What Happens When Your Thoughts Are Not Helpful

We all have habitual, automatic ways of thinking, and we are often so used to these thoughts that it never occurs to us to challenge them.

Yet for many of us, these ways of thinking are making us miserable.

You probably do not realise you are doing it. But chances are that at some point today, you have had thoughts or made assumptions that are deeply unhelpful – and probably incorrect.

You are not alone. It turns out many of us share the same unhelpful thinking styles. Here we outline the four most common patterns, with advice from a clinical psychologist on how to overcome them.

  • All-or-nothing thinking

Also called black-white thinking, this thinking style only allows one extreme or another, with nothing in between. You are either good or bad, perfect or a failure. You do not allow yourself the compassion to see yourself as a flawed but wonderful human.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Gemma Healey advises: “Try catching these thoughts and saying ‘Ah, there’s the ‘I‘m not good enough’ story’, or ‘Ah, there’s the I’m a failure story’.”

  • Catastrophising

When you take a small problem and imagine the worst outcome possible, you are catastrophising. You might make a mistake in your job, and then imagine that you will lose your job, lose your home and lose your family because of your failure.

Dr Healey says: try allowing your thoughts to come and go on their own without hooking into them. You can do this by imagining your thoughts as leaves floating by on a stream, as cars travelling on the freeway, or as clouds floating in the sky.

  • Shoulding and musting

Whenever you notice yourself saying “should” or “must”, it is a sign you could be setting yourself unfair expectations.

While sometimes it can be helpful, such as “I should wear safety equipment for this job”, it is more usually associated with blame and guilt. “I should be less emotional”, or “I should not eat so much.”

Dr Healey says: “When you notice yourself should-ing or must-ing try and bring some flexibility into the rule by softening it to something like “It would be nice if…”, or ”I would prefer it if…”.”

  • Overgeneralising

If you have even grabbed onto one negative thing that happened in the past, and assumed it will always keep happening over and over, you are overgeneralising. It is the classic, “this always happens to me” type of thinking, similar to “I never get things right”, or “people always misunderstand me”. Words like “always” and “never” are strong clues.

Dr Healey’s advice is to notice and challenge the thought. Ask yourself, “Is it true that I never…? Can I think of situations where this has not applied?”


How to catch your thoughts

The problem with thought patterns like unhelpful thinking is that we often do not realise we are doing it.

The key to overcoming unhelpful thinking is to start to tune in and notice the thoughts. This takes practice.

Each day, take 5-10 minutes to practice noticing your thoughts. Go somewhere you will not be disturbed and take some deep breaths to quieten your mind.

Then start noticing the thoughts that go through your mind. Try not to judge them or get caught up in them. Simply notice. Then you can start to recognise some of the styles listed here.

This helps you separate yourself from negative thoughts, so you have more choice in how you respond to each thought.