Is your thinking full of bad habits?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Is your thinking full of bad habits?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Poor mental health can be the result of bad thinking habits.

People diagnosed with both depression and anxiety disorders often engage in a lot of thinking behaviors that therapists call “unhelpful thoughts.” Sometimes these unhelpful thoughts are called dysfunctional or irrational thoughts. I prefer the term unhelpful thoughts because when you have them you don’t experience them as either illogical or dysfunctional. What may be missing from these discussions is how often those “unhelpful thoughts” are the result of bad thinking habits.

Recently I have been reading some research on habit formation. When we talk about bad habits, we are usually talking about behaviors. But experimenters have shown that they can influence how people think about events, and with enough practice, people can learn automatically to have very “unhelpful thoughts.” Let me give you an example.

How to create an unhelpful thought.

One way to measure unhelpful thought formation is to have people complete a sentence whose ending is ambiguous. Imagine for a moment that a friend’s child or grandchild has come over to your house for a visit. The child is full of energy and wants to go out in your backyard and play. Let’s assume the back yard is fenced. And that you don’t live in a neighborhood with a lot of drive-by shootings.

After 10 minutes, you look out to check on the child, and what you see is this child is ______.

How did you fill in the sentence? People who are high in anxiety or depression often fill in the sentence by imagining that the child is: missing or dead. If you are high in anxiety and try to anticipate all possible negative outcomes, you are likely to worry about things and imagine the worst possible alternative. People with depression also show bias towards unhelpful thoughts.

People who are lower in worry or depression are likely to complete the sentence with something like – After 10 minutes you look out to check on the child, and what you see is this child is _____, playing with a ball, or excitedly running around chasing the dog.

People whose worry rule is “only worry about the big things” are likely to imagine the neutral or happy endings for the sentence. People whose worry rule is “worry about every possible negative outcome” are much more likely to imagine something terrible has happened to the child.

The way you complete the sentence alters the way you think and behave.

People who repeatedly complete ambiguous sentences with negative or unhelpful endings become increasingly depressed or anxious. You can start to mistakenly believe that by keeping the child in the house, you are protecting them from undesirable outcomes. Unfortunately, children who don’t get to go out in the yard and play and are kept continuously where the adult can see them are often babysat by TVs and electronic devices.

The results of your unhelpful thinking that if the child can play in the backyard, something terrible will happen to them, results in children who don’t get enough exercise and are at increased risk of developing type II diabetes and ADHD.

It’s easier to develop a bad thinking habit than to change them.

When people come for counseling, they tend to believe that if they think something is dangerous, it is. Therapists call that emotional reasoning. And it is an especially unhelpful thought. Most of these unhelpful thoughts people have been practicing for a long time. And just like behavioral habits, unhelpful thinking habits can be hard to change.

The first step in changing unhelpful thoughts is to notice that you have developed certain thinking habits. Becoming aware of those unhelpful thoughts can help you to start challenging them and to develop more helpful thinking habits.

A warning about trying to change thinking habits.

Don’t try to change a negative thinking habit into an unrealistically positive thinking habit. We often use positive affirmations to help people move from negative thoughts to positive ones. But don’t try to fool your brain by lying to it. In the example above of the child playing in the backyard, it’s best to substitute a more neutral outcome for the negative one you habitually think. Don’t try telling your brain that your child is so smart that nothing terrible will ever happen to them. Your brain will know you’re lying and disregard that kind of positive affirmation. He also may want to check on the child every few minutes just to reassure yourself.

Become aware of your thoughts and how unhelpful thoughts may have become a bad thinking habit you need to work on changing.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Six David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Some family secrets can be deadly.

What if your family secrets put you in danger?

Letters from the Dead The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead?

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Sasquatch. Wandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive?

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Books are now available on Amazon.

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking, and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders, see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter.

Are unhelpful thoughts causing you problems?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Woman thinking

Unhelpful Negative Thoughts.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

What are unhelpful thoughts?

Unhelpful thoughts are part of some people’s self-talk. What you tell yourself often enough becomes automatic thoughts. Becoming aware of the negative messages you’re giving your brain and challenging those messages is a part of the process of change that we call Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

In the early days of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT,) researchers and theoreticians noticed a connection between the kind of automatic thoughts or self-talk that some people engaged in and the development of severe mental illnesses, particularly depression and anxiety. Originally these kinds of thoughts were described as irrational thoughts or dysfunctional thoughts. Those labels seem to me to be judgmental. Recently I’ve noticed therapists using the term unhelpful thoughts, and I believe that’s a much better way to describe these automatic thoughts.

