The trap of negative thinking
by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
“I can’t stop worrying”… “My brain won’t shut off when I’m trying to go to sleep at night”… “I’m so negative most of the time”… “It’s always my fault”…
These are some of the statements that I hear when I work with clients in therapy. A lot of the time, the problem that brings people to counselling (for example, anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties), has something to do with how people think and view their world.
Have you ever thought about how you think? It might be strange to consider this, but research shows that negative thought patterns can lead to negative emotions and poor behaviour choices. For example, if Jane thinks, “I never do well in exams,” she may feel anxious or sad, and then avoid or procrastinate studying for the test.
Below are 15 negative thought patterns (or “cognitive distortions”) to watch out for. If you are feeling upset about a situation, see if your thoughts fall into any of the following categories:
- Filtering – Ignoring all of the positive outcomes and only focusing on the negative. For example, after a performance review, an employee chooses to focus only on the areas his boss says needs improvement, and ignores all of the good things his boss said.
- Polarized Thinking – All or nothing thinking, or thinking in extremes. For instance, a person with this tendency might view herself as either a successful person or a complete failure, with no grey area.
- Overgeneralization – Assuming that all experiences and people are the same, based on one negative experience. For example, a person might assume that after an encounter with someone rude from a particular city, everyone from that city is rude.
- Jumping to Conclusions – Being convinced of something with little or no evidence to support it. Someone who tends to do this might jump to the thought that their spouse is having an affair after they come home late one night.
- Catastrophizing – Assuming the worst-case scenario, magnifying the negative and minimizing the positive. If you tend to do this, you might think that something awful has happened to a family member if they do not pick up their phone right away.
- Personalization – Believing that you are at least partly responsible for everything bad that happens around you. For instance, after learning that his parents got into a car accident, a child may blame himself.
- Control Fallacies – In this type of negative thought pattern, we misjudge how much control we have in a situation. This can be distortions of having no control (e.g. “I hate my job but I have no choice but to stay here”) or that we are responsible for everything, even things we cannot control (e.g. “I should have noticed that my friend needed more help planning her wedding. Now she’s stressed and it’s my fault.”)
- Fallacy of Fairness – Being too concerned over whether everything is fair. A good example of this is when kids are focused on having the exact same things as their siblings, when it is not always possible.
- Blaming – Pointing at others when looking for a cause of any negative event, instead of looking at yourself. In this situation, someone might put the entire blame on their spouse for their marital difficulties.
- Shoulds – Holding tight to your personal rules on how people should behave. For instance, a mother might make quick judgements on how another mother should be disciplining her child.
- Emotional Reasoning – Believing that something is true just because they feel a certain way. An example of this type of thinking is, “I feel guilty, therefore my action must have been bad.”
- Fallacy of Change – Expecting others to change to suit your needs or desires. This often happens with couples. For instance, “He should know that I like the towels folded a certain way, so he should fold them that way too.”
- Global Labelling/Mislabelling – Generalizing one or two instances into an overall judgment, using exaggerated and emotionally loaded language. An example of this is thinking, “What jerks! The neighbours were mowing their lawn too early in the morning, so they don’t care about anyone else on this street!”
- Always Being Right – Believing that it is unacceptable to be wrong. Someone who has this attitude will not accept another person’s difference of opinion, at the expense of their relationship with others.
- Heavens’ Reward Fallacy – Believing that any good act you do will be repaid or rewarded. Someone with this thought pattern might think that if they endure bad treatment from their boss, they will surely be rewarded with a promotion one day.
It can be a humbling experience to recognize that your thinking sometimes falls into one or more of these categories. But the silver lining is that these thought patterns can be changed, and will likely lead to feeling better emotionally, making healthier choices, and having stronger relationships with others. Once you recognize a cognitive distortion, look for evidence against it. Adjust your self-talk to be kinder to yourself, more like how you would talk to your best friend. Changing the world begins with changing ourselves.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” - Albert Einstein
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.