Healthy Thinking Skills

Research shows that how or what we think directly affects our moods and how we feel.  Contrary to popular belief, events or situations do not determine your mood.   Instead, how you think about the event or situation typically determines mood.    Two people can face the same circumstances or event and have very different reactions to the event.  That’s because the event is interpreted in the mind – so how you think about something affects how you feel about something. This relationship between thinking and feeling has been acknowledged in both ancient and modern times.


Men are not worried by things, but by their ideas about things. When we meet difficulties, become anxious or troubled, let us not blame others, but rather ourselves, that is: our idea about things.

-Epictetus, about 60 AD


It is very obvious that we are not influenced by "facts" but by our interpretation of the facts.

-Alfred Adler


If thinking affects our feelings, we can change how we feel by changing how we think.  Thinking is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened. Because thinking is so automatic, it seems fixed.  But oftentimes our thinking is inaccurate or irrational.  Inaccurate or irrational thinking is a major cause of negative moods such as sadness, anger, anxiety and guilt.


Change your negative thinking to positive thinking and thereby change your negative moods to positive moods.


1. Be precise in your thinking.  Instead of “I always mess this duty up” think “I didn’t get it right this time”.  

2. Avoid words that are imperatives – Always, Never, Should, Must (“Everyone should like me all of the time” or “I must be perfect on the job and at home”)

3. React to what is real not imagined. React to the situation at hand, not the worst situation that you can conjure up in your mind.

4. Instead of guessing or mind reading about what others think about you or need from you- Ask. Check it out.

5. Consider the whole.  Instead of focusing on a single negative detail about yourself or others try to balance your view with the positive. A balanced perspective will likely be more realistic and keep your mood balanced too. (Filtering)

6. Just because you feel something, doesn’t make it true.  If you feel stupid, it doesn’t follow that you are stupid.  If you feel guilty, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. Feelings come from thoughts and if your thoughts are inaccurate or misguided your feelings may be too. (emotional reasoning)

7. Fairness is relative not absolute.  What you think is fair is guided by you, your needs, wants, responsibilities, etc.  Other people’s standard of fairness is guided by their needs, wants, responsibilities and the two often do not agree.  Expecting people to agree with you will build resentment and impair relationships. (Fairness fallacy)

8. It’s not always about you.  Thinking that things that happen around you are related to you can create unhealthy thinking and moods.  Looking for your self worth in comparison to others is empty exercise that will leave you thinking and feeling that you don’t measure up.  Let your own values and experiences be your yardstick.


Don’t get stuck.  You are constantly making decisions, taking action, thinking thoughts that can change your perspective and your life. The fifteen styles of distorted thinking listed below demonstrate the multiple ways that our thinking can lead to negative moods.  


Suggested exercise:


Rank the styles that apply to you and the next time that you experience a negative mood check and see if this distorted thinking pattern is in play.


1. Filtering:  You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering  out all positive aspects of a situation.  A single detail may be picked out, and the whole event becomes colored by this detail.  When you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences around you, you make them larger and more awful than they really are.

2. Polarized Thinking:  The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices.  Things are black or white, good or bad.  You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground.  The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how you judge yourself.  For example—You have to be perfect or you're a failure.

3. Overgeneralization:  You come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence.  If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again.  'Always' and 'never' are cues that this style of thinking is being utilized.  This distortion can lead to a restricted life, as you avoid future failures based on the single incident or event.

4. Mind Reading:  Without their saying so, you know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do.  In particular, you are able to divine how people are feeling toward you.  Mind reading depends on a process called projection.  You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way you do.  Therefore, you don't watch or listen carefully enough to notice that they are actually different.  Mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them, without checking whether they are true for the other person.

5. Catastrophizing:  You expect disaster.  You notice or hear about a problem and start "what if's."  What if that happens to me?  What if tragedy strikes?  There are no limits to a really fertile catastrophic imagination.  An underlying catalyst for this style of thinking is that you do not trust in yourself and your capacity to adapt to change.

