19+ Unhelpful Thinking Styles (Examples + Tools)

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Practical Psychology

Imagine you're trying to learn how to ride a bike. You hop on, pedal a few times, and then—oops!—you fall over. What do you tell yourself? Do you think, "I'll never get this. I'm terrible at everything!"? If you do, you're not alone. We all have moments where our thoughts trip us up more than the bike did.

Our thoughts can be our best friends or our worst enemies. Sometimes, they cheer us on, helping us nail a test at school or make a new friend. But other times, they tell us stuff that isn't true or helpful, like "You're not good enough" or "Everything always goes wrong." Understanding the ways our thinking can trip us up is a big step towards being happier and more successful in whatever we want to do.

A lot of smart people (psychologists, therapists, and even some brainy professors) have been studying the way we think for years. They've found that certain kinds of thoughts show up again and again when we're feeling down or stuck. These are called "unhelpful thinking styles" or "cognitive distortions."

Unhelpful thinking styles are patterns of thought that can distort our perception of reality, often leading us to feel anxious, depressed, or stuck. These thought habits can make small problems seem bigger and stop us from enjoying the good things in our lives.

In this article, we're going on a thought-detective adventure! We'll explore 20 common unhelpful thinking styles that can get in the way of us being our best selves. We'll learn what they are, see them in action, find out why our brains think this way, and discover tips for turning these thoughts around.

What's the History of Unhelpful Thinking Styles?

kid fell off his bike

Early Pioneers

Long before we had the term "unhelpful thinking styles," there were people curious about how our thoughts influence our emotions and actions.

One of the earliest big names is Sigmund Freud. He was an Austrian doctor who lived over a hundred years ago, and he's famous for coming up with the idea of the "unconscious mind."

Freud thought that a lot of our feelings and actions are influenced by thoughts and memories we aren't even aware of. He was one of the first to suggest that maybe our minds aren't always our best friends. Though his ideas have been updated and changed, they set the stage for everyone else.

Another important person is Carl Rogers, an American psychologist who said, "Hey, we're not just a bundle of thoughts; we're people with feelings, too!" Rogers emphasized how important it is for us to be understood and accepted, not just by others but also by ourselves. He introduced the idea of "unconditional positive regard," which is a fancy way of saying we should be kinder to ourselves.

Last on our early pioneers list is Albert Ellis, who created something called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Ellis was big on the idea that it's not just what happens to us that matters, but how we think about what happens. He laid the groundwork for a lot of modern ideas about unhelpful thinking styles.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Fast forward a few years, and along comes Aaron T. Beck, a name you might have heard if you've ever talked about therapy. Beck is the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is a popular way to help people with everything from sadness to stress to really tough emotional problems.

His daughter, Judith Beck, continued his work and is also a leading expert in CBT.

The key idea of CBT is pretty simple: our thoughts (cognitions), feelings, and actions (behaviors) are connected like a triangle. Change one, and you can change the others. It's in CBT that we find a clear focus on identifying and changing unhelpful thinking styles.

Importance of Cognitive Science

Finally, let's talk about cognitive science, the study of how we think, learn, and remember stuff.

Daniel Kahneman is one of the big names here. He won a Nobel Prize for showing how people don't always think logically when making decisions. He introduced ideas like the "prospect theory," which explains why we might feel super bad about losing $10, even though we wouldn't feel super good about finding $10.

Kahneman's work, along with other research in cognitive science, has taught us that our brains have shortcuts and biases, also called heuristics or satisficing. These can often lead us into unhelpful thinking styles, even when we think we're being totally rational. Luckily, there are ways we can overcome these shortcuts, which we'll explore more later.

Understanding the Terminology

Thought Patterns

Let's start with what a "thought pattern" is. You know how sometimes you hear a catchy song on the radio, and it just keeps playing in your head all day? That's a bit like a thought pattern.

A thought pattern is a way of thinking that your brain gets used to, kind of like a path that's been walked on so much it's turned into a trail. Thought patterns can be good, bad, or just plain weird!

