Healthy Mind

5 Unproductive Thought Patterns With the Power To Hijack Your Brain

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images / Lumina Images
No matter what we're doing—answering emails, unloading the dishwasher, scrolling through social media—there's a near-constant stream of thoughts in the back of our minds. Sometimes, these thoughts are like the low hum of a refrigerator; quiet background noise you almost don't notice. Other times, unproductive thought patterns completely take over, making it difficult to focus on anything else, according to human behavior professor and executive coach Melody Wilding, LMSW.

Background thoughts can serve as a driving force to push us forward or they can cause downward spiral into a state of defeat, says Wilding.

Overthinking happens. It just does. It's near impossible to banish unproductive thought patterns from your mind for good. In her new book, Trust Yourself ($21), Wilding pinpoints 10 types of negative self-talk and ways people overthink—and how to stop them in their tracks. Highlighted here are five of the most common.

The most common unproductive thought patterns

1. All-or-nothing thinking

Wilding says all-or-nothing thinking is an unproductive thought pattern many of her clients struggling with. "This is when you see a situation in absolutes without room for a middle ground," she says. One example of this she says is, "if I don't get this right, I'm a complete failure."

Wilding says it can also look like assuming you have to go all-in on something in order for it to be a part of your life. For example, maybe you have a personal goal of sharing your homemade healthy recipes with the world. But instead of just posting them on social media or starting a website, all-or-nothing thinking manifests as believing you have to become a certified health coach or attain chef certifications before sharing your recipes with the world.

Here's Wilding's advice for both scenarios: look for the middle ground. "Situations are more nuanced than people realize; you don't have to go to the extreme to see something through," she says.

2. Overgeneralizing

Overgeneralizing is similar to all-or-nothing thinking in the sense that it's a negative thought pattern that takes a situation to the extreme. Wilding explains that the difference is that all-or-nothing pertains to one specific situation while overgeneralizing turns it into a pattern. "It's the idea of thinking of, 'I completely screwed up that last presentation, so I'm definitely going to mess up the next one," she says.

Here's the thing about overgeneralizing: this type of thinking is totally untrue. Whenever it surfaces, Wilding says to pause, take a minute, and think about the facts. Hey, maybe you didn't exactly nail that last presentation. Because of that, you likely practiced and overly prepped for the next one, right? The fact is whatever happened in the past doesn't have any bearing on what will happen in the future. "What we tell ourselves is often a very unhelpful story. So change the script," Wilding says.

3. Disqualifying the positive

Wilding says disqualifying the positive is another unproductive thought pattern especially common among people who struggle with self-confidence. "One example of this is having trouble accepting compliments," she says. "For example, if you worked really hard on something and someone acknowledges that, saying you did a great job, but you brush it aside and say it was a team effort instead of simply saying thank you." Another example she gives is doing something well but telling yourself anyone could have done it.

Building self-confidence takes time, but Wilding says something that can help is keeping what she calls a "brag file." "This is a habit of taking time each week or day to reflect on your 'wins,'" she says. "What were your moments of strength?" Wilding specifies that these wins don't necessarily have to be tied to accomplishments (though you can include those as well). "Moments of strength are times when you persevered, such as navigating a difficult conversation or when you pushed yourself to try something outside your comfort zone." She says the purpose of this is that, over time, you start to recognize your capabilities which stops disqualifying the positive patterns from surfacing as often.

4. Emotional reasoning

"Simply put, emotional reasoning is when you feel something and then think it must be true," Wilding says, explaining another unproductive thought pattern. "For example, 'I feel inadequate, so therefore I must be inadequate.' Another example of this is thinking, 'I feel guilty because I set a boundary with someone, so therefore I shouldn't have set that boundary,'" Wilding says. Newsflash: emotions aren't always accurate representations of who you are or what's happening.

Here's how she tells people to stop emotional reasoning when it surfaces: Set a timer—anywhere from 90 seconds to a full 30 minutes. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions that are surfacing: sadness, guilt, anxiety...whatever it is. Then, once the timer dings, move on. "This is a way to compartmentalize it so it doesn't take over your entire day," Wilding says. Ever heard of a worry journal, a place to down your worries? Dealing with emotional reasoning is the same idea.

5. Should statements

Should statements center around the expectations we place on ourselves, Wilding explains. Ever struggle with something and think "I should be better at this by now!" That's a should statement rearing its ugly head. "It's related to competence because competence is about believing you can do something; self-efficacy."

Managing should statements is all about giving yourself grace. Wilding encourages thinking about where the expectations we're placing on ourselves come from. Are they from your boss? Partner? A parent? "Even though you may be walking around with a set of rules and standards you live by, consider who made these rules and if they allow you to live the kind of intentional life you want to live," Wilding writes in her book. Instead of focusing on what you can't do (yet!), focus on what you can do and the progress you're making.

It bears repeating that unproductive thought patterns are bound to creep up. Like little gnats, it's nearly impossible to get rid of them for good. But that doesn't mean they have to take over your mind. You can squash them when they surface. With some practice, they'll come up left often and the exact opposite will take over: positivity.

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