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What is unhelpful thinking?  

Unhelpful or problematic thinking styles are cognitive ways that we process and react to different stimuli and situations. These are common ways of thinking for many individuals. Some of these unhelpful thinking styles include “black and white” thinking, overgeneralizing, mental filtering, and catastrophizing or magnification. Black and white thinking is when we view a situation as being one way or another while looking over the nuances (or gray areas) of the situation: “If I’m not perfect at it, I have failed.” Overgeneralizing is viewing a single event as a pattern: “Bad things always happen to me.” Mental filtering is when we only pay attention to “evidence” that fits our narratives: “I only notice my failures but never my successes.” Catastrophizing is when we bow things out of proportion: “I got a low retest grade so I will never amount to anything.” Unhelpful thinking styles are common, but they can lead to damaging self-views, views of others, and anxiety and depression. 

How is unhelpful thinking harmful to me?

Unhelpful thinking are problematic ways of processing various events in our lives. They are the henchmen of anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, and many other issues. There will always be stressful and overwhelming events in our lives, and avoiding these events isn’t entirely feasible. It’s how we respond to these situations that matters. Unhelpful thinking styles are inappropriate ways of processing and understanding a situation, which then impact how we feel about the situation and ourselves. For instance, if we study the night before an exam and still fail, we may catastrophize the situation, feeling like we will never succeed ever. We may also use a mental filter to discount all of the other successes we have had in school. In turn, we begin to feel anxious and/or depressed. This is an imbalanced way of viewing the situation, which creates a cycle that can extrapolate to multiple domains of functioning, and it is difficult to beat without clinical intervention.

How can I challenge unhelpful thinking? 

Unhelpful ways of thinking are imbalanced views of ourselves and various events that can be detrimental without intervention. The way to overcome unhelpful thinking styles is to challenge these distorted beliefs and create more balanced ways of thinking. Your therapist can use different techniques, like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to help you learn to challenge these thoughts. Something you can do on your own are to do the following: 

  1. Identify the thought you had about the situation (e.g., “I am a failure.”).
  2. Identify the feelings you had in response to the thought (e.g., shame, sadness, guilt).
  3. Identify the objective evidence that supports the thought (e.g., “I failed the test”).
  4. Identify the objective evidence that does not support the thought (e.g., “I have good grades and have never failed a test before.”)
  5. Now, develop a more balanced thought (e.g., “This grade doesn’t determine my worth and I can study more next time”). 
  6. Finally, reevaluate the feelings you listed. Do you feel them as strongly? Do you feel new emotions?

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.