When people struggle with anxiety or a high state of emotion, there are common unhealthy patterns of thinking that are destructive.

  1. Black-and-white thinking. This is also called all-or-nothing thinking. For example, Alex gets into a fight with his mother-in-law and fumes, “she never listens to a word I’m saying!” There have been plenty of times that his mother-in-law has listened to him but in the moment he is unable to see that. His emotions are flooding him. Why is this a problem? It gets in the way of communication, understanding, and problem-solving. When someone sees things in black-and-white, they limit themselves in seeing alternative solutions. Instead of all-or-nothing, he can be accurate. Alex’s mother-in-law is not listening to him right now. This way it frees him up to remember the times when she does listen.
  2. Predicting the future. Terry got a bad review for work and she thinks, “I’m going to lose my job!” Why is this a problem? First off, it’s often not true. She can’t predict the future. In addition, thinking in a negative way adds to depression, anxiety, and distress. Instead, be realistic. If she is concerned that her bad review might cost her her job, she could speak with her supervisor about the ramifications of the negative review and find ways to remedy it. She could come up with strategies to improve her work. Taking action would reduce her anxiety and distress.
  3. Mindreading. This is especially destructive in close relationships. Martha and Andrea have friends coming over for dinner. Martha cleaned the upstairs and thought that Andrea would know to clean the downstairs. Andrea doesn’t do it and Martha is angry and thinks, “of course Andrea should have known this. We always split up chores when company is coming.” Martha believes that Andrea should have known what she was thinking. What’s the problem with this? Andrea is going to be upset because Martha is mad at her for something that was not her responsibility. It may have been crystal clear in Martha’s mind that Andrea would know what to do, but it wasn’t. What could have been done differently? Martha shouldn’t have assumed anything. If she wanted Andrea to clean the downstairs, she just needed to ask.
  4. Ignoring the good. It’s easy to focus on the negative. That’s what sticks out in people’s minds. John and Abby went to a movie together and had a great time. At the end of the night, they argued about how much to pay the sitter. With the kids in bed, Abby yells at John for ruining a good date night by fighting with her about paying the sitter. They go to bed angry. Why is this a problem? John and Abby allowed one small part of their date night to contaminate what was really a great time out. The movie was fun. They had a nice conversation at their favorite restaurant. The positives are ignored and the memory of that night is considered by both a failure because of the argument. Instead, they could have talked about what was good about the night and the fun they had.
  5. Labeling, generalizing, or name-calling. This is the idea that a person is what they do or think. A few common things that people call themselves or others are ‘loser,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘lazy,’ or ‘failure’. Jane didn’t pass her math test so she calls herself a failure. Tracy didn’t do the laundry so her mom calls her a lazy slob. Why is this a problem? For one thing, it’s not accurate. Jane failed a test. This doesn’t define her as a loser. Tracy left her clothes all over the floor. She may be sloppy but she’s not a slob or lazy. Labeling hurts people’s feelings and their self-esteem. Someone who is called a failure may decide that since that’s what people think she is, she may as well not try. Instead of labeling, generalizing or name-calling, well, just don’t do it! There is no need to. Calling Jane a lazy slob isn’t just false, it also is mean. As the saying goes, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Unhealthy ways of thinking can be more than unhealthy. They can be destructive and harmful if used against someone or oneself. How we think matters, and making the change from unhealthy ways of thinking to constructive ones makes a difference in how to interact with others and how to see oneself.