Good thought patterns might be things like, "I can do this if I try" or "It's okay to ask for help." These kinds of thoughts help us tackle challenges and feel good about ourselves.

But then there are thought patterns that are like annoying songs you can't get out of your head. These are what we call "unhelpful thinking styles." They might sound like, "I'm always messing up," or "Why does bad stuff only happen to me?" They keep playing in the background and make it hard to enjoy life or get things done.

So, how do these thought patterns form? Great question! Our brains are like supercomputers, always taking in information and trying to make sense of it. Sometimes, they get things right, but other times they take shortcuts that lead us down the wrong trail.

Stuff like what we've been through in the past, what we're scared of, and what we hope for can all affect the way these thought patterns set up camp in our minds.

Cognitive Distortions

Now, let's get into the nitty-gritty with something called "cognitive distortions." "Cognitive" just means anything to do with thinking, and "distortion" means something that's twisted out of shape.

So, cognitive distortions are thoughts that twist reality, making things seem worse (or sometimes better) than they really are.

David D. Burns is the psychologist who made this term famous. He wrote a book that became super popular called "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy," and guess what it's about? Yep, you got it—how to untwist these twisted thoughts.

Cognitive distortions are like filters or sunglasses that change how we see the world. Imagine you're wearing sunglasses with yellow lenses. With those on, everything would look a little bit yellow, right?

Cognitive distortions work the same way; they color how we see things based on what our thoughts are telling us. So if you're wearing "I'm not good enough" sunglasses, you'll see everything through that lens, even when it's not true!

Some cognitive distortions are sneaky; you might not even know they're there. Others are loud and in-your-face, like a giant billboard shouting, "Watch out, everything's terrible!" Whether they're quiet or loud, these distortions can really mess with your head.

Examples of Unhelpful Thinking Styles

unhappy worker

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking

Have you ever thought, "If I can't do this perfectly, then I'm a total failure"? If so, welcome to the world of all-or-nothing thinking. This is when you see things in black and white, with no shades of gray. Either you're amazing, or you're awful; there's no in-between.

Psychologists have noticed that this kind of thinking often comes up in perfectionists or people who are super hard on themselves. The theory behind it is that humans like simplicity. It's easier to put things into neat little boxes than to deal with the messy reality that most things are complicated.

The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is that it sets you up for failure. Nobody is perfect, so if perfection is your only goal, you're going to be disappointed a lot. It can also make you really anxious or sad because you're constantly judging yourself.

How can you fight back against all-or-nothing thinking? One trick is to remind yourself that life is full of gray areas. If you catch yourself thinking in extremes, try to find the middle ground.

For example, instead of saying, "I'm terrible at math," try thinking, "I find some math problems challenging, but I can improve with practice."

2. Overgeneralization

Here's another classic: overgeneralization. This is when you take one event or piece of information and apply it to everything else. It's like saying, "I got a bad grade on this test; I'm going to fail all my classes."

Aaron T. Beck, one of the brains behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, talked a lot about this. He noticed that when people are feeling down, they're more likely to see things through this overgeneralizing lens.

The problem with overgeneralizing is that it's usually not true, and it can hold you back. If you bomb one job interview and think, "I'll never get a job," you might not even try to apply for more jobs. Then you're stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy: you believe you won't get a job, so you don't try, and then you really don't get a job.

Fighting overgeneralization takes a bit of detective work. When you catch yourself making a huge, sweeping statement, stop and ask, "Is this really true? What evidence do I have?" You'll usually find that one bad grade doesn't make you a failure, and one awkward conversation doesn't make you socially clueless.

3. Mental Filtering

Have you ever gotten a bunch of compliments and one tiny criticism, but all you can think about is the criticism? That's called mental filtering. You're filtering out all the good stuff and focusing only on the bad.

Psychologist Aaron T. Beck also talked about this when he developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He found that people who are feeling down or anxious often focus only on the negatives, ignoring the positives.

