McGill

Unhelpful thought patterns

Christine Courbasson, Ph.D., clinical psychologist

Dr. Christine Courbasson, a registered psychologist, is Director of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Dialectic Behavioural Therapy, and Humanistic Therapy Centre in Toronto. Over her career, she developed cognitive behavioural treatments for substance use, eating disorders and social anxiety. Dr. Courbasson also developed residential, day treatment and outpatient services, and she participated in cognitive behavioural interventions for coping with cancer. She has held various positions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, been Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, and Adjunct Faculty at universities and professional schools in North America and Europe. She has given worldwide workshops for professionals, authored numerous scientific articles and book chapters, lectured on many topics, and appeared on television and radio.

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In this section, you will be guided on how to challenge some of your unhelpful thoughts and feelings. But first, you need to learn to “name” the unhelpful thoughts you may be using. When you are feeling stressed at work, ask yourself whether you are falling into an unhelpful thought pattern, also known as cognitive distortions.

List of unhelpful thought patterns

Click each unhelpful thought pattern below to view each unhelpful thought pattern and an example:

All-or-nothing thinking

You see things as opposites (black and white, all or nothing), and cannot perceive the gray or middle ground. You think things are either wonderful or awful, good or bad, perfect or a failure.

Example: On your first week back, you have difficulty with one of your job tasks. You conclude that you’re incapable of ever doing your job again.

Mental filter

You take a single negative event and, interpret all other events in a negative way relating to that single negative event. You tend to overlook other positive or neutral characteristics of the situation which disprove your subsequent negative interpretation of the events.

Example: You take a single negative event and, interpret all other events in a negative way relating to that single negative event. You tend to overlook other positive or neutral characteristics of the situation which disprove your subsequent negative interpretation of the events.

Overgeneralization

You generalize a single negative event to a variety of other situations, even though you have no proof for it.

Example: You start your day with something that does not go well and interpret all the other events as negative. You think, “Oh, today is a bad day” instead of paying attention to those events that are going well that day.

Magnification/Minimization (catastrophizing)

This is the binocular trick. You perceive things bigger or smaller than they truly are. For example, you over- or underestimate the importance of whatever you are looking at including work tasks, skills, abilities and accomplishments.

Example: Someone gives you a compliment about a task you did. You minimize the task by saying “It was nothing,” when in fact the task required specific knowledge, time and effort to accomplish.

Jumping to conclusions

Mind reading: You assume that you know the reasons for the actions of others and their thoughts without checking.

Fortune telling: You assume that you know how things will turn out or what other people will do in the future.

Example: You assume you know the reason work colleagues did not call when you were off on sick leave. When you go back to work on a graduated basis, you assume your co-workers think you’re lazy.
“I will not be successful when I go back to work.”
“Everyone at work will feel sorry for me because I had cancer.”

Perfectionism

You think that something is only good enough if it is perfect. And because you can’t make it perfect, you’re never satisfied and can never take pride in anything.

Example: You expect to go back to work and do everything perfectly even though that is not humanly possible.

Shoulds

You know how the world should be, and it isn’t like that. You know what you should be like, and you aren’t. The outcome is that you are constantly disappointed and angry with yourself and with everyone around you.

Example: You work as a dental hygienist and feel you should be totally recovered and able to work at 150% before you should be able to see any patients.

Labelling

You talk to yourself in a harsh way, calling yourself names like “useless,” “incompetent,” “loser” or “lazy.” You talk to yourself in ways you would never talk to anyone else.

Example: You tell yourself that you’re a “loser,” “total failure,” “stupid” because you are unable to immediately resume full work demands when you return to work.

Over-personalization

You assume personal responsibility for something for which you are not responsible.

Your supervisor is in a bad mood. You assume that it is your fault and do not investigate into the other possible reasons and do not check with your supervisor about it.

Learn to replace unhelpful thought patterns with more helpful self-talk

Here are some examples:1

  • I know the job and have succeeded with this before.
  • I need to take one step at a time.
  • It is easier once I get started.
  • I have coped with worse.
  • Focus on the task now, not what will happen tomorrow.
  • Every day I can do more.
  • I know my work. I am still capable of doing my job.
  • My boss knows I will not be able to work as hard. I am capable, and my company will gain in the long run.
  • I may have challenges in some areas, but I will be giving back down the road. This is temporary.
  • This is expected. I am right on track.
  • Things usually tend to go better than I expect they will.
  • I can ask for help.

Next:

Try the Unhelpful Thought Patterns Tool to explore your own unhelpful thinking and discover how you can overcome it.

Unhelpful Thought Patterns Tool