Unhelpful thinking styles are a part of everyone’s thoughts. The technical term for them is Cognitive Distortions, which might also give you a clue as to what they do. Put simply, they distort our thoughts. They’re unhelpful self-statements and judgements.
The way that I like to describe them is like wearing a pair of glasses. You put on your ‘unhelpful thinking style glasses’ and hey presto, you are ‘jumping to conclusions’ everywhere you look.
You see things in a different way – a distorted viewpoint, or with a mental filter, which then influences how you perceive and interpret situations. This can then lead to an unhelpful emotion (feeling upset, or anxious), which can then sometimes cause a huge amount of distress.
Why do we use unhelpful thinking styles?
We all engage in unhelpful thinking styles. It’s just how our brains are designed, and we do it automatically. Every day, our brain must figure out the best decisions to make based upon countless inputs from our senses, our memories and the environment. Little wonder we sometimes take shortcuts that allow us to think and act quickly! It’s easy to see how sometimes, we can make errors in the way we process all the information hitting us.
The kinds of errors we make are based upon our life experiences. Bad experiences can lead us to create patterns of understanding designed to protect us. For example, if you were criticised a lot by one of your parents, you may become extra sensitive to signs of criticism from others. You may quickly assume people are being critical because of a certain tone of voice or look in their eyes, when they may not be critical at all. In this situation, you can see how learning to anticipate criticism is a shortcut made to protect us from getting hurt or upset.
Jumping to conclusions.
Jumping to conclusions is one kind of unhelpful thinking style. It’s when you form a conclusion, without there necessarily being enough evidence to support it. Sometimes you get it right, but often you don’t. If this becomes your default thinking style, life can become quite distressing.
There are two different ways that you can jump to conclusions. One is by ‘mind reading’, and one is through ‘predictive thinking’.
– Mind reading
Mind reading is jumping to a conclusion in the PRESENT and assuming that we know what other people are thinking. This is based on the situation we are in, or the people around us, at the time.
For example, you’re at work and you have to give a presentation. You stand up in front of your team and think, “Oh no! Everyone is thinking that I don’t know what I’m talking about!”. Based on your interpretation of other people’s facial expressions and behaviour, as well as your own feelings of anxiety, you automatically assume that you know what’s going on in other people’s minds.
Or you’re talking to somebody and they look at their watch during the conversation. Your automatic thought is, “They think I’m boring. They want to get away from me”. Right? I’m pretty sure we’ve all done that at one time or another.
Mind reading in eating disorders could be body or food related. You walk into a party and immediately start thinking, “Everyone in here thinks I look really fat in what I’m wearing”, or when you eat in public, you think, “If I eat this cake, everyone’s going to think I’m a greedy pig”.
– Predictive thinking or fortune telling
Predictive thinking is when we make a prediction about what’s going to happen in the FUTURE. It’s a common cause of stress and anxiety.
Often the predictions overestimate the level of negative emotion we think we will experience or catastrophise the outcome of events (catastrophising is another unhelpful thinking style that often goes along with fortune telling).
Going back to our previous example at work giving a presentation, you might start to think, “I’m going to get in there and stumble over my words, screw up the presentation, and it will be terrible”.
Or leading up to an exam – “I’m going to get into the exam and forget everything that I know. My mind’s going to go blank and I won’t be able to do the exam. I’m going to end up failing”.
A common one is “I’m going to go to a party, and no one will want to talk to me. Everybody’s going to be looking at me and laughing”.
Or before a date, you start to think, “They’re never going to like me anyway, so I might as well not bother turning up”.
With an eating disorder, it could be around going out for dinner – “I’m going to go out to ‘XYZ event’ and everyone’s going to be watching me. They’re going to be thinking that I’m such a pig for eating. I’m going to feel so uncomfortable, because I’ll have eaten a meal and it’s going to be unbearable”.
Jumping to conclusion thoughts are usually a reflection of how we think and feel about ourselves versus a reflection of external reality. If we hold the thought or core belief that, “I’m not good enough”, or, “I’m boring”, or “I’m unlovable”, then we will be looking for information in the environment to support that idea. We become hypersensitive to anything that might support this negative core belief about ourselves. We then jump to conclusions based upon those negative beliefs because we assume that if we think that we are no good, then other people will also think that.
How can you challenge unhelpful thinking styles?
When I have clients who are experiencing these unhelpful thinking styles, the first step is to get familiar with the different unhelpful thinking styles in this list to identify which ones you might be using.
• Can you think of a situation where you’ve used these thinking styles?
• What were the thoughts that went through your mind?
• What feelings did you experience as a consequence to your thinking?
Later, when you notice an unhelpful thought, or unpleasant emotion, take a moment to check in with yourself and note those thoughts going through your mind. See if you can identify which unhelpful thinking style(s) you are using. It is useful to learn to identify these styles so you can start to catch yourself doing it and slowly adopt alternative and more helpful ways of thinking.
So perhaps next time you notice you are putting on your ‘jumping to conclusion glasses’, challenge yourself to think, “What would happen if I take these glasses off and see things from a different perspective?”.
You never know… it might just dispel that anxiety and help you see that things aren’t quite as bad as you thought!