Mental filtering can make you feel like you're always falling short, even when you're doing pretty well. To combat this, try writing down all the good things that happen or the compliments you receive. When you see it in black and white, it's harder to ignore the positive.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

This is a sneaky one. You get a compliment or achieve something, but instead of feeling happy, you think, "That doesn't count because anyone could have done it." You're disqualifying the positive things in your life.

Research on self-esteem points to how damaging this can be. If you're always discounting the good things you do or the compliments you get, your self-esteem takes a hit.

To fight this, try to accept compliments graciously and give yourself credit where it's due. Remember, everyone's journey is different; what may seem easy for one person could be a significant achievement for another.

5. Jumping to Conclusions

This involves making negative predictions about the future or assuming you know what someone else is thinking—and that it's bad. For example, you might think, "I'll never get the job" or "She must think I'm so boring."

Daniel Kahneman, who we mentioned before, has shown that humans are not great at predicting the future, especially when emotions are involved.

To counter this, ask yourself, "Do I have any solid evidence for what I'm thinking?" More often than not, you'll find that you're jumping to conclusions without any real reason.

6. Magnification and Minimization

Here, you blow things way out of proportion or shrink them down until they're tiny. You might think that your small mistakes are huge or that your positive qualities don't matter.

David D. Burns, the psychologist who popularized the term "cognitive distortions," talks about this in his books. He says that this thinking style is common in anxiety and depression.

The remedy is to try and see things for what they are, without exaggerating or minimizing. Think about what advice you'd give a friend in the same situation and try to apply it to yourself.

7. Emotional Reasoning

This is when you believe that because you feel a certain way, it must be true. For instance, you might think, "I feel stupid, so I must be stupid."

Aaron T. Beck and other psychologists in the field of CBT have noted that feelings are not facts. Your emotions can be powerful, but they don't always accurately represent what's happening.

To counter emotional reasoning, try to separate your feelings from the facts. Ask yourself, "What evidence do I have that supports or contradicts how I feel?"

8. Should Statements

You have a list of unspoken rules about how you and other people 'should' act. For example, "I should always succeed," or "People should be nice to me."

Albert Ellis, who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, often talked about the tyranny of the 'shoulds.' These statements set you up for disappointment and frustration because you're trying to control things you can't.

To counter this, replace 'should' with 'could' or 'would like to.' This turns demands into preferences, making them easier to navigate emotionally.

9. Labeling and Mislabeling

This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of saying, "I made a mistake," you label yourself: "I'm a loser."

Labeling is destructive because it reduces you or others to a single, negative identity. David D. Burns often addresses this in his work, showing how labeling can lead to lower self-esteem and poor self-image.

To counteract labeling, try to be more specific in your language. Instead of saying "I'm a loser," say "I made a mistake in this specific situation, and I can learn from it."

10. Personalization

Here, you believe you're the cause of external events that you actually have no control over. For example, if a friend is upset, you immediately think it's because of something you did.

Personalization is often discussed in the context of codependent relationships, where one person feels overly responsible for what happens to another. Psychologist and author Melody Beattie has written extensively on codependency and how personalization can be a key symptom.

To counter this, ask yourself, "Do I really have control over this situation?" Most of the time, you'll find that you're not the center of every event.

11. Blaming

people blaming each other

This is when you point the finger at other people or circumstances for your emotions or problems, instead of taking responsibility for your own actions. For instance, you might say, "I'm late because traffic was terrible," instead of admitting you didn't leave early enough.

Psychologists like John M. Grohol, who specializes in understanding human behavior, point out that blaming others can be a defense mechanism to avoid facing your own shortcomings.

To counter this, focus on what you can control and take responsibility for that. It's more empowering and allows for personal growth.

12. Fallacy of Fairness

Here, you feel resentful because you think you know what is 'fair,' but other people won't agree with you. For instance, you might think, "It's not fair that I have to do all the work while they relax."

Psychologists like Martin Seligman, who has explored the psychology of happiness, note that life is not always fair, and believing it should be can lead to unnecessary frustration and disappointment.

To counteract this, remind yourself that everyone has a different idea of what's fair. You can only control your actions and responses, not those of others.