Most of these unhelpful thoughts are the result of one or more informal logical fallacies. When you think unhelpful thoughts, they seem true to you, but when an outside observer looks at the evidence, these unhelpful thoughts don’t hold up. These categories of unhelpful thoughts may be called by different names, but here is my version.

All-or-nothing thinking is unhelpful.

This unhelpful thought involves looking at things in black-or-white or yes-or-no categories. For the person with all-or-nothing thinking, there is no middle ground. They tell themselves, “I must be perfect, or I’m a failure.” This type of thinking has led to an increase in depression and even suicide attempts at some of the prestigious colleges where students fall into the trap of believing there only two grades and A or a Not-A. This is a form of perfectionism in which one flaw makes the person worthless. While striving for self-improvement is worthwhile, believing that you must be perfect or you’re no good, will undermine your self-esteem and lead to depression.

Overgeneralization from a negative experience is an unhelpful thought.

This unhelpful thought involves the belief that one negative experience predicts the future. The person tells themselves, “I didn’t get hired for this job. I’ll never get any job.” If you get turned down for a date, you tell yourself no one will ever like me, and I will be alone the left rest of my life.

Having a negative mental filter creates unhelpful thoughts.

Someone with a negative mental filter never sees their accomplishments but only their mistakes. The student who gets one question wrong on a test believes that that means they’re stupid despite the overwhelming number of correct answers.

A person with a negative mental filter fails to get a promotion or is turned down for a raise, and they believe that means they are no good at their jobs and are at risk of being fired.

Discounting the positive is a common unhelpful thought.

Someone with this unhelpful thought might apply for a job and get hired, but rather than believing this is because they were a good candidate, they will tell themselves they only got hired because nobody better applied. No matter how many successes this person has; they only remember their failures and expect to fail the next time they attempt something.

Mind reading is a very unhelpful way of thinking.

People who practice mind-reading believe that when someone doesn’t return a phone call, this means that that person hates them. The mind reader is continually telling themselves that something terrible is about to happen. Since they always predict the worst, they see the worst in every person and situation they encounter. Expecting your partner to be a mind reader is an unhelpful thought that comes up often in couples counseling.

Jumping to dire conclusions is an unhelpful thought.

The jumping to conclusions unhelpful thought takes you from the weather report saying it will rain tomorrow to canceling your camping trip because you’re sure there’s likely to be flooding and lightning might strike your camp.

People with this unhelpful thought process always expect the worst possible outcome. It won’t invest in a retirement account because the stock market might crash. They don’t want to go on a vacation because the plane might crash.

Emotional reasoning will mislead you.

Feelings can be a useful source of information, but not everything you feel is real. Just because something scares you does not mean it is dangerous. Feeling embarrassed about something you did doesn’t mean everyone else noticed and is judging you. Question whether your feelings are providing you accurate information, or are you assuming that because you feel something that makes it accurate?

Trying to live by a long list of absolute rules is unhelpful.

Holding yourself to a strict list of what you should and shouldn’t do and beating yourself up if you break any of the rules is a very unhelpful way of thinking. “I should never have said anything to her. I’m such an idiot.” Trying to live by an arbitrary list of “should’s” and “musts” can result in a lot of emotional problems.

Negative self-labeling is unhelpful.

If you make a mistake or your performance is less than you would like it to be, don’t call yourself stupid or clumsy. Telling yourself, you’re a failure, creates failure.

Trying to control things that are not in your control is unhelpful.

If you’re one of those people, who believes that everything that goes wrong is your fault, you have developed a very unhelpful way of thinking. Don’t try to control or protect other people by anticipating what could go wrong in their lives. You can plan, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your planning and worrying will somehow make everything come out the way you want it to.

What should you do if your life is full of unhelpful thoughts?

