Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Thinking Errors


Have you ever wondered how two people can think differently about the same thing?  The key to understanding why is looking at the short cuts that our brains use to reach quick conclusions to events that happen to us.  Sometimes these shortcuts can lead us into seeing things in distorted or inaccurate ways – we call these Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Thinking Errors.


What Are Thinking Errors In CBT?

Our minds have to use these mental shortcuts as there is so much information that we have to process moment by moment.  Whilst these help us deal with the many things we face in life, there can be times in which these shortcuts can become what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy calls Thinking Errors (sometimes also called Errors in Thinking or Unhelpful Thinking Styles.)

It’s important to realise that no one style is “right” or “wrong,” but rather, as you look at the list below, try to think about whether the styles of thinking that occur for you are the most helpful ones or whether they are likely to be increasing any kinds of emotional distress you feel.  For example, when people experience depression or a range of anxiety problems, they often use a range of thinking errors.


Black & White Thinking:Black and White Thinking - CBT image

This type of thinking error is where you see things in extremes.  For example as either all good, or all bad.  This type of thinking error is also sometimes called “dichotomous” or “all or nothing” thinking.  Whilst this type of thinking can help you make very quick decisions about things, it carries risks too as it doesn’t allow you to see the ‘middle ground’, or the grey.  This means that if something isn’t quite right, then when we only have a black it means that it can only be seen as ‘all bad’.   People who think in this way often feel very bad about themselves and are very critical about people around them.


Mental Filter:Mental Filter CBT - Image of filter

When a mental filter is being used it means that we only see certain aspects of a situation and aren’t aware of other parts.  For example having a negative mental filter means that when something happens we are very aware of the negative aspects but have much less awareness of any positive parts that might also be there.  An example of this might be when you are cooking a meal and don’t notice that you have received any compliments on the meal, but are instead overly aware that one course didn’t quite turn out as you had hoped it would.


Future (Crystal Ball) Gazing:Crystal Gazing CBT - Crystal ball

In this type of thinking error we assume that events in the future will turn out exactly as we predict them to.  Whilst it is often the case that our guesses can have some truth to them, this type of thinking can be unhelpful as any nuggets of truth about the future are usually not taken as possibilities or predictions, but whole truths.  This error in thinking can lead us to avoiding doing certain things through fear or other strong emotions.  Which then leads our brain to assuming that our prediction must have been correct.


Mind Reading:Mind reading in CBT- Image of brain

This type of thinking error is similar in some ways to future gazing, in that it leads us to believing that we know information that we could not possibly know for certain.  This type of thinking error specifically occurs in relation to other people.  One example might be that you are speaking with a friend and have the thought “he finds me boring”.  Whilst this might be the case, often it is our mind using a short cut to make sense of how the situation is going.  We would not know for certain that someone was finding us boring unless we could access their thoughts directly, or unless they specifically told us so.


Emotional Reasoning:Emotional Reasoning CBT - Happy Sad faces

When we use emotional reasoning we place more weight on the accuracy of our beliefs, when they emotionally feel ‘right’.  In this type of thinking error we are making an assumption that our emotions are always accurate descriptors of the facts of a situation.  For example, if you are talking to friends and have the thought that “they think I look anxious”, you are likely to believe this thought if the emotion you are feeling is also anxiety.  It may be the case that although you don’t look anxious at all, you believe that the thought is more accurate because it closely matches your mood state.


Taking Unfair Responsibility:Unfair Responsibility - Picture of me

This is where the thoughts you experience are unfairly personalised to you.  When this thinking error is happening it is likely that you see the negative aspects of an event as being completely due to you or things that you have done.  Whilst this may be the case, when our mind takes unfair responsibility it does not notice other aspects of the event that were either out of your control or that turned out positively due to things that you did too.

What Can I Do About Thinking Errors?

Depending on what books or articles you read you may come across other types of thinking error too.  The important thing to remember is that thinking errors aren’t necessarily a bad thing – the key is to understand if you are using a particular style of thinking frequently, and if it is leading to unhelpful consequences.

A useful skill is to notice how you are feeling emotionally thoughout the day.  If you notice that you are experiencing a particularly intense or unpleasant emotion, write down what has triggered this emotion and what thoughts are going through your mind.  After doing this several times take a look at the thoughts that you have written down and see if they resemble any of the common thinking errors listed above.  Often people will notice that they use particular styles of thinking more than others.

If you do notice that there are themes in your thinking then it is important to recognise they they are not silly or illogical, but that there is a reason your mind is using them.  Often there will be a nugget of truth in the error, but it may be magnified or taken out of an appropriate context for the situation.  If this is the case, see if you can identify how another person might understand the situation?  Then ask yourself, “what is it that would lead the other person to this conclusion?”

By doing this you expand your mind into looking for all of the available evidence in reaching a conclusion about the situation or triggers you face that have an impact on your mood.  Over time your mind will begin to do this naturally, and will not need to reply as much on thinking errors.

Getting Help:

If you are trying the technique above but not noticing the results that you are hoping for then you might find that a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is useful.  A CBT Therapist will help you explore thinking errors that occur for you and why your mind is using them.  They will also be able to explore more specific techniques for you to try.

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