13. Catastrophizing

This is when you expect the worst possible outcome to occur. For example, you might think, "I'll be so embarrassed in my presentation, I'll never be able to show my face at work again."

Psychologist Albert Ellis often discussed how catastrophizing can lead to crippling anxiety or prevent you from taking action.

To counter this, ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?" Often, you'll find that the 'worst' isn't as bad as you thought, and even if it is, it's unlikely to occur.

14. Control Fallacies

This is a two-part unhelpful thinking style. Either you feel that your life is entirely controlled by external forces or you're the puppet master responsible for everyone's happiness and well-being.

Psychologists like Julian Rotter have studied how people can have either an "internal" or "external" locus of control, which can contribute to this fallacy.

To counter this, recognize what you can and can't control. If you find yourself burdened by the weight of the world, take a step back and reassess your actual sphere of influence.

15. Always Being Right

Here, you are continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct. You see being wrong as unthinkable and go to great lengths to demonstrate your rightness.

This form of cognitive distortion can have a severe impact on relationships and was studied by psychologists like Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, authors of "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)."

To counteract this, practice humility and recognize that being wrong is a natural part of being human. It's how we grow and learn.

16. Heaven's Reward Fallacy

Do you ever think, "I've been so good; why aren't things going my way?" This is the Heaven's Reward Fallacy. You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score.

Psychologist Martin Seligman, who has studied learned optimism, notes that while optimism is healthy, believing you're owed something for your goodness can set you up for disappointment.

To counteract this, remind yourself that good deeds are their own reward. It's nice when things go your way, but it's not guaranteed.

17. Fortune Telling

This is when you predict things will turn out badly, even though you have no evidence. For example, you might think, "I know I'm going to mess up this project."

Cognitive therapists like Robert L. Leahy have explored how this style of thinking can sabotage your efforts before you even begin.

To counteract this, use evidence-based reasoning. Ask yourself, "What evidence do I have that supports or contradicts my prediction?"

18. Mind Reading

You assume that you know what people think about you and that they view you negatively. For instance, if someone doesn't greet you, you might think, "They must not like me."

Psychologists like Aaron T. Beck point out that we can't read others' minds. Mind reading can make you feel anxious in social situations and can damage relationships.

To counter this, consider alternative explanations and don't jump to conclusions. Maybe that person didn't greet you because they were preoccupied with their thoughts.

19. The Fallacy of Change

You expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough. For example, you might think, "If I'm nice to them, they'll stop being so irritating."

Psychologists like Harville Hendrix, who has explored relationships in-depth, argue that the only person you can change is yourself.

To counteract this, accept people as they are, or choose to be around those who you naturally gel with. Trying to change others usually backfires.

20. Global Labeling

This is an extreme form of generalizing where you attach an unhealthy label to yourself or others based on a single event. For example, you fail once and think, "I am a failure."

Psychologist Albert Ellis has noted how destructive global labeling can be to your self-concept and how it can lock you into a negative cycle.

Global labeling is similar to a victim mentality, where someone believes they are always the target of negative actions. Victims often resort to global labeling to help support this mentality.

To counter this, be specific in your criticisms and compliments. Understand that one event or action doesn't define a person, including you.

How to Change Unhelpful Thinking Styles

gates of heaven

You've learned about 20 unhelpful thinking styles that can affect how you feel and act. But knowing them isn't enough; you also need to recognize them in real life and take steps to change them. So, let's dive in.

Understanding the Impact

Firstly, understanding the impact of these thinking styles on your life is crucial. Research by psychologists like Albert Bandura, famous for Social Cognitive Theory, shows that how you think plays a big role in how you feel and behave.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • "Do I often feel sad, anxious, or angry?"
  • "Are these feelings connected to the way I think?"

Making this connection helps you take the first step toward change.

Keep a Thought Journal

Aaron T. Beck recommends keeping a 'thought journal' as a practical way to spot unhelpful thinking styles. Every time you feel an intense emotion, jot down:

  • What you were doing at the time
  • What you were thinking
  • How you felt

This will help you see the patterns in your thoughts and their impact on your emotions.

