Rewiring Your Mind

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A Relationship Counsellor’s Guide to Overcoming Negative Thought Patterns and Self-Talk

Have you ever experienced being trapped in a vicious cycle of negative self-talk, where self-doubt and criticism seem to be the only thoughts occupying your mind? It can be devastating to our mental well-being and relationships, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation. The good news is that it’s possible to change these destructive patterns and cultivate a more positive and compassionate mindset. This guide delves into the various ways negative self-talk can manifest and provides practical tools to help you overcome it. By the end, you will have gained a better understanding of negative self-talk and how to transform it into a more uplifting and empowering dialogue with yourself.

What Are the 12 Common Negative Thinking Patterns?

Negative thinking can take many forms, and it’s important to recognize when our thoughts are veering into unhelpful territory. Here are twelve common patterns of negative thinking that can impact our emotions and actions:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: This involves seeing situations in black-and-white terms, with no shades of gray or room for nuance. For example, you might think “If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure.”
  2. Overgeneralization: This involves taking one negative experience and applying it to all areas of your life. For example, if you have a bad date, you might think “I’m never going to find someone who loves me.”
  3. Mental filter: This involves focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation and ignoring the positive ones. For example, if you get a glowing performance review with one minor criticism, you might dwell only on the criticism.
  4. Discounting the positive: This involves minimizing or dismissing positive experiences or qualities. For example, if someone compliments you on your work, you might brush it off and say “Oh, it was nothing.”
  5. Jumping to conclusions: This involves making assumptions without evidence or jumping to conclusions without considering alternative explanations. For example, you might think “My partner didn’t answer my text, so they must be mad at me.”
  6. Magnification or minimization: This involves blowing negative experiences out of proportion and minimizing positive ones. For example, if you make a mistake at work, you might think “This is a disaster and I’ll never recover.”
  7. Emotional reasoning: This involves assuming that your emotions reflect reality or that how you feel is evidence of the truth. For example, you might think “I feel anxious, so something bad must be about to happen.”
  8. Should statements: This involves putting pressure on yourself or others with rigid rules or expectations. For example, you might think “I should always be productive, even on weekends.”
  9. Labeling: This involves attaching negative labels to yourself or others based on one or a few characteristics. For example, you might think “I’m a failure because I didn’t get the promotion.”
  10. Personalization and blame: This involves taking too much responsibility for negative events or blaming others without taking any responsibility yourself. For example, if your friend cancels plans, you might think “They don’t care about me and don’t value our friendship.”
  11. Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst-case scenario will always happen, regardless of evidence to the contrary. For example, you have prepared for a big presentation and you realize that you have forgotten to add one small point and you start to worry if you have forgotten other important information and then you start to worry that you are going to make a lot of mistakes and that you will get fired and you will not be able to get another job because you got fired.  
  12. Mind-reading: Assuming we know what other people are thinking or feeling, without any evidence to support our assumptions. For example, your boss passes you and doesn’t say hi or smile at you and you make the assumption that he must have read the report you sent him the day before and is very unhappy with it.  Later you find out that his son is very sick and he is very worried about him.  

Why Negative Thinking is Common

It’s important to note that negative thoughts are a normal part of the human experience, and everyone experiences them from time to time. However, when negative thoughts become persistent and start to interfere with daily life, they can become a problem.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) recognizes three levels of unhelpful thinking patterns that can affect our emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing. These include automatic negative thoughts, intermediate beliefs, and core beliefs, all of which shape our perception of ourselves and others. By understanding and addressing these layers of maladaptive thinking, individuals can overcome their struggles and develop more adaptive ways of thinking and behaving.

Automatic thoughts are quick, involuntary, and negative thoughts that pop into our minds in response to certain situations. These thoughts can be irrational and not based on evidence or reality. For example, a person might have the automatic thought “I’m such a failure” after making a mistake at work.

Intermediate beliefs are underlying assumptions or attitudes that influence our automatic thoughts. They are more deeply held beliefs than automatic thoughts and are often developed through past experiences. For example, a person might have an intermediate belief that “if I don’t do everything perfectly, I’m not good enough.”

Core beliefs are deeply ingrained beliefs that shape our thinking and behavior. They are often developed early in life and can be difficult to change. For example, a person might have a core belief that “I am unlovable” or “I am a failure.”

Automatic negative thoughts can be particularly challenging to deal with because they often occur without our awareness or control. These thoughts can be triggered by a variety of situations, such as stressful events or social interactions. As described above, our past experiences and beliefs can also shape our automatic thought patterns, causing us to automatically think negatively in certain situations.

One reason why negative thoughts can be so persistent is that they often serve a protective function. For example, catastrophizing or assuming the worst-case scenario may be a way to prepare for potential dangers or protect ourselves from disappointment. However, when these thought patterns become excessive or distorted, they can lead to unnecessary anxiety and distress.

By understanding the underlying causes of negative thoughts and learning how to challenge them, we can develop more positive and compassionate ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us.

Steps to Change Your Thinking

Changing your negative thought patterns isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Here are steps you can take to start shifting your thinking in a more positive and helpful direction:

Recognize your negative thought patterns: The first step is to become aware of the negative thought patterns you tend to engage in. Pay attention to your thoughts and notice when you’re engaging in black-and-white thinking, jumping to conclusions, or any other negative patterns. Write them down if it helps.

Challenge your thinking: Once you’ve identified your negative thought patterns, it’s time to challenge them. Ask yourself if your thoughts are based on evidence, if they’re helpful, and if there are alternative explanations. Try to be objective and avoid catastrophizing or overgeneralizing. You might find it helpful to write down alternative thoughts that are more accurate and balanced.

Trace the thoughts back to their intermediate and core beliefs: To gain a deeper understanding of the root causes of your automatic negative thoughts, it can be helpful to trace them back to their intermediate and core beliefs. By identifying patterns in your thinking, you can begin to recognize which beliefs are influencing your thoughts and ultimately, your emotions and behaviours. To overcome these negative patterns, it’s important to challenge these beliefs and replace them with more accurate and compassionate beliefs about yourself.

Practice compassionate self-talk: Negative self-talk can be harsh and unhelpful, so it’s important to replace it with compassionate and supportive self-talk. This involves talking to yourself in a kind and understanding way, like you would to a friend. Instead of beating yourself up for a mistake, remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes and that you’re doing the best you can.

Seek counselling and support: Changing your thought patterns can be challenging, and it’s okay to ask for help. Consider seeking counselling and support from a therapist, counsellor, or support group. Talking to someone who understands what you’re going through can provide a new perspective and help you develop new coping strategies.

Consider the positive and negative outcomes: Finally, it’s important to consider the positive and negative outcomes of your thought patterns. If your negative thinking is causing you distress, it’s likely not serving you well. Conversely, if your positive thinking is helping you feel happier and more confident, it’s worth reinforcing. Keep track of the outcomes of your thoughts and adjust accordingly. Remember, changing your thought patterns takes time and practice, but it’s a valuable skill that can improve your mental health and well-being.

Maha Elias is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC), Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC), Comprehensive Family Mediator (FMC), and sexual health and trauma-informed couples therapist with a private practice in Victoria, British Columbia.

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