Unhelpful Thoughts

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We tend to trust our thoughts. But should we? Is it possible that our thoughts are not always correct or helpful? In the last blog post we explored the power of thoughts. I also said that the first step to changing negative thoughts is to recognize them. So today we are exploring how to recognize those thought that may not be helping you. 

Aaron Beck and David Burns did a lot of foundational work for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and they explored this idea of having incorrect or unhelpful thoughts, often times referred to as Cognitive Distortions. Today we will be exploring David Burn’s list of Cognitive Distortions.

1.)  All or nothing thinking – this is seeing things in black and white and not recognizing the grey. This is similar to some movies where people are simply characterized as a “good guy” or “bad guy” when in reality humans beings all have the capacity for both.

2.)  Overgeneralization - This is when one negative thing happens and we view it as a long line of events that will not end. An example of this may be getting a flat tire and thinking “Bad things always happen to me.”

3.)  Mental Filter - Focusing on the negative and ignoring the good.

4.)  Discounting the Positives - Not giving credit to one’s own accomplishments. An example might be a parent pointing out a good grade by his or her child and the child saying “yea, but I should have got a 100%”

5.)  Jumping to conclusions:

A.) Mind reading – assuming people don’t like you when there’s no objective proof of this

B..) Fortune telling: Automatically assuming things will turn out badly. “Why try? I will fail anyway.”

6.) Magnification or Minimization: Hyperfocusing on the negative and making it worse than it is or not giving focus to things that are important or positive. An example of magnification might be “This line is so long it will never end.”  An example of minimization could be “Sure, I got a good grade but that was just luck.”

7.) Emotional Reasoning:  Reasoning based on emotions. “I feel like a failure, so I must actually be a failure.”

8.) “Should statements”: Giving yourself or others a long line of should statements such as “I should work out.” “I should eat healthy.” “I should read more.”

9.) Labeling: Over identifying with mistakes. An example might be if someone got a poor grade on a test and thinking “I am stupid.” Or a child getting in trouble and thinking “I am a bad kid.”

10.) Personalization or Blame: Taking responsibility for something that was not your fault. Alternatively you could overlook your part in a situation and shift the blame to others. Both of these are considered thought distortions.


We all do all of these sometimes but we tend to gravitate toward certain ones. Which ones do you identify with most?

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Theresa Leskowat MS LPC is founder and owner of Clear Vista Counseling. Theresa is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in Charlotte, NC.