• Walthea Patterson

How to recognise distorted thinking in yourself and others

The way you talk to yourself can have a huge impact on your performance at work and relationships at home. And it’s all too easy to get into patterns of unhelpful self-talk in stressful situations. Recognising that your thinking is distorted is the first step in changing your self-talk. As is often the case it can be easier to identify distorted thinking in other people than in ourselves. But it is usually easier to work on changing ourselves rather than expecting others to change!


The pioneering cognitive psychiatrist, Aaron T. Beck, MD identified 10 types of distorted thinking way back in 1976. His definitions are as relevant and helpful today as they were when he first developed them. Each of these styles of thinking can manifest in negative self-talk which impacts on daily life and therefore workplace wellness. In workplace scenarios these ways of thinking can contribute to poor communication, poor performance, difficulties in coping with setbacks, change and interpersonal relationships. I’ve outlined Beck’s ten types of thinking styles below with some examples of how they might display in the workplace.

  1. “All-or-nothing” thinking. A person who thinks in this way sees things in extremes, black or white, success or failure, with no grey areas. In a workplace setting this can result in perfectionism – both directed at oneself and also at colleagues. Either scenario can be unhelpful and cause tension in teams and put strain on individuals. This kind of thinking results in setting impossibly high standards or feeling devastated by setbacks or criticism.

  2. Overgeneralisation. People who overgeneralise may assume that because something they perceive as bad has happened once that is the way it will always be. For example, if their idea is rejected in a team meeting they might conclude “my ideas never get picked” and decide not to contribute in future meetings. Rather than see a minor setback in terms of a bigger picture they assume that things will always be this way. Words such as always and never can be key to recognising overgeneralising.

  3. Mental Filter. This could be seen as having a “glass is half-empty” view of the world. When someone has a mental filter they focus on the one negative and filter out any positives in a situation. It’s not just that the glass is half-empty but that what little liquid is there tastes awful! This kind of negative thinking can result in work colleagues dreading the input of Mental Filter thinkers in meetings as they are likely to have a “can’t do” attitude. Rather than thinking about solutions they may be the first to point out potential problems, nitpick or criticise.

  4. Disqualifying the positive. A form of distorted thinking and mental filtering which sees positive or neutral situations negatively. Workplace wins are dismissed as flukes, compliments and praise are discounted and transformed into negatives. A salesperson who reaches their targets might disqualify the positive by concluding that it’s only this month, that the targets weren’t that high to begin with, that they won’t be able to repeat their success again. This kind of thinking can rob the person of enjoying their successes.

  5. Jumping to conclusions. Subdivided into “Mind Reading” and “Fortune Telling,” here the thinker jumps to negative conclusions without any evidence or facts. If they mind read they know what someone is thinking in a meeting, or what someone’s momentary glance means. Fortune Tellers predict negative outcomes to situations – “I’m not going to get a promotion so there’s no point in applying for one.”

  6. Magnification or minimization. Magnification can lead to catastrophising about situations. When something goes wrong with a client meeting or a colleague, the magnifier concludes that they’ll be fired, lose their house and end up living on the street. Minimizers dismiss their strengths and skills as unimportant and insignificant. This can lead them to underestimate their own abilities and remain stuck in more junior roles instead of putting themselves forward for more responsibilities.

  7. Emotional Reasoning. For emotional reasoners feelings are reality – if they are feeling anxious it must mean that something bad is going to happen, if they feel overwhelmed then they assume that their problems are unsolvable. They allow their negative feelings to guide their behaviour without asking if there is any basis in reality for those feelings.

  8. Should statements. This kind of thinker tries to motivate themselves and others by thinking about all of the tasks they should or shouldn’t do. However, instead of acting as an incentive “shoulds” can feel oppressive, leading to apathy and inaction. Should statements can create unrealistic expectations about performance and reality which can be difficult to manage in the workplace. There are better tools and techniques which employees and managers can use if they find they are relying on should statements.

  9. Labelling and Mislabelling. Where an individual interprets one aspect of their own (or another person’s) behaviour as their whole personality. So when they make a mistake they conclude that they’re a failure, or if a colleague has a different opinion they label them as a “horrible person.”

  10. Personalization. The main outcome of personalization is feeling paralysing guilt. It’s a response to feeling that in order to be happy one must be in control of everything that happens. This means that when anything goes wrong the person holds him/herself responsible. This applies even if they really have only limited influence, rather than control, over some aspects of the situation.

Do you recognise any of these dysfunctional thinking patterns in your own behaviour? Or in a friend or colleague? At some stage we all fall prey to distorted thinking, particularly when tired or under stress. Recognising that it is happening is fundamental to change how we respond to it.  With the right strategies you can break the habit of thinking this way, and replace your self-talk with a more helpful inner dialogue. This can make for a healthier, happier workplace, more harmonious teams and happier employees.


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