There are eight common patterns of limited thinking that could be contributing to your experience of stress, anxiety and panic. The thoughts we have strongly affect our feelings and therefore our moods, physical health and our general life experience.
Limited thinking is a precursor to the development of limiting beliefs and they cause you to filter life through a lens of misperception. These lenses impact the way you perceive yourself and others, and the way others perceive you.
If limited thinking has become a pattern for you, it’s most likely happening at an unconscious level and so you won’t be aware of it. However, if you read the description of the eight patterns and the examples below, I’m sure you’ll identify with them at a conscious level.
Having negative thoughts about yourself can cause an immediate negative effect on your immune, stress response and digestive system.
Stress due to marriage problems, job loss, death of a loved one or chronic pain, for example, can often lead to negative thinking so it can be a catch 22.
You can completely change limited thinking and therefore your relationship with yourself and others, as well as improve your health & wellbeing, in four key steps:
- Being aware of your patterns of limited thinking
- Observing or catching them when they come up
- Making a conscious choice to stop them in their tracks
- Replacing them with more empowered thoughts
Eight Patterns of Limited Thinking
Recognising and reprogramming the eight main patterns of limited thinking is a key foundation for developing better coping mechanisms to deal with stress, anxiety and panic.
You are filtering if you focus on the negative details while ignoring all the positive aspects of the situation. You take negative events out of context and magnify them. For example, your boss praises you at work and you focus on the one thing they said could have been better.
We often filter memories too and can forget positive experiences and dwell on memories that leave us feeling angry, anxious or distressed.
Filtering is tunnel vision where you look at only one element of a situation to the exclusion of everything else.
- Depression – people are hypersensitive to loss and blind to gain
- Anxiety – the slightest possibility of danger stands out in a scene that might otherwise be safe and secure
- Chronic anger – looks for evidence of injustice and screens out fairness & equity
2. Polarised Thinking
Things are black or white, good or bad – perceived at the extremes with little room for middle ground. You have to be perfect or you’re a failure. There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity and you insist on either/or choices.
Extreme thoughts lead to extreme emotional reactions, fluctuating from despair to elation to rage etc, which is very tiring and unstable. People with polarised thinking tend to judge themselves poorly and criticise themselves severely for the slightest mistakes.
In this pattern, you make a broad, general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. For example, you interpret one rejection on an online dating site as, ‘Nobody will want to date me.’
You tend to exaggerate the frequency of problems and make ‘absolute’ conclusions, using words like ‘all’, ‘every’, ‘none’, ‘never’, ‘nobody’, ‘everybody.’ It’s as if some strange law limits your happiness, for example: ‘I’ll never be able to trust anyone again’ or ‘I’ll always be sad.’
You interpret one bad experience to mean that whenever you’re in a similar situation you’ll repeat the bad experience. For example, if you felt anxious the last time you travelled overseas, you’ll be a wreck every time you travel and so you avoid it. This pattern can lead to an increasingly restricted life.
With over-generalisation, you also tend to label or judge yourself and others in a stereo-typical or one-dimensional way that doesn’t acknowledge their multi-faceted nature. For example, television is an ‘evil, corrupting influence’ or you’re ‘stupid and can never get this right.’ There may be some truth, but it’s not the whole story.
4. Mind Reading
When you mind read, you assume you know how others are feeling, what motivates them and how they’re thinking: ‘she’s just acting that way because she’s jealous,’ ‘he’s shy and is afraid to ask her out’ or ‘she thinks I’m really immature.’ Mind reading makes one conclusion seem so obviously correct that you assume it’s true, act on it in some inappropriate way and generally get it wrong.
As a mind reader, you also make assumptions about how people are reacting to you: ‘Oh, no, I’m boring them’ or ‘He said he likes my new haircut, but I know he doesn’t really.’ These assumptions might come from gut feelings, vague misgivings or past experiences. You believe them even though they are untested and unable to be proven true.
Mind reading stems from a process called projection. You filter the other person’s behaviour and thoughts based on your fears, life experiences and belief system because you assume that people feel and react to things the same way you do. For example, if you get angry when someone is late, you imagine everyone feels that way.
You ‘what if’ a situation or relationship to the extreme, i.e. you expect or visualise the worst possible outcome against the odds that it will ever happen. For example, a headache suggests you’re developing a brain tumour.
Catastrophic thoughts often start with the words ‘what if.’
- What if the parachute doesn’t open and I die?
- What if they loose my luggage?
- What if I get sick and lose my job?
- What if my son starts taking drugs, then starts selling drugs & goes to jail?
There are no limits to a really fertile catastrophic imagination
When you magnify, you exaggerate the degree or intensity of a problem with a sense of doom and/or irrational pessimism. For example, small mistakes become tragic failures and minor suggestions become scathing criticism. Or an aching hip joint becomes hip replacement surgery and slight obstacles become insurmountable walls.
The additional problem with magnifying thoughts is that you also have a tendency to minimise your abilities to cope with challenges and find solutions.
There are two kinds of personalisation:
- A tendency to feel overly responsible and assume that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. For example:
- A depressed mother blames herself when she sees any sadness in her children.
- A businessman thinks that every time his partner complains of being tired, she means she’s tired of him.
- A woman feels nervous when her date doesn’t look at her.
- A tendency to directly compare yourself to others in an attempt to feel worthy. Constantly testing your value is like being on a roller coaster, as you judge yourself to either be on top or come up short. For example: ‘She knows herself a lot better than I do,’ ‘I can’t work out technology like he can’ or ‘he’s not that bright (and I’m smart),’ or ‘I’m stronger than she is’.
In this pattern, you operate from a list of inflexible rules about how you and other people should act. The rules are ‘right and indisputable.’
This blinkered thinking pattern leads to harsh judgment and little tolerance of yourself and others. People who break the rules anger you, and you feel guilty when you violate the rules.
You feel compelled to be or act a certain way and expect the same of others, but you never ask objectively if it makes sense or serves a legitimate purpose. Some common and unreasonable ‘shoulds’ include:
- I should be the perfect lover, friend, parent, teacher, student or spouse
- He should be able to find a quick solution to every problem
- I should never feel certain emotions, such as anger or jealousy
- They should never make mistakes
- I should be totally self-reliant
- She should never be tired or sick
- I should love my children equally
Can you recognise any of these eight patterns in your thoughts?
I bet you can appreciate how these thought patterns can contribute to increased stress levels and also anxiety and panic.
And of course, once these limited thought patterns are ingrained, they’ll be happening at an unconscious level. These thoughts could then be running on autopilot and therefore running your life, without you even being aware of it!
The 8 patterns of limited thinking discussed have been taken from Chapter 3 of the book by McKay, Davis & Fanning (2007): Thoughts & Feelings – Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life.
I highly recommend this book, which is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
“… This workbook shows readers how they can identify and change the irrational recurring thoughts that can lead to anxiety, anger, depression, and obsessive thinking by replacing these negative thoughts with new, constructive thoughts and behaviors. Readers discover how to distance themselves from unproductive negative thoughts and learn to identify their core values so they can use these values as a road map to emotional stability and life satisfaction. This revised edition includes the latest statistics and research on depression, anxiety and panic, OCD, anger problems, stress and phobias. It also offers new cognitive diffusion and values-based behavioural activation techniques drawn from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).”