Thinking Mistakes

Thinking mistakes are common errors in our thinking that lead us to (and keep us in) cycles of low mood and anxiety.

Take some time to read through the following notes. If any of these stand out to you I would encourage you to write down some of the common instances in which they occur.

The more that you can become aware of negative patterns of thinking, the more power you will have to take hold of your thoughts in the moment; and choose a different train of thought! 

Please do not copy and use without permission from Alexis Waterhouse of Freedom Counselling.


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Mind Reading!

Mind readers make assumptions about what others are thinking and how they are feeling. They also assume they know what motivates those feelings. The assumptions that a mind reader makes are usually idiosyncratic and negative. This means that they assume that the person is thinking bad thoughts about them!

  • E.g.: "He was really grumpy this morning when I said "Hi" so I must have done something to upset him. He obviously doesn't like me!" Re-frame: Maybe he just had a shocker of a morning and was upset at something else! His mood probably has nothing to do with me! If it does, I can talk to him directly and resolve the issue.

Mind readers also make assumptions about how people are reacting to things around them – particularly how others are reacting to themselves.

  • E.g.: She didn't look at me when she came into the room therefore she must not like me. Re-frame: It's possible she was preoccupied and didn't really see me at all. I know we are friends and she likes me.

Mind reading depends on a process called projection. You imagine that people feel the same way you do; and will react in the same way that you will.

  • E.g.: If you get angry because someone is late, you assume that everybody reacts in the same way. Or if I have a belief that I am dumb or useless, I assume others think the same about me and are treating me a certain way because of this. 

Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for themselves without checking whether they are true for the other person.

Mind readers make snap judgments about others.

  • E.g.: He’s just acting that way because he’s jealous.

Mind readers often have no evidence for their assumptions – it just ‘feels or seems’ right.

Make Good Choices – acting on assumptions is dangerous! The ONLY way to find out what another person is thinking is to ask them! 


Catastrophic thoughts often start with “What if?" These "what if's" can start off a chain reaction of negative thinking which keep you trapped in anxiety and trying to control all the negative eventualities you imagine. 

  •  E.g.: “what if they hijack my plane when I go on holiday?”
  • “What if my son starts using drugs?”
  • “What if I get sick and have to go on disability?”

 Catastrophic thoughts focus and dwell on the negative and imagine the worst case scenario.

If you catastrophize, a small leak in the boat means that the boat will surely sink.

If you catastrophize, a simple headache will mean a cancerous tumor is looming.

If you catastrophize it means that because you didn't get that job you wanted you certainly wont get any others!

INSTEAD of catastrophizing, look at the evidence; look at the reality; and think about how much your worry is going to change this situation for the better!? Change your worry into planning. Take small positive steps. You can make goals and achieve them!

Kangaroo Jumping!

A ‘Kangaroo Jumper’ will often take large leaps toward negative conclusions with little or no evidence to support it.

  • E.g.: I’ve got a twinge in my lower back There must be a lump there It’s cancer – definitely! I’m going to die!

  • He hasn’t said hello to me yet He’s ignoring me He must hate me I’m totally unlovable!

These leaps and jumps always end up proving and reinforcing negative beliefs.


Fortune Telling! 

A fortune teller will anticipate that things will turn out badly; and they are convinced that their prediction is an already established fact.

These negative expectations can be self fulfilling! This means that the negative belief actually creates the feared situation.

  • For example: a person has the belief that others won't like them. This causes them anxiety in public situations. Because they are anxious they withdraw from people. They don't make eye contact, and they speak in a quiet voice (and only when spoken to).  Because of their avoidance of social situations they are not confident and become socially awkward. Others begin to avoid them - Not because they don't like them - but because the persons actions (fueled by the negative beliefs) have driven them away. 

More Examples: 

  • They won’t like me so why even try to participate.
  • This relationship is sure to fail. 
  • I’ll never be able to change my drinking!

Mental Filtering:

Mental Filtering is a lot like having tunnel vision. You only look at one element of a situation and all other information is excluded. Each person will have their own personal tunnel that they tend to look through. (Related to their negative core beliefs).

  • E.g.: a person who is anxious will often see danger in a situation whereas a person prone to anger will see evidence of injustice in that same situation.

A person who is mental filtering will often only see the negative in a situation or person. This therefore distorts their perceptions (as a pair of sunglasses will tint the wearer’s view of the world).

They will get stuck in a mental ‘groove’ focusing on things from the environment that typically tend to frighten, sadden or anger them.

They can frequently only ever see a situation from one side. (Usually the negative side!)

  • E.g.: “I’ll never forget the way she let me down that time”

“I can’t stand it when…….”

“He always…..” “She never….”

A person who ‘Filters’ can also have a very selective memory. They may remember only certain kinds of events – or maybe only certain aspects of an event. As a result, your memories can quite often leave you feeling anxious angry and depressed.

