The thoughts we have, the words we use to frame the world and how we describe ourselves and others can all impact on our mood. It might surprise you to know there are several unhelpful thinking styles which we can become prone to when we’re experiencing difficulties. Over my next few blog posts, I’m going to introduce you to some of these classic negative thinking styles. When we think in these ways, we can start to get in our own way! Unhelpful thinking styles can impact on our emotions, our actions and even our physical symptoms.
One of the most prevalent of the unhelpful thinking styles is 'black and white thinking', sometimes known as 'all or nothing thinking'. Have you ever caught yourself thinking along these lines?
- I’m useless at running, so I’m not going to bother entering that race.
- I’m a rubbish cook, so I’m not inviting friends here for dinner.
- If I don’t get a good enough mark in my exam, I have failed.
- I'm too old to do that.
- I'm exhausted, I couldn't possibly.
- Feel free to come up with your own here...
You can probably see from these examples, that when you stand back and look at these words, they are extreme ways of thinking. They don’t allow for shades of grey, they don’t allow for the possibility of making mistakes, they don’t allow for human fallibility or the potential to learn new skills. In short, they are thoughts which keep us stuck at the wrong end of a whole spectrum of possible thoughts. They certainly don't help us to do the things we might want to do. Dichotomous thinking (to give it a fancy name) makes our difficulties worse.
We call black and white thinking an unhelpful thinking style because these types of thoughts tend not to be 100% true, they’re hard to back up, and they’re sweepingly general. Many of us fall prey to this from time to time, when we’re under pressure, so feel free to acknowledge that this is a fairly common human experience. You are not alone in this!
The automatic thoughts which come tumbling out when someone is experiencing anxiety, stress, depression, or other negative emotion do not help to soothe or alleviate the situation, they increase and sabotage any possibility of moving closer to your goals. In the above examples, these wishes might have been to get fit, improve cooking skills, get a better social life, or feel relaxed and pass a test. Looking at the examples of black and white thinking, how do you think these thoughts impact on the mood of each person?
The good news. This is where a little knowledge goes a long way. Becoming aware of your thinking styles is a good first step. Once you recognise your thinking styles, you are already ahead of the curve. Many clients find it helpful to capture the thoughts that go through their minds when they are experiencing a strong negative emotional reaction and note them down in a journal. You can then begin to notice patterns in your thinking, some of which crop up over and over. We can call these negative automatic thoughts. Negative automatic thoughts often conform to the different unhelpful thinking styles, so it can be good practice to identify and name the type of thought we are experiencing.
When learning to deal with all or nothing or black and white thinking, you can begin by reflecting on your thoughts as soon as possible after the event and have a reality check. Is this thought 100% true? Am I exaggerating or overestimating the badness of this situation? Am I failing to see the real-life detail in the situation?
Keep an eye out for further posts on the different unhelpful thinking styles. I’ll be sharing some further tips to help you to discover alternative ways to develop healthier, more flexible thinking styles.
As a CBT therapist in Bath, I help my clients to identify and manage their unhelpful thinking and underlying beliefs. If you're looking for therapy in Bath, please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org