6. Personalization:  This is the tendency to relate everything around you to yourself.   For example, thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you.  You also compare yourself to others, trying to determine who's smarter, better looking, etc.  The underlying assumption is that your worth is in question.  You are therefore continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others.   If you come out better, you get a moment's relief.  If you come up short, you feel diminished.  The basic thinking error is that you interpret each experience, each conversation, each look as a clue to your worth and value.

7. Control Fallacies:  There are two ways you can distort your sense of power and control.  If you feel externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless, a victim of fate.  The fallacy of internal control has you responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you.  Feeling externally controlled keeps you stuck.  You don't believe you can really affect the basic shape of your life, let alone make any difference in the world.  The truth of the matter is that we are constantly making decisions, and that every decision affects our lives.  On the other hand, the fallacy of internal control leaves you exhausted as you attempt to fill the needs of everyone around you, and feel responsible in doing so (and guilty when you cannot).

8. Fallacy of Fairness:  You feel resentful because you think you know what's fair, but other people won't agree with you.  Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving, that each person gets locked into his or her own point of view.  It is tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued you.  But the other person hardly ever sees it that way, and you end up causing yourself a lot of pain and an ever-growing resentment.

9. Blaming:  You hold other people responsible for your pain, or take the other tack and blame yourself for every problem.  Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are actually our own responsibility.  In blame systems, you deny your right (and responsibility) to assert your needs, say no, or go elsewhere for what you want.

10. Shoulds:  You have a list of ironclad rules about how you and other people should act.  People who break the rules anger you, and you feel guilty if you violate the rules.  The rules are right and indisputable and, as a result, you are often in the position of judging and finding fault (in yourself and in others).  Cue words indicating the presence of this distortion are should, ought, and must.

11. Emotional Reasoning:  You believe that what you feel must be true—automatically.  If you feel stupid or boring, then you must be stupid and boring.  If you feel guilty, then you must have done something wrong.  The problem with emotional reasoning is that our emotions interact and correlate with our thinking process.  Therefore, if you have distorted thoughts and beliefs, your emotions will reflect these distortions.

12. Fallacy of Change:  You expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough.  You need to change people because your hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.  The truth is the only person you can really control or have much hope of changing is yourself.  The underlying assumption of this thinking style is that your happiness depends on the actions of others.  Your happiness actually depends on the thousands of large and small choices you make in your life.

13. Global Labeling:  You generalize one or two qualities (in yourself or others) into a negative global judgment.  Global labeling ignores all contrary evidence, creating a view of the world that can be stereotyped and one-dimensional.  Labeling yourself can have a negative and insidious impact upon your self-esteem; while labeling others can lead to snap-judgments, relationship problems, and prejudice.

14. Being Right:  You feel continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct.  Being wrong is unthinkable and you will go to any length to demonstrate your rightness.  Having to be 'right' often makes you hard of hearing.  You aren't interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending your own.  Being right becomes more important than an honest and caring relationship.

15. Heaven's Reward Fallacy:  You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score.  You fell bitter when the reward doesn't come as expected.  The problem is that while you are always doing the 'right thing,' if your heart really isn't in it, you are physically and emotionally depleting yourself.



*From Thoughts & Feelings by McKay, Davis, & Fanning. New Harbinger, 1981. These styles of thinking  (or cognitive distortions) were gleaned from the work of several authors, including Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and David Burns, among others. 2002005/2006, Eastern Washington University5/2006, Eastern Washington University


Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, M.D. New York, Avon Books

Mind Over Mood, by Christine Padesky and Dennis Greenberger. New York; Guilford Press

Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen. New York: Riverhead Books

Learned Optimism, by Martin E. P. Seligman. New York: Pocket Books

Life on Fire: A Comedy of Terrors, by Evan Handler. New York, Henry Holt & Co.