Our brain generates thousands of thoughts each day. Some thoughts are really useful, absolute gold, while others are unhelpful and best left to one side. If you can see these thoughts for what they are—thoughts—then it can allow you to get some distance from troubling thoughts, and to spend more time with thoughts that are the most useful and supportive of your life. 

Every now and again we can all get into unhelpful patterns of thinking. When someone has experienced significant trauma, or had a series of setbacks, unhelpful patterns of thinking can become 'locked in', almost as an automatic response in unfamiliar or challenging situations.

Listed below are some unhelpful patterns of thinking to watch out for, plus ways to disengage and get you back on track. By naming these thought patterns for what they are, you can step back from them and make a decision whether to put more energy into them—or not. 

Stewing or ruminating

Stewing or ruminating is where you find yourself running things repetitively over and over in your mind, like a tape loop, without any fresh input or action being taken. Typically, stewing or ruminating leads to problems growing in size and appearing even more difficult to deal with.

Catastrophising and over generalising

Catastrophising and over-generalising is where you take a single event, or limited piece of information, and see it as a global pattern (usually a negative one). If you hear yourself using words like 'always' or 'never', these are hints that you might be catastrophising or over generalising (e.g. 'I'm always stuffing things up', 'I never get a fair go').

All or nothing thinking

All or nothing thinking, or black or white thinking, is where things are either all good OR all bad. It’s either one extreme or the other; there are no grey areas.

Shoulding or musting

Shoulding and musting is where you focus on how you perceive things 'should' or 'must' be, rather than how it is. Shoulding and musting can pressure you to do things one particular way or the 'right way'. These might be pressures regarding yourself, or regarding other people in your life.

Totalising or labelling

Totalising thinking takes a single mistake, problem, or shortcoming, and gets you to see yourself—your identity—entirely through that lens. (e.g. 'I spilled my drink, I’m such a loser'). Common labels include 'loser', 'idiot', etc. Sometimes this pattern of thinking has you labelling others.  

Mind reading

This is when you 'know' what someone else is thinking, even though you have no idea what they are thinking. It often takes the form of an assumption that another person is making a negative judgement about you. 

Discounting the positive

You reject positive experiences by insisting that they 'don't count'. For example, if you have a positive interaction with someone, you write it off as a one-off, or attribute it solely to the other person’s actions and not seeing your own part. Discounting the positives takes the joy out of life, and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.


When you predict that something will turn out badly, or you will stuff things up, without there being any evidence. Forecasting can get in the way of taking action to make things better.


Funnelling is when you interpret every difficulty as a result of the abuse you experienced. For example, if you feel stressed about something at work, funnelling puts this down to some personal failure resulting from the abuse, rather than identifying that there might actually be things that would cause most people to feel stressed. 

Emotional reasoning

You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are. 'I feel guilty—I must be a rotten person.' Or, 'I feel angry—this proves that I’m being treated unfairly.' Or, 'I feel so inferior—this means I’m a second rate person.' Or, 'I feel hopeless—things must really be hopeless.'

Mis-attribution of blame and responsibility

Over-attribution of responsibility is when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn't entirely under your control. Personalisation leads to guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy. Men who have been sexually abused often struggle with feeling responsible for things they are not.

Some people do the opposite. They blame other people or their circumstances for their problems, and they overlook ways they might be contributing to the problem. Blaming others often goes hand in hand with feeling powerless.


Previous section: Responses to anger   Foundations Manual home page   Next section: Apply some problem solving skills 


Last modified: Sunday, 29 July 2018, 11:28 AM