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10 Unhelpful Thinking Patterns: How To Manage Negative Emotions

We can all get into funks where our emotions get the best of us. Maybe this is something you have noticed sporadically, or maybe it is a continual struggle. Regardless of your experience, our thoughts can have a lot of power over us, particularly how we feel and respond to different situations. Our thoughts drastically impact our emotions, which then impacts how we behave. If we start to become more aware of our thoughts, we can often recognize patterns that lead to our negative emotions, increased stress, or even depression and anxiety. Our brains sure can come up with some pretty silly thoughts sometimes that send us down the wrong path!


Below I have outlined the 10 most common sneaky traps our brains can come up with and how we can easily fall into these patterns on a regular basis. Going through each one of these, in a relatable way, will hopefully help you to recognize which ones show up in your mind when you find yourself going down that rabbit trail of unhelpful thoughts, leading to negative emotions. Catching yourself in the moment, in real time, will help you retrain your brain to respond to situations in a more balanced way, as a coping tool to help manage negative emotions.


10 Unhelpful Thinking Patterns



All or Nothing Thinking

This is often known as "black and white" thinking. Typically, this type of unhelpful thought pattern is only recognizing the extreme end of the spectrum, and not able to see in the middle, or the "gray" area. It's unbalanced. If it is not perfect, it's a failure. It has to be all good, or all bad. Either the worst case scenario, or the best case scenario.


Example: "I need to be either a full-time stay at home mom or a full-time employee, I couldn't do both or a combination of part-time employment. It's impossible."


Overgeneralizing

This thought pattern, the name speaks for itself. Overgeneralizing thinking pattern, typically looks like, well, making a generalization. This can look like taking one experience, or a single event, or specific characteristic in one person/situation, and applying it to everything, turning it into a never-ending pattern. It often involves sentences that draw big broad conclusions, using words like, "always" or "never". It can sound like, nothing ever good happens; you always say hurtful things; this is never going to work out for me.


Example: "We've been trying for a few months, but I'm not getting pregnant. I'm never going to get pregnant. Bad things always happen to me. I must have infertility challenges like my friend who couldn't get pregnant."


Mental Filter

If we think about how we see the world and ourselves by looking through a specific lens that is created by our experiences, we all see things differently. No two people are alike, nor are all their life experiences. Using that idea, the mental filter thinking pattern adds another layer of filtering to that lens. It sifts through situations, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, picking up on only certain pieces of evidence, while the rest falls through the holes of the filter. Only noticing failure, and not seeing successes. Being blind to seeing personal strengths and only acknowledging weaknesses.


Example: "This one mom looked like she was judging me at the mom & me workout class today, giving me a weird look when I tried to calm my baby down from crying. I don't fit in with any of the moms here."


Disqualifying the Positive

Now this one is somewhat similar to the mental filter pattern of unhelpful thinking. Although, instead of this imaginary filter that automatically sifts through the "evidence" only to hold on to specific negative aspects, while everything else disappears, disqualifying the positive involves more awareness. This type of unhelpful thinking pattern actually acknowledges the positives, but throws them in the trash, as if they do not count. Not giving yourself credit for hard work or a good thing you did. Finding an excuse or reason to discredit yourself, the good things that have happened, or something positive you have done.


Example: "I know deep down I'm not good at this mom thing at all, even though everything went well today. It's probably just beginner's luck that my baby didn't have a meltdown the first time I took her out of the house alone."


Fortune Telling

Are you future-oriented? Often thinking about the future, feeling like you know exactly how it is going to turn out, and that it is inevitably going to end up badly? That is negative fortune telling, also known as jumping to conclusions, or mind reading. As much as many of us wish, we cannot truly always know what others are thinking or predict the future.


Example: "I just know at the next doctor's appointment they are going to tell me something is wrong with my baby and that there is no longer a heartbeat."


Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing can also be described as "magnifying" or "minimalizing", making something seem bigger than it truly is or shrinking it to seem smaller. It more commonly leans towards magnification when anxiety creeps in, blowing things out of proportion or automatically thinking the worst case scenario. Minimization shows up often in avoidance and can look like ignoring something or irrationally making it seem less important.


Example: "I made one mistake and now my boss wants to meet with me. She is going to fire me and I'm going to be unemployed and my family will all end up homeless."


Emotional Reasoning

Emotional Reasoning is an unhelpful thinking pattern that is very "feelings driven." It takes a look at emotions that show up and uses those emotions to rationalize thoughts. This often leads to assuming certain thoughts to be true based on how we feel, when in reality, the way we think actually effects our feelings, not the other way around.


Example: "I feel discouraged, therefore I am an unproductive, lazy, bad mom. I don't deserve any time to myself this weekend."


Using "Should" or "Must" Statements

Including these very critical words, "should" and "must" to statements, can shift the focus of what is actually occurring, leading to unintentional guilt or feeling like a failure. This unhelpful thinking pattern can also be used on others as well, often leading to unrealistic expectations from others, leading to frustrations and disappointment.


Example: "My mother-in-law didn't call this weekend. She should want to spend time with her grandchild and come visit us more often."


Labeling

Another unhelpful thinking pattern where the name does most of the explaining. Labeling is when you place labels on either yourself or others. This one can seem similar to overgeneralizing in the sense that you use one single event or situation, to make a broad generalization or "label" about yourself or someone else. It can also show up with low self-esteem, self-consciousness, and depression.


Example: "I lost my cool and yelled at my toddler today. I'm worthless. I'm a bad mom. I'm a failure."


Personalization

Sometimes this one is also called, "blaming oneself." The thought pattern looks like taking blame or responsibility for something that wasn't necessarily all your fault. It can also look like feeling guilty or upset about a situation that was outside of your control. This one can be recognized by looking at negative situations, do you tend to quickly blame yourself for the negative thing that happened? Do you quickly blame someone else when it is your fault? Personalization can also look like blaming others when you know it actually is your fault.


Examples: "Do only bad things happen to me?" "Am I to blame for everything that turns out badly? "This is all my fault..."


"I always knew I had high standards for myself and others which often lead to my feeling stress and overwhelmed. I never knew that my thoughts could be changed or categorized. Once I learned about the “All or Nothing Thinking” and “Using "Should" or "Must" Statements” thinking patterns, I realized that I was putting myself in this position. Now, I can change my thought patterns and help to be kinder to myself."

3 Steps To Managing Emotions

  1. Identify the most common patterns in your own thinking habits from the list above.

  2. Begin to talk back to those harmful thoughts and try to reframe them into more realistic or helpful thoughts. (this is not always easy, and can often be supported through a licensed mental health professional)

  3. Remember, thoughts drastically impact our emotions, so as thoughts begin to shift, so will emotions. When our emotions become less intense, they will then be easier to manage.

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