Narrowed Thinking Patterns

Often people will come to me and try to deny or minimize their feelings because they think it’s inappropriate to feel the way they do. As a therapist, I always encourage clients to accept their feelings, just as they are and I try to validate all their feelings. Because, as I say, if everything you’re telling yourself right now is true, then of course you would feel the way you feel.

Where I might challenge them, however, is in their thoughts. Because our minds are very creative playgrounds that don’t always read situations clearly. Often our thoughts arise automatically and, because we’ve thought it, we almost always believe it. Then, our feelings arise just to confirm our thoughts.

For example, if I say hello to a friend and she ignores me, I may think she is angry with me and I become sad. Well, of course, I’m sad – my friend is angry with me! But what if my friend is distracted, worried, or feeling ill?

Usually these automatic thoughts follow certain patterns:

  • They rise quickly and sometimes pass almost unnoticed – except by our emtions
  • They follow certain themes, often based on how we believe the world to be and our place in it. Sometimes based on what we’ve been taught by parents, authority figures, or just the culture
  • They are unique to us and our experience
  • They are self-perpetuating. That is, one thought begets another and another and…
  • They are usually believed

Limited thinking falls into specific patterns and, while we may all use all of these patterns at one time or another, we usually have a few that are our favorites. I use the acronym NARROWED to identify common limited thinking patterns. Take a look at the following list and see if you can identify yours:

Negative Thinking

Negative thinking is focusing on the negative aspects of a situation or a person and ignoring the positive. Bland coleslaw means the whole dinner was a bust.

All or Nothing Thinking

All or Nothing thinking labels events, people, and outcomes as good or bad, perfect or worthless, winners or losers. It’s an all-or-nothing rating which leaves no room for compromise, middle ground, or margin of error.


Ranking is comparing yourself to others or to your ideal to see if you fall short. One is always smarter/prettier/better or dumber/uglier/worse than others. The Ranker cannot relax for fear of failing to live up to their own or others’ standards.

Reading Minds

Reading minds is thinking that you know peoples’ motives regardless of what they may so or do to contradict your opinion. For example, when you receive a compliment, thinking, “He doesn’t really mean that, he’s just being nice, or he’s after something.” Usually reading minds involves thinking that someone is motivated in relation to how they think about you.

Ought – to Thoughts

Ought -to thoughts apply a standard of behavior on ourselves and/or others and being upset when we or they do not live up to that standard. These thoughts tend to assign blame and shame on the person being judged and irritation and pain on the judge.

Worsening the Situation

Making things worse with our thinking involves using loaded words like “horrible,” “terrible,” “disaster” to describe your situation, or using insulting and degrading words like “stupid,” “failure,” “disgusting,” or “hopeless” to describe yourself or another person.


Egocentric thinking involves taking personally the words or actions of another person because you believe that their actions are directed towards you.

Dire Predictions

Dire Predictions involves worrying about negative future outcomes that may or may not happen. Often we create catastrophes in our own minds that prevent us from moving ahead.

Mindfulness can help increase our awareness of our narrowed thinking and offer opportunities to broaden our outlook. Next time – how to broaden your mind…