Negative thought patterns are incredibly common. Most people experience negative thoughts at intervals in their lifetime in response to certain situations. This can be helpful or unhelpful, depending on the situation. For example, worrying has been linked to problem solving, finding solutions and alerting us to danger (Watkins, 2008).
However, for many, negative thoughts can become engrained ways of thinking, determining how a person feels about themselves and how they experience life. This can lead to low self-worth, depression, anxiety and other mental health variances.
Interest in negative thought processes dates back to ancient philosophy, one Greek philosopher Epictetus noting:
“It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things.”
In more recent years, founder of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and psychiatrist Aaron Beck, identified certain patterns to negative thinking and termed these ‘cognitive distortions’. Here’s a list of the most common cognitive distortions.
Common ways negative thinking patterns can express themselves:
- All or nothing thinking
Also known as black and white thinking it is a tendency toward extremes.. Everything is either good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure.
‘I messed up this interview so I am a failure’
Whereas life is full of grey areas and finding a balanced place of moderation between two extremes is generally recognised to be the place contentment is found.
- Shoulds and Musts
Using ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ sets unrealistic expectations and places undue pressure on ourselves.
‘I should be able to cope with this, I used to be able to’.
‘I must pass this exam or I don’t know what I’ll do’.
There is no should or must. Things are what they are. A healthier way to respond to these scenarios would be:
‘I am going through a lot at the moment, I am doing the best I can’
‘I will work hard toward this exam and whatever the outcome, I know I tried’.
- Mental Filter
Only focussing on the negative aspects of a situation. Although things might be going really well, you are only able to focus on the negative aspects, whilst filtering out or diluting any positives.
Friend: ‘Wow you look so nice today’
Response: ‘Oh this old thing, it’s tatty and I’m tired’.
A simple thank you is not only respectful to you, but also to the person giving the compliment, rather than disregarding their opinion.
- Jumping to conclusions
Assuming we know what others are thinking or what will happen, without any evidence to support it.
‘My manager has asked me into the office, I think I’m getting the sack’
This can include interpreting someone’s actions based on what you think they are thinking, and drawing the conclusion that they don’t like you or are angry with you.
- Compare and despair
Seeing only positive aspects in others, whilst comparing yourself with a very negative personal view.
‘This person is younger than me and so confident and accomplished, whereas I’m not good at anything’
This way of thinking doesn’t consider the many variations of personality and individual experience, that nobody has everything, but everybody has something.
- Predicting the future
Believing you know what is going to happen before it happens.
‘If I go to the party, no one will talk to me’
- Magnification (catastrophising) or minimisation
Imagining and believing the worst thing is going to happen in any situation, or minimising achievements or any positive aspects in a situation.
Magnification: ‘If I lose my job I’ll lose everything and then I’ll be homeless’.
Minimisation: ‘I got a reward for my work but I’m really not that good at what I do, the reward is no big deal.’
- Emotional Reasoning
Believing that what you are feeling must be true. Relying on your ‘gut feeling’ over any objective evidence.
‘I feel nervous about this flight which means it’s probably going to crash’.
- Self critical thoughts
Putting yourself down and criticizing everything you do.
‘I’m so rubbish at this, I’m a loser’
- Personalisation and blame
Holding yourself responsible for everything and blaming yourself, or others, without any logical reason. This involves taking everything personally, or blaming others for everything whilst overlooking your own role in the situation.
‘That person seems irritated and it must be my fault’
‘I’m unhappy in my relationship, it’s my partners fault’
Do any of these sound familiar? These cognitive distortions are very common. You will likely associate with one or some more than others.
Here are 5 ways to manage your negative thoughts in a healthy way, and to work toward embedding some new, more positive perspectives.
Exercises to manage and appease your negative self-talk
- Identify your self-talk! Becoming aware of the way you speak to yourself, and how often! Is the first step.
Write down the common things you say to yourself. It can be helpful to think of different situations in your life and how you generally respond.
- Recognise the patterns!
Go through the list above of negative thought patterns and see if there is a theme with your own self-talk. Remember, you may identify with a few of them, but you may also notice you identify with some more than others.
- Challenge your thinking!
Look at each thought and ask yourself, is this true? What tangible evidence is there? Or is this just what I think is true? Could I think about this a different way?
- Compassionate self-talk
As yourself, would you talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself? We are often extremely negative and often abusive .
Write a love letter to yourself, imagine you are sending it to a friend or loved one, but make it about you.
I say this because it hands down worked for me and it works for my students!
I hope you have found this article helpful. You can find out more about negative thoughts and how and why you might be experiencing them in my other article, 'Why do I have negative thoughts? 5 ways to, compassionately, show them the back door'.
Go check it out and let me know how you get on with the exercises. Have a great day,