Are Negative Thoughts Real?
Negative thoughts are very real, and ways to deal with them are needed to live happier. I want to share some useful information and exercises to help you overcome the emotional obstacles that keep you stuck and unfulfilled. Starting with the probability that you have a negative mindset. Because if you do, you’ll end up thinking and feeling bad about nearly everything. But I intend to help you by changing your mind so you can be happier!
I want to start by asking if you struggle with self-criticism. You know, do you have that pesky little voice in your head that says mean things. I want to explore the psychological concepts that influence self-criticism and show you how to get beyond your self-limiting beliefs.
The first thing to do is define what negative thoughts are. So, let’s take a look at a sample list of some negative thoughts.
List of Negative Thoughts (Distortions)
1. Mind Reading:
- Making assumptions about other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without checking the evidence.
- John’s talking to Molly so he must like her more than me.
- A tendency to exaggerate the importance of negative information or experiences, while trivializing or reducing the significance of positive information or experiences.
- He noticed I spilled something on my shirt. I know he said he will go out with me again, but I bet he doesn’t call.
- Supporting my friend when her mother died still doesn’t make up for that time, I got angry at her last year.
- I could tell he thought I was stupid in the interview.
- Coming to a general conclusion based on a single event or one piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen again and again. Such thoughts often include the words “always” and “never”.
- I forgot to finish that project on time. I never do things right.
- He didn’t want to go out with me. I’ll always be lonely.
4. All or Nothing Thinking (Dichotomous Reasoning):
- Thinking in black and white terms (e.g., things are right or wrong, good, or bad). A tendency to view things at the extremes with no middle ground.
- I made so many mistakes. If I can’t do it perfectly, I might as well not bother. I won’t be able to get all of this done, so I may as well not start it.
- This job is so bad…there’s nothing good about it at all.
5. Filtering (Selective Abstraction):
- Concentrating on the negatives while ignoring the positives. Ignoring important information that contradicts your (negative) view of the situation.
- I know he [my boss] said most of my submission was great but he also said there were a number of mistakes that had to be corrected…he must think I’m really hopeless.
6. Fortune Telling Error:
- Anticipating an outcome and assuming your prediction is an established fact. These negative expectations can be self-fulfilling: predicting what we would do on the basis of past behavior may prevent the possibility of change.
- I’ve always been like this; I’ll never be able to change.
- It’s not going to work out so there’s not much point even trying.
- This relationship is sure to fail.
7. Personalization and Blame:
- Taking responsibility for something that’s not your fault. Thinking that what people say or do is some kind of reaction to you, or is in some way related to you.
- John is in a terrible mood. It must have been something I did.
- It’s obvious she doesn’t like me, otherwise, she would’ve said hello.
- Overestimating the chances of disaster. Expecting something unbearable or intolerable to happen.
- I’m going to make a fool of myself, and people will laugh at me.
- What if I haven’t turned the iron off and the house burns down.
- If I don’t perform well, I’ll get the sack.
9. Should Statements:
- Using “should”, “ought”, or “must” statements can set up unrealistic expectations of yourself and others. It involves operating by rigid rules and not allowing for flexibility.
- I shouldn’t get angry.
- People should be nice to me all the time.
10. Emotional Reasoning:
- Mistaking feelings for facts. Negative things you feel about yourself are held to be true because they feel true.
- I feel like a failure, therefore I am a failure.
- I feel ugly, therefore I must be ugly.
- I feel hopeless, therefore my situation must be hopeless.
While this is in no way a complete list of negative thoughts, it should give you a place to begin seeing and understanding them. This section could continue forever, so I cut off the list at 10 because any longer would just be longer for longer sake. If you are having negative thoughts that you do not believe fit into any of these examples, please share them with me in the comments.
Constant Negative Thoughts
Constant negative thoughts are common. Many people experience these negative thoughts and have problems controlling them. That is because negative thoughts do not like being controlled. Have you ever tried to control a wave coming at you while visiting the beach? You may yell and even demand that the wave stop, however, the result is the same if you are standing near the water, you’re going to get wet.
The focus should not be to try and hold back or control negative thoughts, it’s to understand what they are and what they are not. Too often people are convinced that they must believe everything that they think. Thoughts, regardless of if they are negative, positive, or neutral are simply thoughts.
Automatic Negative Thoughts
What Are Automatic Thoughts?
As you may have already figured out, automatic thoughts are the kind of irrational and negative self-talk. The type that appears instantaneously, without us even being aware of any thought forming, in response to being triggered.
Each of us experiences automatic thoughts that are different and unique. They are usually related to our own personal life experiences. Not to mention, the fears or the messages we’ve internalized for years. For this reason, they can be about ourselves as well as others.
Automatic Core Beliefs
These internalized messages are also known as core beliefs. While each of us holds our own mix of beliefs, you may be surprised to learn just how similar people’s core or negative automatic thoughts can be. These are usually quite influenced by our cultural, familial, and religious foundations.