Challenge Your Thoughts

Once you recognize an unhelpful thinking style, challenge it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists like Judith Beck recommend asking yourself:

  • "Is this thought based on facts?"
  • "Is there another way to look at this situation?"

This step can help you reframe your thoughts more positively and realistically.

Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones

Clinical psychologists like Martin Seligman suggest that one way to change unhelpful thoughts is by replacing them with more positive and realistic thoughts. This doesn't mean blindly ignoring problems, but reframing how you approach them.

For example, instead of thinking "I'm terrible at this," you could think, "I'm still learning and can improve."

Seek Professional Help

Sometimes, the support of a trained therapist can make a world of difference. Psychologists like Marsha Linehan, who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), provide evidence-based treatments for helping people change their thought patterns.

If you find that your thinking styles are severely impacting your life, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. Therapists can provide more personalized strategies for change.

Practical Applications and Broader Impact

Understanding unhelpful thinking styles isn't just for improving your mental health; it has broader applications that can affect multiple aspects of your life.


Firstly, understanding how you think can drastically improve your relationships. Psychologist John Gottman, known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis, has pointed out that negative thinking can create a cycle of negativity in relationships. By recognizing and changing unhelpful thinking styles, you can foster more positive interactions with your family, friends, and partners.

Work and Career

Secondly, your professional life can benefit enormously. Psychologists like Amy Wrzesniewski have researched how one's perspective on their work can influence job satisfaction. If you're continually catastrophizing or utilizing "all-or-nothing" thinking at work, you're likely to be less satisfied and productive. Changing these thought patterns can improve not only your satisfaction but also your performance.

Academic Success

Many psychologists, such as Carol S. Dweck, have examined how thought patterns can influence academic achievement. Her work on "fixed vs. growth mindset" shows that how you think about your abilities can directly impact how well you do in school or in learning new skills. By replacing unhelpful thinking styles with more constructive thought patterns, you can actually improve your academic outcomes.

Physical Health

Believe it or not, your thinking styles can also affect your physical health. The field of psychoneuroimmunology has provided evidence that one's mental state can influence physical health. Researchers like Sheldon Cohen have shown that negative thought patterns can lower your immune response, making you more susceptible to illness. Addressing your unhelpful thinking can literally help you become healthier.

Community and Society

Lastly, this isn't just about individual change; it's about societal change as well. Psychologists like Susan T. Fiske have researched how stereotypes and prejudices are forms of unhelpful thinking styles on a broader scale. Recognizing these patterns on a societal level can lead to greater awareness and foster a more inclusive community.


Understanding unhelpful thinking styles is a powerful tool for self-improvement and emotional well-being. It's a subject that has been deeply researched by psychologists like Aaron T. Beck, Albert Ellis, and many others, proving its importance in the realm of mental health.

But remember, knowledge is just the first step. The real journey begins when you start applying this knowledge to everyday life. It won't be easy; changing long-standing thought patterns takes time and effort. Yet, the benefits, as discussed in our section on practical applications and broader impact, are significant and far-reaching.

Tips for Moving Forward

  1. Keep Practicing: Change doesn't happen overnight. The more you practice recognizing and challenging unhelpful thoughts, the easier it becomes.
  2. Seek Support: Whether it's friends, family, or professionals like therapists, don't underestimate the power of a support system.
  3. Stay Informed: The field of psychology is always evolving. New research might offer even more effective strategies for tackling unhelpful thinking styles. Stay curious and keep learning.
  4. Be Kind to Yourself: This might be the most crucial point. Changing thought patterns is hard work, so don't beat yourself up if you slip or struggle.

As psychologist Carl Rogers once said, "The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination." The same applies to understanding and changing your unhelpful thinking styles. Consider this not as a destination but a continuous journey towards a more understanding and compassionate relationship with yourself and others.

By taking proactive steps to recognize and challenge these thought patterns, you're not just improving your own life but potentially contributing to a more aware and empathetic society. That makes the journey worth every step.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). 19+ Unhelpful Thinking Styles (Examples + Tools). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/unhelpful-thinking-styles/.

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