To combat filtering, stop using words like ‘terrible, awful, disgusting, horrendous etc.’ Especially banish the phrase “I can’t stand it.” Instead say “No need to magnify and I can cope just as I have done in the past.”

Black and White Thinking

A black and white thinker will tend to see everything in the extremes – with very little room for middle ground. Things are going to be good or bad – wonderful or terrible! If I can’t love him – I must hate him!

Black and white thinkers also tend to Over Generalize. They expect that because something has gone wrong in one situation, it will also do so in others.

  • E.g.: “I relapsed after I stopped 5yrs ago so I've failed and I’ll never be able to stop……..” “I failed maths at school so I’ll never be able to get a decent job. I’m just stupid!”

Black and white thinkers tend to swing from one emotional extreme to another – from ecstasy to catastrophe! They find it hard to regulate their emotions because they can’t see the ‘grey areas’ in life.

The greatest danger in this kind of thinking is that it impacts on how you view yourself. If I can’t be excellent – I must be a failure. There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity.

  • E.g.: “If I can’t be the best it’s pointless trying at all!”

  • “If I don’t succeed in this job I’m a total failure.”

  • “If I couldn't kick drugs this time it’s never going to happen!”

Try not to make Black and White Judgments! Life and people do not fall into these simple categories. Most things fall somewhere along a continuum. People are just too complex to be only happy or sad / smart or stupid at one time!




Personalization is the tendency to relate everything around you to yourself.

The basic thinking error is that you interpret each experience, conversation; even each look from another as a clue to your personal worth and value.

  • A depressed mother blames herself when she sees any sadness in her children.

  • A woman thinks that every time her husband talks about tiredness it means that he is tired of her.

  • A man whose wife complains of rising costs of petrol and food only hears attacks on his ability as a bread winner.

A major aspect of this kind of thinking is that you tend to continually compare yourself to other people. The underlying assumption is that your personal worth is questionable.

  • E.g.: “He plays rugby so much better than I do…..I’m the slowest person in the office…….I’m so smart/dumb compared to him…….She knows a lot better than I do….They listen to him but not me!”

  • E.g.: 1) My husband often gets upset when I disappoint him. 2) My husband came home looking upset today. 3) Therefore I must have disappointed him. 4) I am a disappointment.

If you tend to personalize, make yourself PROVE what your assumptions are about. Ask and Clarify! Make no conclusions until you are satisfied that you have actual reasonable proof. Comparisons can be exciting – sort of like gambling. Sometimes we win and look better than another; but often we lose and out self esteem takes another blow. Your self worth doesn't depend on being better than others! Don’t gamble!

The Terrible Should

Should’s are inflexible rules that dictate how you and others need to act.

Regardless of reality, ‘shoulds’ are always right and indisputable. If you don’t obey a ‘should’ it means that you have deviated from your standard of values and that is BAD!

Using ‘Shoulds’, ‘Musts’ and ‘Ought’s’ in your vocabulary leads to guilt and sets you up for disappointment. For example:

  • "If I don't do.......................then ........................ will happen!"
  • “I must not get angry.”
  • “He should always be on time.”
  • “I should always have an immaculate house."
  • “If I say no to him / her I’ll be a bad person."
  • “I should be happy all the time.”
  • “Life shouldn't be so hard.”
  • “A good person should always do what’s right”
  • “A successful person should always be happy.”

 Whenever you hear yourself say a ‘Should / must or ought’ ask: “Why should I?” "Am I putting unreasonable demands on myself or others?"

Give yourself a break and the permission to be less than perfect………the permission to be human!


Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is thinking mistake that occurs when a person believes that what he or she is feeling is true - regardless of the evidence. When emotional reasoning takes over, and your emotions get into the driver's seat; you are in for a rough ride!

A good example of this is: An anxious man taking a test might think that he is stupid and that he won’t understand the material. He might feel as though he doesn't understand at all; but in fact is perfectly capable of answering the questions, and is merely insecure about it. By acting on the basis of his feelings of insecurity, he might assume he does not know the answers and guess randomly. Thus he creates a self fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Emotional Reasoning may potentially worsen the affect of all the other thinking mistakes. For example: If you are a catastrophizer as well as an emotional reasoner – you are going to have very strong emotions which make you feel that your dire predictions will come true.

Remember! Many of your negative emotions are linked to negative core beliefs. These beliefs are very deep and entrenched and are not shifted easily. Acting on our negative emotions reinforces those negative beliefs. Instead, ask yourself: “Is what I am feeling true?” "Could these feelings be linked to negative beliefs I have about myself?” “Am I reinforcing lies about myself by following these feelings?”

You have a mind so you could think with your head; and you have a heart so you can enjoy the emotions caused by the positive thoughts that you put into your mind.  Don't get it backward, because it doesn't work well! Emotions are meant to add enjoyment and flavor to life, they are not meant to be in control.