Common Types of Unhelpful Thinking

We all have an inner voice that at times can be hard to quieten. This inner voice can too easily turn negative as we fall victim to several common types of thinking errors, particularly during stressful life events. Becoming familiar with these different types of thoughts (cognitions) allows us to more easily identify our own irrational thoughts so that we can challenge their validity, and ultimately replace them with more helpful ways of thinking.

Black and white thinking

Black and white thinking, is the tendency to see something as either all or nothing, ignoring everything in-between. Examples include seeing everything as good or bad, a success or a failure, or positive or negative. In most situations the reality lies somewhere in-between. This type of faculty thinking is common among perfectionists.


Overgeneralising involves applying a conclusion about something to a broader category of events or situations without having the evidence to suggest it is valid to do so. Overgeneralising is often identified by the use of words such as ‘always’, ‘never’ or ‘everybody’.


We are guilty of personalising when we feel responsible for things that are not our fault, or we incorrectly assume that another person’s responses are directed at us. It is particularly easy to personalise a situation when someone behaves rudely towards us, whereas it may have nothing to do with us at all and occurred because that person was having a bad day for completely unrelated reasons.


Magnification involves allowing a situation to feel it has a greater impact or more importance than it actually does, and conversely, minimizing involves dismissing the consequences of an event despite the impact it realistically has.

Mental filtering

Mental filtering involves focusing on some aspects of a situation instead of looking at the whole. Usually it is one or more negative aspects that is focused on, affecting the mental view of the entire situation.

Jumping to conclusions

Jumping to conclusions involves making negative judgments that are based on assumptions rather than on facts. Ask yourself, is there really any evidence to support my conclusions?

Mind Reading

Mind reading is a specific form of jumping to conclusions that involves making judgments based on the assumption that we know what another person is thinking. While it can be that our prior experience means our conclusions are correct, it is often the case that people are far less concerned about other people’s actions and behavior than we presume.


Catastrophizing is a another form of jumping to conclusions where the absolute worst case is the assumed outcome. In reality this is rarely the case.


Blaming involves attributing responsibility for our misfortunes to another person. It may be the case that someone did let us down, or did not meet their responsibilities and it resulted in a negative impact on our lives, however irrational blaming condemns people for situations and outcomes that were beyond their control. Blaming is a way of shirking responsibility for a problem and can create unnecessary feelings of bitterness and resentment.


Labelling is specific form of overgeneralization where we reduce a complex person, either someone else or ourselves, to a single category. This often occurs based on a person’s actions, however it is important to remember that we are all capable of making momentary errors in judgment and should refrain from labelling a person based on certain behaviours and to look at the person as a complex whole.

Dismissing the positive

Dismissing the positive in a situation as not being as valid as the positive aspects in order to maintain a negative view is another form of dysfunctional thinking similar to mental filtering.

Should/must statements

Should/must statements are associated with putting unrealistically high expectations on yourself or others. This can lead to feelings of guilt, becoming psychologically paralysed, procrastinating and difficulty coping with situations.

Take this short quiz to see if you can identify different forms of unhelpful thinking.

“The stream of thinking has enormous momentum that can easily drag you along with it. Every thought pretends that it matters so much. It wants to draw your attention in completely.

Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don’t take your thoughts too seriously.”

~ Eckhart Tolle