If you find that you fall into frequent use of these unhelpful thoughts, begin to challenge those anxiety-producing thoughts. Ask yourself what the evidence is that this thought is true. Get a second opinion from a friend. You may find self-help books based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, especially helpful. Consider working with the counselor or therapist. A good coach can help improve an athlete’s performance, and a good counselor can help you overcome the problem of frequent unhelpful thoughts.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Six David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Dark Family Secrets: Some family secrets can be deadly.

What if your family secrets put you in danger?

Letters from the Dead The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead?

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

SasquatchWandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive?

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Books are now available on Amazon.

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking, and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders, see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter.

Thinking mistakes you are making.

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Negative thoughts

Unhelpful negative thoughts.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Is your thinking full of bad habits?

It is easy to drift into bad habits. Do something a certain way a few times and that becomes the default setting for your brain. After that, you need to put conscious effort into responding in a different way.

Many times people drift into bad thought habits and from then on having unhelpful thoughts pop into your mind becomes your usual way of thinking. Just because this is the way you always think about things does not make those thoughts true. Your bad thought habits may be making your problems worse and interfering with your having a happy life.

There are 11 ways your thinking may be full of bad habits.

1. Thinking it is all about you, personalizing.

If you walk into the room and people laugh you might think they were all talking about you. When someone is short or curt with you, do you think they are being disrespectful? Many times in life when someone ignores us or is less than helpful it has nothing to do with us. One of the great lessons of growing up is that most of the time other people are just too preoccupied with their own lives and problems to give you a second thought.

2. You magnifying mind blows things out of proportion.

When you think about what could happen, do you imagine the worst possible thing? If your mind can turn a minor inconvenience into the end of the world you have trained your thinking to be a magic magnifying mind.

You went on a date, you liked that other person and they said they would give you a call. But the next day comes and goes and no call. You are now convinced that they will never call, that you will never meet that special someone and that you will live the rest of your life alone. When they call an hour later you are now so bummed out from ruminating about this life alone you just don’t want to talk to them and you do not answer the phone.

There are lots of variations to this thought pattern. It rains for a few minutes and you are sure it will flood, you get stuck behind a truck and are sure you will be late to work and get fired. In each scenario, your mind leaps from a small problem to a happy-life threatening outcome.

3. Minimizing, discounting the positive.

You got ninety-nine questions out of a hundred right, but you are upset about the question you missed. Some people find it hard to take credit for the things they do well. The underlying thought here is that you should be perfect and that anything less is not acceptable.

If you can’t take a compliment, or you find it hard to accept credit for what you have done, you may have trained your brain to ignore anything you did well and focus only on the mistakes of life. This can result in a pretty bleak, discouraging way of looking at things.

4. Either Or, Black and White thinking, means you are either a winner or a loser.

High achievers are at extra risk for this one. If you have trained your brain to go for being the best at everything it can be hard to accept the size of the achievement that a second place might be.

Do not let your brain cheat you out of enjoying an accomplishment by insisting you have to be better than everyone else to be worthwhile.

5. Taking events out of context.

So you get the job but all you remember from the process is that you did not have a good answer for one of the questions. One criticism from your partner becomes they “never” like anything you do. You are on vacation for two weeks but the thing you most remember is the traffic jam on the way out-of-town that first day.

If when you think back on past events all you can remember are the rough spots you are falling into making too much of the small things and forgetting the big ones.

6. Jumping to conclusions.

He didn’t return my text right away so that means he does not want to talk to me. You feel a lump somewhere and don’t go to the doctor convinced you must have cancer and only days to live. Many people have developed the habit of jumping over all the possible good outcomes and landing in a pit of pain.

7. Overgeneralizing leads you to bad places.

“I did not get this job” becomes “I will never get a job.” That thought can get you so worked up that you stop looking for work. Believing because something did not go your way once that means you will never achieve your objective, can become the greatest obstacle to progress.

8. Self-Blame, believing you made a mistake so you are stupid, no good.

This mental and verbal self-abuse does not motivate you to work harder. Beating yourself up leads to feelings of helplessness and giving up. You shouldn’t accept this kind of treatment from others. Don’t abuse yourself this way.

9. Are you that good at mind reading?

Do you tell yourself, “When he does that it means — If she loved me she would know.”

Believing others should know what you want and need and then thinking less of them for not reading your mindsets your relationships up for failure. Believing that others should be able to read your mind and anticipate your needs without your voicing them creates misunderstandings.