Negative Thoughts Can Lead to Other Issues
Negative thinking can be a contributing factor to problems such as social anxiety, depression, stress, and low self-esteem. The key to changing your negative thoughts is to understand how you think. When you understand what thought is, how you have been using it, and what you can do differently, it becomes much less intimidating.
Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked in what is known as the thought cycle. The thought cycle shows us that our thoughts strongly impact or even dictate how we feel and act. So, we all have unhelpful thoughts from time to time. However, it is important not to let them change the course of our day.
Curb Automatic Negative Thoughts with Mindfulness
Mindfulness has its roots in meditation. It is the practice of detaching yourself from the future and past. It is about being completely aware of your thoughts and emotions at the moment. Mindfulness can help to even imagine viewing yourself and your state of mind as an outside observer. Practicing mindfulness is a way to become more conscious of yourself and the thoughts you experience. This can lower stress as you become more self-aware.
I want to help you change your relationship with your thoughts. I always suggest that you imagine your thoughts and feelings as objects floating past you that you can pick up and observe or simply let pass you by.
Avoid Attempting to Stop Thoughts
Thought-stopping is the opposite of being mindful. It is focusing on the completely wrong thing. What you prime your brain to see it will find for you. If your focus is on finding and stopping negative thoughts, you will be overrun with them, and they will consume you. Do not waste even one second looking for negative thoughts even if your goal is to eliminate them.
The problem with trying to stop thinking about something is that the more you try to stop your negative thoughts, the more they will surface. This is because your brain does not understand the concept of negative thinking. The example I use often in session is if I asked you to be sure and tell yourself not to think of a small round fluffy pink turtle-stuffed animal. You might not have ever thought of one, but as soon as I told you to be sure and tell yourself to not think of it, you had to think of it.
Mindfulness is great because it helps you give less weight to your thoughts and reduce the impact they have on you.
Replace Automatic Negative Thoughts
You can often replace or rewrite your negative thoughts by simply asking yourself or doing a few things. Of course, this is something you’ll have to remember once you realize that you do not like the automatic thought you are having.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
- Ask yourself if the thought is realistic.
- Think of what happened in the past in similar situations and evaluate if your thoughts are on course with what took place.
- Take a second to challenge the negative thought and look for alternative explanations.
- Think of what you’d gain versus what you’d lose by continuing to believe the thought.
- Recognize if the thought is actually a result of a cognitive distortion, such as catastrophizing.
- Consider what you’d tell a friend or loved one having the same thought.
- Look for a recognizable bias in your thought.
Overcoming Negative Thoughts
Overcoming Negative Thoughts can be accomplished in 6 steps.
Recognize and Isolate the Thought
The first thing necessary for overcoming your negative thoughts is to recognize them. If you are unaware of the reason for your feeling bad, it is due to the unrecognized negative thought (probably an automatic negative thought) that has you down. Take a moment to look for the thought behind the feeling.
Write Down the Thought
When you actually write down your thought it is much easier to judge the slant, bias, or legitimacy of the thought. Sometimes just the act of putting it to paper can give you great insight into the thought.
Identify the Distress Level
Decide the stress level caused by the negative thought. I like to give it a score on a scale of 1-10. With 1 being no stress and 10 being absolute hysteria!
Identify the Cognitive Distortion
Take a close look at the thought and go back and look at the list of negative thoughts above and see if your thought falls into one of the distortions. If it does it becomes easier to restructure it.
Challenge & Reframe Your Thoughts
When you have figured out what distortion you were using for the thought, you can change the words you use to reframe or restructure the thought. This allows you to challenge the thought outright as well. You may find that it does not hold up to close scrutiny.
Reevaluate the Distress Level
After you have restructured/reframed the thought, and have challenged it, possibly even found it invalid, it is time to reevaluate the distress level caused by the thought. The goal here is to lower the distress level to a manageable or tolerable level, not necessarily eliminate it altogether, although that would be a great outcome.
Changing Negative Thoughts
Changing negative thoughts is accomplished by understanding them and seeing them for what they are, just figments of your imagination. When you finally realize that your thought is simply things you yourself have imagined, you can stop placing so much value on your own thoughts.
Changing your thoughts is as easy as letting them go and thinking about something else. You get to decide which thoughts you take the time to observe and which thoughts you drop.
Stop Negative Thoughts
You should never waste any time or energy trying to stop negative thoughts. Negative thoughts cannot be stopped, it would be like trying to stop a wave from coming at you if you were standing in the water at the beach. Do not try to stop something that you do not even need to acknowledge. Trying to stop negative thoughts is putting way too much value on, and effort into, something that can be ignored or reframed.
If you are still troubled by the idea of negative thoughts, be sure to take a little more time by reading further about overcoming your limiting beliefs.