Errors in Thinking That Prevent Good Problem Solving

We all have errors in thinking.

In 1976, psychologist Aaron Beck (best known for the Beck Depression Scale) proposed a theory to explain how negative self-talk (or what he called cognitive distortions) prevent people from defining and solving problems effectively.  Part of his thinking was that these errors in thinking lead to feelings of depression, social anxiety, low self esteem and a pathological loss of self- confidence.  In this series of articles, I am going to describe the errors in thinking that I see most often in therapy.

all or nothing thinking

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 2 of Series: “How Errors in Thinking Destroy Relationships
Part 3 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Contribute to Anxiety

This is one of the most common examples of negative self-talk.  After a week of sticking to the plan, you have a slip, but because you are using “all or nothing” thinking, it makes you feel like a complete failure, so much so that it completely derails you.  This is one of the errors in thinking.

The reality is that for an entire week you stuck to the plan.  If you had 3 meals a day, for 1 week, that is 21 meals. That means 1 meal out of 21 was a “failure.” But for 95% of the week, you followed the meal plan. A 95% success rate is a failure only if you are using “all or nothing” thinking.  Otherwise, it is a resounding success.  A failure to recognize this will keep you from solving the problem.

A slip now and then until you get the hang of the new plan is normal.  Don’t let an error in thinking rob you of your success!


Here’s why perfectionism is so dangerous: it focuses on avoiding failure, instead of seeking success and in so doing raises your anxiety.  It can also lead to depression. 

The statement above is focused on failing.  If, on the other hand, you say, “I try to exercise every day.” Or “My goal is to exercise every day.”  The focus is on intentionally trying to be more successful at working out.  This is a focus on succeeding at solving the problem of being more fit.

People who use perfectionism set themselves up to fail, often again and again. This lowers self-esteem and makes it harder to try, leading to more failure.   It becomes self-perpetuating.


Another way to self-sabotage and fail is to overgeneralize from one negative experience.  Overgeneralization uses a single event to predict all future events.  If something bad happens just once, the “overgeneralizer” expects it to happen over and over again.  Negative self-talk can take a single, unpleasant experience and turn it into a never-ending pattern of defeat.

For instance, if a student gets a poor grade on one paper in one semester, and they overgeneralize, they could conclude that they are not college material and quit school. This could entirely change the trajectory of their lives.

I actually had that happen.  I was a freshman in college and thought I was failing Geology.  I called my mother and explained that I was not college material, based upon this one experience, and could I come home.   Mind you I had A’s in all the other subjects. 

My mother knew better than to argue with me.  She was exceptional at building self-esteem by empowering us.  She suggested that I contact student services, which offered testing, and sign up to have my IQ tested.  I did, and when I got the results back, I was so astonished, that I accused the evaluator of falsifying the results.  He assured me that he had not altered the results but offered to use another test (with a higher ceiling) and test me again.  This time my IQ came back even higher. 

This experience changed my life forever….I never got another B again in undergraduate school, straight A’s.  Thank you, mom.
When it comes to eating disorders, overgeneralization sounds like this: Last time I went to my parent’s house I overate.  I can’t go there anymore because the same thing will just keep happening.

So how can you beat this error of thinking and do a better job at solving problems?

Next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing, stop and remind yourself, “I have free will.  I can decide whether or not to overeat.  Just because I overate at the last faculty party, does not necessarily mean that I will overeat at the next one.” 
Positive self-talk works.  If you can have this little heart to heart with yourself, you will feel less anxiety, less hopelessness, and be more likely to map out a strategy to handle eating at the next party or family gathering. 

There are simple things you can do to cope with bingeing at a gathering, like bring your own vegetable and dip, chili or desert. Or you can pull a Scarlett O’Hara and eat before you go to the party.  Or you can prepare something you love and have it waiting for you when you get home from the party.  Or do all three.

Remember: You are in charge and you have got this!

In the next article we will continue exploring common errors in thinking which can pop up in many surprising situations.  Looking closer at your own thinking and how it could be sabotaging certain areas of your life is a great step in the direction of overall wellness.  Contact Norton Wellness Institute at 513-205-6543 for more information or to begin your wellness journey today!

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 2 of Series: “How Errors in Thinking Destroy Relationships
Part 3 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Contribute to Anxiety

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Materials contained on this site are made available solely for educational purposes and as part of an effort to raise general awareness of the psychological treatments available to individuals with health issues. These materials are not intended to be, and are not a substitute for, direct professional medical or psychological care based on your individual condition and circumstances.  Dr. J. Renae Norton does not diagnose or treat medical conditions. While this site may contain descriptions of pharmacological, psychiatric and psychological treatments, such descriptions and any related materials should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified mental health care provider.  You are advised to consult your medical health provider about your personal questions or concerns.