10. Comparing up, that model or star is better than me.

Comparing yourself to others sets you up for disappointment. There are always people who have more friends on social media and who make more money. To feel better about yourself stop comparing. Especially do not compare yourself in your gardening outfit to someone walking down the red carpet.

11. Catastrophizing is thinking the worst possible outcome will happen.

Do you think “he is late, he probably got in an accident and died?” When things happen that are not to your liking is your first thought that this absolutely must not happen? Catastrophizing is looking for the worst possible outcome and then mentally rehearsing that thought in your head until it demolishes your sanity.

If you are practicing any of these bad thought habits work with someone on changing these unhelpful thoughts to more adaptive ones.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

Are you a Mind Reader?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Fortuneteller.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

How good are you at reading minds?

I see a lot of mind readers and would be mind readers every day. I also see a lot of people in relationships that seem to believe their partner should be able to read their mind. These folks think they know what other people are thinking. These are amateur mind readers or spouses of amateur mind readers.

We are not talking here about the professional mind readers. The ones who study nonverbal communication and can tell about your feelings from your behavior. Professionals use intuition, that mix of gut felt-sense and small clues, which let them read the person in front of them. They couple that with some standard lines, some stage presence and a lot of luck and skill.

Amateur mind readers are neither skilled not willing to practice reading others. They just assume that they know what everyone else thinks about them. They are sure that no one likes them; everyone is talking about them and that the world is out to get them.

These would-be mind readers also believe that everyone else can, or should be able to, read their minds. They love to say. You know what I mean – without further explanation. If questioned they are indignant that you don’t know what they mean and will tell you that you should know how your speech and actions will affect them.

Mind readers are also quick to tell you that if they have to explain something to you then you wouldn’t get it anyway. There are also surprised at how often people just don’t get them. Their thinking goes that since you should know what they want and how what you say and do is affecting them, you must be doing things deliberately to hurt them.

Mind readers make serious efforts to guilt people into behavior. When that effort to guilt you into knowing their wants and needs fails to work, they are quick to tell you that if they have to explain it then you wouldn’t be able to get it anyway. You, of course, know what I mean?

Mind reading, the belief that we know what others are thinking about us, is one of those “cognitive distortions” that result in maladaptive or irrational thoughts. As we have seen in previous posts (see – Are they laughing at you) if you believe that others do not like you or disapprove of you, and you look for evidence of that, you just might find it.

These mind-reading problems result in a lot of couple’s relationship problems. One partner believes that the way the other acts or something they say “means” that they don’t like you, don’t want to be with you and so on.

Occasionally these beliefs turn out to be correct not because of this current situation but cumulatively a person’s behavior and statements can give you that gut feeling we call intuition.

One thing that amateur mind readers fail to do is directly check out this belief about why others are saying and doing the things they do with the person involved. Getting couples to talk to each other and really hear what the other partner is saying and feeling, is a large part of couples counseling.

Despite what most mind readers believe, most partners have no idea what the other partner is talking about a good part of the time. They are often not attaching the same meanings to the words they say. (See post on Denotative and Connotative meanings of words.)

Continuing to act as if the person has the feelings and motives you have assigned to them creates actions that can bring this to reality. Remember when we talked about how thinking you are sick can actually make you sick? (The Nocebo effect) The same thing happens in relationships if you practice this amateur mind-reading.

You partner walks in the door, there is a disgusted look on their face. You realize that there are some things in the living room that you did not get picked up. You KNOW that they are thinking that you are a slob, they hate you and they wished they had never married you.

Your response to this partner’s look of disgust is to start to cry followed by a loud outburst. “I hate you.” Men skip the crying part and just storm out of the room.

The key problem with mind reading is that we decide what the other person is thinking without getting information from them. We also make the mistake of thinking that what others think and do is somehow about us. Often the others in our lives are preoccupied with their own problems and issues.

That partner of yours, they may have had a really bad day at work. Something went wrong and they are thoroughly disgusted with a coworker. They came home expecting to tell you the story. They were expecting some support from you. But your mind reading, your belief that everything the partner does is about you, has resulted in your statement “I hate you.”

Mind readers need to learn to check out these thoughts and beliefs at a calm rational time. We also need to stop thinking that everything others do is somehow about us and that others are responsible to do and not do things that might upset us.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.