Identifying and managing our thinking habits
As humans, we all get ourselves into habits and patterns. Sometimes these habits can be helpful to us, like regularly taking our lunchbreak, going for an evening walk, or switching off from our phones in plenty of time before we go to sleep. As well as habits with our behaviours, our mind also forms habits and patterns with our thinking processes. However, our thinking habits are not always helpful to us in that they can distort our explanation of things and skew our attention to focus on negative ideas. This then leaves us feeling worse and in turn impacts on our behaviours and what we do next. Noticing and understanding our thinking habits is the first step in learning how to better manage the mind and our thoughts.
Why do we develop thinking habits?
Thinking habits develop to help us reach an explanation for something quickly. They are the biases in our thoughts and thinking process that operate as a short-cut to reach a conclusion fast. Thinking habits are often automatic and usually happen without our conscious awareness (we don’t choose to rely on these thinking habits, they just show up!). Developing certain thinking styles is a part of the normal human processing of experience – it is something that we all do. The type of thinking habits we each develop differs from person to person, and they are linked to our early experiences and the beliefs and we fears that stem from our life events. Thinking habits are very common, especially if we experience changes to our emotional wellbeing like anxiety, panic, or low mood, and if we struggle with low self-esteem.
What are thinking habits?
There are several different types of thinking habits or styles. Below is a summary of five thinking styles that I have most frequently encountered when working with clients in psychological therapy. There are other thinking habits not included on this list so do check out the resources listed at the end of this article for an explanation of others. Click on the sections below to find out more about these thinking habits.
This is when the mind picks out and focuses on information, ideas, and events that fit with our pre-existing beliefs. When this thinking style is operating, we tend to filter out any information that contradicts negative thoughts and beliefs meaning that we might not recognise and value neutral, positive, realistic or more balanced events, experiences, and ideas. Our attention is biased towards things that seem to “fit” and we discount, dismiss, or ignore other information.
Jumping to conclusions
When the jumping to conclusions thinking habit happens, we reach a conclusion about something very quickly (usually without assessing the situation fully and taking into account a range of evidence and events). This can include assuming that we know what another person might be thinking and making a prediction about something we believe will happen in the future.
This is when we assume the absolute worse-case scenario in a situation. It might be that we exaggerate potential dangers and negative outcomes. It usually involves thinking the worst.
Black and white thinking
When the black and white thinking habit happens, we see things in all or nothing terms and neglect the middle ground (we don’t acknowledge the grey areas between the black and white). This thinking style usually involves thinking in extremes where we interpret something at one extreme or another, and we do not consider the spectrum of possibilities between the extremes.
This is when the mind goes straight to a place of self-criticism, self-blame, and self-doubt. It involves being highly critical of oneself and having an inflated sense of personal responsibility for things (and so not recognising the role of other people, external events, and circumstances). It usually involves putting ourselves down in our minds to reach a negative judgement of the self.
What can I do about these unhelpful thinking habits?
The first step in managing the mind differently is improving our self-awareness – learning to pay close attention to our mental processes and thought patterns and getting to know the workings of our own minds. You might start by noticing when you spot the thinking habits in operation. If you notice a negative thought in the mind or feel a distressing emotion, turn your attention inwards and consider if any of the thinking habits are skewing your perspective on things. It can also be helpful to bring a sense of curiosity to your thinking habits, maybe considering how these thinking styles developed and where they stem from (they are usually a product of our earlier experiences and first came about for understandable reasons although might bring us unintended negative consequences if they continue).
Once you have identified your thinking habits and learned to notice them as they happen, you can then start to ask yourself some questions, maybe “am I missing something?” You can learn ways to detach from the thinking style, pause and take a step back, and choose to pay closer attention to other explanations. You can gently question the negative thought by considering other perspectives, ideas, and ways of thinking about a situation. The way you do this is important – with a sense of self compassion: a sense of kindness, empathy and gentleness so you are not telling yourself off for having these thinking habits to begin with.
Keep an eye on the BAM Therapy blog – some new articles will be coming soon to explain in more detail how we can manage the mind differently by doing what is helpful and not harmful to us.
Thanks for reading! 😊
Williams, C. (2002). Overcoming Depression: the five areas approach. London: Arnold.