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.

  • What you think you shall become.

    Limited thinking is directly tied in to our limited beliefs. Also the more we come to know, we realize the less we know. Its humbling. Articles like this are important.

  • I am definitely guilty of catastrophizing big time…it seems that our biggest obstacle is definitely ourselves. It’s amazing to think about how significant our minds are in dictating the course of our lives..great article :)

  • No actually, funny enough I read a book that said that their are things that will make you lead to false conclusions in your thinking. Some of those things are how you think and it pointed out all or most of the topics you have pointed out.

  • This is a great list to review for everyone. I am going to have to send this to my wife….but I’m sure I will get a nice list right back!

  • This is an excellent article Peter. People should definitely review their thinking style to make sure it’s helping and not hurting them. I think taking things personally is a mistake that a lot of people make. What others say or do is not about you, it’s about them.

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  • Interesting list. I see filtering a little bit ambivalent, since focus is also a great power to use. Tunnel vision sounds negative, but focusing on our goal is something similar. You described it right, you don’t want to get stuck there so strongly, that you can’t see when the focus is not appropriate any more.

  • Great post. You are so right in how too many of us start that stinking thinking.
    Another one for me might be regrets. We all make mistakes but too often we get caught up in thinking our mistakes make us less able. I’m all for saying sorry but then we should move on.

  • Basically we also need to learn how beliefs shape our reality. Beliefs are basically thoughts that turn into habits and then into beliefs. After they become beliefs they operate automatically.

    Using beliefs is a powerful mind technique, maybe the most powerful at all. We can use them to shape any reality that we like to experience.


    Thomas Herold
    CEO Dream Manifesto

  • Stinkin’ Thinkin’ — I love that phrase! I first heard it in the Al Franken movie “Stuart Saves His Family” based on the SNL character Stuart Smalley. The tagline for that movie is “You’ll laugh because it’s not your family. You’ll cry because it is.” Actually, I didn’t laugh much because it is my family.

    Anyway, great post and I have one similar to it that lists the 10 traditional negative thought patterns that cognitive therapists try to retrain us to replace with positive thought patterns. My post is called “10 Harmful Thoughts” and it’s at

  • Ali

    I too love the title of this article :-)

    These words particularly stood out for me “Matching your strong points to other people’s weak points usually has little purpose except to feed your ego.”

    Very, very true — it’s tempting to make ourselves feel better by comparisons with others, but it’s a nasty, damaging way of thinking that ends up giving us a dimmer and dingier view of the world.

  • A fascinating read — I saw my own habits in several of the analysis, and I must agree that they can get me in trouble sometimes.

    I’m a person who likes to figure out patterns and systems, so overgeneralizing is certainly one of my faults. I see just a few case studies and assume it applies to the universe.

    That said, I think in terms of communication, sometimes we have to make bold statements, knowing that we are overgeneralizing. I’m just talking about the use of language and not the belief itself here, but words like “may” “sometimes” really weaken statements and don’t get the point across. So I would argue that while such thinking and beliefs, especially when done unaware, are dangerous, sometimes in communication we have to bring out the big, bad, bold definitive statements to convey our conviction and significance of the meaning.


  • I see myself having a sprinkling of these and when they happen, I’d usually end up feeling negative. It takes a change in perspective or reframing my mind to realise that I have been stuck and to free myself with these limiting thoughts.

    Great article!

    Thanks for sharing,

  • “We are what we think; as we desire so do we become! By our thoughts, desires, and habits, we either ascend to the full divine dignity of our nature, or we descend to suffer and learn.”- J. Todd Ferrier

  • Love #8 – Shoulds

    You totally hit the nail on the head when you said,

    “And you are just as hard on yourself.”

    A personal pete peeve of mine. People ‘should’ on themselves all the time. Should this and should that. Stop shoulding everywhere.

  • Love the article. I used to have a problem with #1, generalization. It’s amazing how much better you begin feeling once you break the habit of saying “always” “all” etc.
    Learning to say “sometimes” etc gives you a positive attitude adjustment.

  • Indeed, excellent piece! It actually says about the things running in todays generation. I find the terms and definitions very interesting. I would pass on this article in my organization for the betterment of the individuals.
    It will definitely lead to positive way of thinking and evaluate the bad situations in better positive way.


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  • Great list, but I would add one more which is the opposite of filtering, and that’s having no focus. I easily get distracted by the newest shiny idea and my thinking gets all muddled.


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  • Great list, but I would add one more which is the opposite of filtering

  • Nice List. Simply writing down your thoughts is really helpful. So imagine the potential when you use journaling tools, tips, topics and prompts to intentionally focus the immense powers of your conscious and subconscious minds. you intentionally invite the quiet voice of intuition to speak through your writing.

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  • M Biefeni

    I  followed everything this explains, before I ever read it, and reading this makes me feel really good about myself that I am doing the right things. I see limited thinking everywhere around me and I would like to help people enjoy life a little more so I am going to spread this like some kind of infectious positive mutation.

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  • Rene Paley

    Some of those things are how you think and it pointed out all or most of the topics you have pointed out.

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  • Maximus

    In #2 Polarize Thinking…You just polarized by using President Bush as your example. It is much better to stick with the ideas and concepts. To paraphrase the Holy scriptures, “We battle not against flesh and blood (people) but against ideas (stink’n think’n) and spiritual wickedness in high places. i.e. Obama’s false, relative absolute, big gov’t, elitist mind. Uh-Oh, I just “Polarized” and lost 1/2 my audience. Now, it is not the person of Obama, but the ideas he holds and those that are duped by this type of thinking from the Woodrow, FDR>>>>>>>>>Obama = GDP 14.8 Trillion compare Debt of 16.8 Trillion. Cannot spend money you do not have. When a government tries to be THE PROVIDER contrary to it’s God ordained purpose ROM 13 to be THE PROTECTOR it will bankrupt the country just like Greece, Spain, Italy and others on the slide.
    Sometimes, you just have to draw the line in the sand and say, “You’re either with us or against us.” President Bush. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and so sorry if that polarizes some of you who may need to flush some “stink’n think’n!”
    Now don’t make fun of my punctuation or grammar. I did not let my wife edit this prior to pushing send.

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