Limited Thinking

Stinking Thinking: Do These 8 Patterns of Limited Thinking Apply to You?

“Whatever your mind can conceive and believe it can achieve.” – Napoleon Hill

The way you think has the ability to turn your deepest desires into reality or, alternatively, keep you chained to mediocrity. This article looks at eight patterns of limited thinking – as identified by Dr. S McKay, Davis, and Fanning in their book, Thoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Life – and how they can be resolved. Breaking these patterns of limited, habitual thought will free you to realize your full potential in life.

1. Overgeneralization

This pattern is characterized by broad, general conclusions based on a single incident or piece of evidence. Overgeneralization often takes the form of absolute statements and uses words such as all, every, none, never, always, everybody and nobody. For example, if you read too many personal development articles you may believe all television is a waste of time.

You can stop thinking in absolutes by using words such as may, sometimes, most and often. Saying some, or even most, television is a waste of time is far easier to take seriously than simply saying all of it is.

2. Polarized Thinking

This is black-and-white thinking, with no room for shades of gray. People and things become either good or bad, smart or stupid, brave or cowardly. President Bush’s declaration in the aftermath of 9/11, “You’re either with us, or against us” is a famous example of such thinking. And we all know know what has happened since….

Fight the urge to make black-and-white judgements by accepting people and things are too complex to be reduced to “either/ or” judgements. This is especially important in regards to judging yourself. Allow yourself some room to make mistakes without automatically labeling yourself a failure.

3. Filtering

Filtering can be thought of as a type of tunnel vision – focusing on one element of a situation to the exclusion of everything else. For example, you may write an article that hits the front page of Digg. But rather than focusing on this success, your thoughts are distracted by a handful of negative comments.

To break this pattern, make a conscious effort to shift your focus to the opposite mental theme. In this case, focus on the positive feedback and enjoy the moment as it is not every day your blog hits the front page of Digg (unless you are Arianna Huffington).

4. Mind Reading

This pattern occurs when you make snap judgements about others. You may, for example, assume a girl who is not paying attention to you is thinking, “He is not up to my standards”. This may be based on intuition, past experiences or a process called projection, whereby you imagine people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way you do. And while your assumptions may be true, often they will turn out to be completely wrong. Perhaps she is very interested in you but is simply shy?

One way to tackle this pattern is to treat assumptions about people as hypotheses to be tested and checked. Gather evidence before making inferences about people. And if you do decide to follow your intuition, be aware your assumptions may reflect yourself rather than the reality of someone else.

5. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing occurs when your imagination focuses on the potential for tragedy and disaster. Just as Chicken Little worried the sky was falling after an apple fell on her head, you may fear swimming in the ocean after reading a news report of a shark attack on the other side of the world. Catastrophic thoughts often start with the words “What if?” What if I injure myself playing sport? What if this plane crashes? What if I lose my job? Such catastrophizing creates anxiety and can result in you missing out on some of life’s greatest pleasures.

The most effective way to deal with this pattern is to evaluate a situation in terms of odds or percent of probability. Are the chances of disaster one in 1,000,000 (0.00001 per cent)? Or, are they closer one in a thousand (0.1 per cent)? When it comes to sharks, there were 71 unprovoked attacks worldwide in 2007. Perhaps you should be more concerned about the car ride to the beach than swimming in the ocean….

6. Magnifying

This involves emphasizing things out of proportion to their actual importance. Minor suggestions become scathing criticism. Small mistakes become tragic events. Slight obstacles become overwhelming barriers.

To overcome this pattern, pay attention to the language you use. Stop using words such as disgusting, awful and terrible. Also, toss out phrases such as “It’s unbearable”. Guess what? It is bearable. History has shown time and time again that human beings can cope with almost any psychological blow and can endure incredible physical pain.

7. Personalization

Personalization can take two forms. First, you can directly compare yourself to other people, eg “He writes far more eloquently than I do”. Such comparisons may actually be favorable to you, eg “I am better looking”. Either way, there is an underlying assumption here that your worth is questionable. Consequently, you seek out ways to test your value and measure yourself against others. Personalization can also take the form of relating everything back to yourself. If you’re partner tells you she is bored or depressed, you may automatically think you are the cause of this feeling.

This pattern of limited thinking can be broken by recognizing most comparisons are meaningless. Each of us has our strong and weak points. Matching your strong points to other people’s weak points usually has little purpose except to feed your ego.

8. Shoulds

In this final pattern, you live according to a set of inflexible rules about how you and other people should act. You have a fixed view of what is right, and those who deviate from your particular values or standards are bad. And you are just as hard on yourself. Some common and unreasonable “shoulds” include:

  • “I should never be tired or get sick”
  • “I should always be totally self-reliant”
  • “I should never make mistakes”
  • “I should always be happy”

To overcome this pattern, try to have greater flexibility in the rules or expectations you feel compelled to live by. And when it comes to other people, it is important to accept their individuality and uniqueness. You should accept that other people won’t necessarily live according to your values. After all, your personal values are just that – personal.

If you enjoyed this article, you may wish to read Peter’s free e-book A Year of Change.

Peter writes about how to change your life at The Change Blog. He is also the author of Starting a Blog and Audio Book Downloads.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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