Top Ten Thinking Errors

In addition to the negative or unhelpful thinking described in the 'Challenging Negative Thinking' fact sheet, there are some common thinking errors that most of us make from time to time.

Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that cause you to feel bad, and sometimes to act in self-defeating ways.

Whenever you find yourself feeling upset (e.g. anxious, angry, depressed, resentful, guilty, ashamed, etc) look for any thinking errors that might be contributing to the way you feel.

Challenging Your Thinking Errors

Here are 10 common thinking errors and ways to challenge them.

1. Black-and-White Thinking

When you're thinking in black-and-white, you see everything in terms of being good or bad. Either you're great, or you're a loser; if you don't look like a model you must be ugly; if you do something wrong then you are completely bad. You see everything as either good or bad, with no in-betweens.

THE CHALLENGE: Look for Shades of Grey

It is important to avoid thinking about things in terms of extremes. Most things aren't black-and-white - usually they are somewhere in-between. Just because something isn't completely perfect doesn't mean that it's a complete write-off.

Ask yourself:
• Is it really so bad, or am I seeing things in black-and-white?
• How else can I think about the situation?
• Am I taking an extreme view?

2. Unreal Ideal / Unfair to Compare

Another common thinking error is making unfair comparisons between certain individuals and yourself. When you do this, you compare yourself with people who have a specific advantage in some area. Making unfair comparisons can leave you feeling inadequate and not OK.

THE CHALLENGE: Stop Making Unfair Comparisons

Ask yourself:
• Am I comparing myself with people who have a particular advantage?
• Am I making fair comparisons?

3. Filtering

When you filter you do two things: First you hone in on the negative aspects of your situation and secondly, you ignore or dismiss all the positive aspects.

THE CHALLENGE: Consider the Whole Picture

Ask yourself:
• Am I looking at the negatives, while ignoring the positives?
• Is there a more balanced way to look at this?

4. Personalising - The Self-Blame Game

When you personalise, you feel responsible for anything that goes wrong, even when it's not your fault or responsibility.

THE CHALLENGE: Don't Personalise

It's important to consider that not everything is your fault or your responsibility. Most things have more than one cause.

Ask yourself:
• Am I really to blame? Is this all about me?
• What other explanations might there be for this situation?

5. Mind-Reading

We often think we know what other people are thinking. We assume that others are focused on our faults and weaknesses - but this is often wrong!

THE CHALLENGE: Don't Assume That you Know What Others are Thinking

Ask Yourself:
• What is the evidence? How do I know what other people are thinking?
• Just because I assume something, does that mean I'm right?

6. Catastrophising

When you catastrophise, you exaggerate the consequences when things go wrong, and you imagine that things are or will be disastrous.

THE CHALLENGE: Decatastrophise

Ask Yourself:
• What's the worst thing that can happen?
• What's the best thing that can happen?
• What's the most likely to happen?
• Will this matter in five years time?
• Is there anything good about the situation?
• Is there any way to fix the situation?

7. Overgeneralising

When you overgeneralise you exaggerate the frequency of negative things in your life, like mistakes, disapproval and failures. Typically you might think to yourself: 'I always make mistakes' or 'Everyone thinks I'm stupid'.

THE CHALLENGE: Be Specific - Don't Overgeneralise

Ask yourself:
• Am I overgeneralising?
• What are the facts, and what are my interpretations?

8. Fact Versus Feeling/Thinking

Sometimes you might confuse your thought or feelings with reality. You might assume, 'If I think or feel this way then my thoughts/feelings must be correct'.

THE CHALLENGE: Stick to the Facts

Ask yourself:
• Am I confusing my feelings with the facts? Just because I am feeling this way, does that mean my perceptions are correct?
• Am I thinking this way just because I am feeling bad right now?

9. Labelling

When you use labelling you might call yourself (or other people) names. Instead of being specific (e.g. 'That was a silly thing to say') you make negative generalisations about yourself or other people (e.g 'I am ugly', 'I am dumb', 'I'm a loser', I'm boring'; 'She is an idiot'; 'He's a creep').

THE CHALLENGE: Stick to the Facts

Ask yourself:
• What are the facts and what are my interpretations?
• Just because there is something that I'm not happy with, does that mean that I'm totally no good?

10. 'Can't Standitis'

Some people get very intolerant when they have to do things they don't enjoy. They tell themselves that they can't stand certain things instead of just acknowledging that they don't enjoy them. As a result, they very easily become frustrated and angry.

THE CHALLENGE: Accept that frustration is a normal part of life, and that we can't always get what we want

Remind yourself:
• I don't enjoy it, but I can stand it.
• This is a hassle, and that's OK! Life is full of hassles.

The Effect of Challenging Thinking Errors

What is the effect of challenging your thinking errors? Does it make you feel better? Does it encourage you to change some of your behaviour?

Often it is useful to write down the changes that occur after you have challenged your thinking, as this helps you to see the advantages of working on your thoughts, and motivates you to keep doing so. You could also give ROC a go at Reach Out! Central - This gives you a space to gather evidence that helps you to challenge your negative thinking. (

REMEMBER!! Whenever You are Feeling Bad, Try to Become Aware of Your Thoughts. If they are negative or critical, have a go at challenging them. Once you get into the habit of disputing your negative self-talk you'll find it easier to handle difficult situations, and as a result, you'll feel less stressed and more confident and in control.

Write it Down

While you are learning to identify and challenge your negative self-talk it's a good idea to write it all down. Writing down your thoughts and disputing statements in a diary or notebook helps you to develop your skills. Initially it might feel like work, but the more often you do it, the easier it will become, and the better you will feel.

Try it Out

Now that you know a few common thinking errors and how to challenge them, why don't you try it out? It might not be easy at first, and it may take some time. However, the rewards could be huge! People who choose the way they think about things, who are at peace with the past, live in the present, and are optimistic about the future, are generally happier.

Let us know how you go! You can do this by either filling in a feedback form at the bottom of the page, or by joining the discussion in the Community Online Forums in the 'Challenging Thinking Errors' thread here.

See also 10 Cognitive Thinking Errors

Mental Health


This fact sheet comes from:

Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions.
By: Dr Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
Foundation for Life Sciences (2005)