations?
8. Fact versus feeling
Sometimes you might confuse your thoughts or feelings with reality. You might assume that your perceptions are correct.
The challenge: Stick to the facts
- Am I confusing my feelings with the facts? Just because I’m feeling this way, does that mean my perceptions are correct?
- Am I thinking this way just because I’m feeling bad right now?
When you use label, you might call yourself or other people names. Instead of being specific—for example, saying “That was a silly thing to do” —you make negative generalizations about yourself or other people by saying things like “I’m ugly,” or “she’s an idiot.”
The challenge: Judge the situation, not the person
- What are the facts and what are my interpretations?
- Just because there is something that I’m not happy with, does that mean that it’s totally no good?
10. ‘Can’t Stand-itis’
Some people get intolerant when they have to do things they don’t enjoy. They tell themselves that they “can’t stand” certain things instead of acknowledging that they don’t enjoy them. As a result, they easily become frustrated and angry.
The challenge: Accept that frustration is a normal part of life
- I don’t enjoy it, but I can stand it.
- This is a hassle, and that’s O.K.! Life is full of hassles.
The effect of challenging thinking errors
What is the effect of challenging your thinking errors? It can make you feel better and encourage you to change some of your behavior.
Remember: When you’re feeling down, try to examine your thoughts. If they’re negative or critical, try challenging them. Once you get into the habit of disputing your negative self-talk, you’ll find it easier to handle difficult situations, and as a result, you’ll feel less stressed and more confident and in control.
Write it down
It can be useful to write down the changes that occur after you’ve challenged your thinking, as this helps you see the advantages of working on your thoughts, and motivates you to keep at it. While you’re learning to identify and challenge your thinking patterns, it’s a good idea to write it all down in a diary or notebook to help you to develop your skills. Initially it might feel like work, but the more often you do it, the easier it will become, and the better you will feel.
Try it out
Now that you know a few common thinking errors and how to challenge them, why don’t you try it out? It might not be easy at first, and it can take some time. But the rewards can be huge! People who choose the way they think about things, are at peace with the past, live in the present, and are optimistic about the future are generally happier.
This fact sheet comes from Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
Foundation for Life Sciences (2005)
The “Ten common thinking errors” are derived from the work of David Burns, MD, author of Feeling Good.
Thanks for your comment on ReachOut.com! We moderate all comments to ensure the site is safe and supportive. Your comment should appear within 24 hours if it is approved. If you want to see if someone has replied to your comment, please come back and check out this page again.