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21 Thinking Errors And How To Change Them

Updated: May 11, 2022

The term "thinking errors" refers to self-defeating thinking patterns. The majority of people who have thinking errors are unaware of it. It's when what you're thinking doesn't match up with reality. During emotional periods, thinking errors are fully active in your mind and lead to strong emotions and (self)destructive behavior.

Thoughts run through our heads all day long, without us consciously managing them. Each of us is estimated to have roughly 125.000 thoughts per day, with about 80.000 of those being us talking to ourselves about ourselves. Everyone has unhelpful thinking patterns, schemas, and thinking errors that cause them to perceive reality in a distorted way.

What Are Thinking Errors?

Thinking errors, also known as cognitive distortions, are thoughts that do not match up with reality. These thoughts often have negative consequences. People who experience thinking errors are often not aware of it and perceive their thoughts as the truth.

What are common Thinking Errors?

Thinking errors are not logical and are unrealistic ways of thinking. They make you not perceive the situation as it actually is but in a distorted way. Thinking errors are still fairly easy to spot. Common thinking errors with examples:

  1. All or nothing (black and white) thinking: It's all or nothing, good or bad, either perfect or a complete failure. There is no middle ground, and there are no gray areas.

  2. Generalizing: You draw a general conclusion based on a single incident or evidence. You believe that if something bad happened once, it will repeat itself again and again. The words 'always' and 'never' play an important role. Example: You ask someone out on a date, and you are rejected. You conclude that no one ever wants to go out with you.

  3. Selective negative focus (tunnel vision): You only extract the negative details from every situation and focus on that part. You leave any positive or neutral details aside. You conclude that the whole situation is negative. Example: You get the test results back at school, and it turns out you have answered 5 out of 100 questions incorrectly. You continue to focus on those five mistakes and completely ignore the 95 questions you got right.

  4. Suppressing the positive: You deny anything that conflicts with your negative attitude and often quickly come up with clever ways to undermine positive information. Example: Someone compliments you on your appearance. You immediately undermine the comment by saying that he or she has no taste.

  5. Unfair comparison: You tend to always compare yourself and your achievements with others who have it better, more beautiful, nicer, easier, etc. This often leaves you feeling disappointed and dissatisfied.

  6. Jumping to conclusions: You are far too quick to jump to a negative conclusion that doesn't match the facts or the overall situation. Example: Your colleague says no to your request to do something for you, and you immediately think that he or she doesn't like you.

  7. Mind-reading: You assume that someone else is thinking something, and without checking that your assumptions are correct, you react based on that assumption. You think you already know what the other person is thinking and feeling. Example: You want to ask your employer for a raise, but you assume that he or she doesn't like you, and so you get mad because you don't get a raise.

  8. Negative predictions/self-fulfilling prophecy: You imagine that something bad is about to happen, you believe the prediction is true, and you react as if it has already happened. This is often referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Example: You want to ask your employer for a raise, but you assume you won't get it. As a result, you don't even ask for it and don't try your best to earn a raise.

  9. Magnify: You blow things out of their proportions. Example: Your partner doesn't want to have sex with you because he or she is tired, and you immediately think that he or she has someone else and will leave you soon.

  10. Minimize: You decide to ignore the obvious information. Example: Every night, your partner returns home late, with no explanation for where he or she has been. Your partner is texting and has phone conversations that you are not allowed to know anything about. You refuse the thought that your partner could be having an affair. You tell yourself that he or she is working overtime to get ahead and that the person is just a colleague.

  11. Emotional Reasoning: You view your emotions as evidence of how things really are. ''I feel, therefore I am''. Example: You feel anxious and unsafe when you enter a room; so you conclude that the room is a dangerous place.

  12. ''How it should be'' statement: You have a list of unavoidable rules of how things should be and especially how you and others should behave. Example: Your doctor is ten minutes late for your appointment. You think that everyone should always be exactly on time and you get very angry about his/her lack of respect.

  13. Labeling: You put a label on someone and then treat that person as if he or she fits your description. Example: You find out that someone you know is unemployed. You conclude that that person is lazy, and you refuse to help that person with anything in the future.

  14. Involve yourself: You relate an event to yourself when there is no reason to. Example: At work, a group of colleagues is talking to each other. You immediately assume that it will be about you.

  15. Misconceptions about fairness: You believe that everything in life should be fair, and you get upset when injustice happens. Example: Your colleague has been promoted to a project for which you have done the most work. You're quitting your job because you think you should have gotten that promotion.

  16. Reward misconceptions: You believe that you should always be rewarded when you do something good. Attention must be paid to it, and recognition and appreciation must be expressed.

  17. Misconceptions about control: You believe that you should always be in control of everything that happens to you and around you. Example: You get upset when your food burns because you had to watch your child when the bell rang and didn't hear the kitchen timer. You expect yourself to have better control over the household, your child, and unexpected visitors.

  18. Doom-mongering: You foresee disaster in every situation. Example: You go to a job interview and become worried when you realize that you won't get the job anyway. And if you do get one, you'll probably be treated terribly by your employer, you'll be fired before you know it, and no one will ever hire you for any position again. Every situation always seems to be a (horror)movie that ends badly.

  19. Accusing others: You hold others responsible for your misery, and you refuse to look at your own doing. Example: You get a ticket for speeding and blame your child for distracting you while driving.

  20. Blaming yourself: You blame yourself for every problem you run into. You judge yourself while you ignore others' doings.

  21. Superstitious thinking: Illogical connections between cause and effect. Example: If I like something, it is always taken away immediately. When I go out, it always rains.

How do you challenge Thinking Errors?

Below are a few questions that can help you challenge thinking errors. This is easiest to do when you are not in an emotional period. Examine your thoughts and notice if any of them are distorted and/or negative. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What evidence do I have that this is the truth?

  • Do I have one or more past experiences that contradict this thought?

  • If I asked 100 people if they believed this thought, what would they say?

  • If I look back on this in five years, will I see it differently?

  • How does this thought bother me?

  • Can you think of anything else?

  • Do I think differently about this when I'm not in an emotional episode?

  • When I felt this way in the past, what did I think about to feel better?

  • Do I have any strengths or positive qualities, or are there any positives to the situation?

  • Is it possible that I'm blaming myself for something over which I have no control?

  • Will this thought hold up in court? What would a judge ultimately say about it?

It's possible that it's more than just thinking errors, and that they are schemas developed from your childhood. If you want to learn more about this, you could read more about The 19 Schemas of Borderline Personality Disorder.


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