We all have negative thoughts from time to time. But for some of us, these thoughts can become a constant presence in our minds, shaping how we see ourselves and the world around us. These negative thought patterns can be hard to shake, but with focused effort, it’s possible to improve the way we think and feel.
In this article, we’ll explore some common negative thought patterns and provide a three-step strategy to break free from these negative spirals.
What Are Negative Thought Patterns?
Negative thought patterns are automatic and often unconscious thoughts that are negative in nature. These thoughts can lead to or be the result of self-doubt, anxiety, and other upsetting emotions. Negative thought patterns can be triggered by certain situations or events, and they can become so ingrained that they become a habitual way of thinking. Negative thought patterns can be difficult to change, and have a negative impact on our mood and our overall well-being. Examples of negative thought patterns include automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), negative self-talk, the negative spiral, and cognitive biases.
When there is no objective basis for these negative thoughts, we can speak of cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) were first described by Aaron Beck in 1963. Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are negatively biased and cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. These underpin many of the negative thinking patterns.
Six Common Negative Thinking Patterns
Now, of course, your thoughts are uniquely yours. I cannot read your mind, nor can anyone else. But here are some common negative thought patterns you might experience if have low self-esteem, self-doubt, or feelings of inadequacy:
Seeing things in black and white terms, with no room for nuance or shades of grey. There’s only good and bad; there’s no in-between.
“After eating this spoon of ice cream, I completely failed my diet. I might as well eat the whole quart now.”
“There are some pans in the kitchen sink, the whole house is mess.”
Downplaying the importance of a positive thought, emotion or event, focusing on the negative aspects instead.
“Anyone could’ve done it. They are just congratulating me to be nice.”
“I ruined the whole presentation after mispronouncing the teacher’s name.”
Taking personal responsibility for events which are not under our control, and attributing negative events to our own actions or characteristics.
“It’s my fault that the team lost the game.”
“My grandmother got sick, because I wasn’t there to take care of her.”
Drawing conclusions or making assumptions about the future or people’s thoughts or intentions, when there’s little to no evidence to support them.
“I know I’m going to get rejected, so I won’t even bother applying.”
“Everyone thinks I’m a loser.”
Blowing things out of proportion and assuming the worst possible outcome will happen.
“I’m going to fail this test and never graduate”
“My date will see this stain on my shirt, she’ll be disgusted and leave right away.”
Making sweeping conclusions based on a single experience or event.
“Why did he bump into me? People are always rude to me.”
“My SAT score is below 1200, I will never become a lawyer.”
The Importance of Emotional Self-Regulation
Ideally, whenever you start to feel a negative emotion, you take a moment to pause and be mindful of what you’re feeling. You’d then realize what you’re actually feeling and would convince yourself that it’s not all that bad. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have a second strategy ready: a list of things that make you happy, and that will put your negative thoughts to rest.
Of course, this is easier said than done, because in a negative state-of-mind you are not always the most mindful.
Your ability to manage your emotions and impulses is called emotional self-regulation. The better your ability to self-regulate your emotions, the better you’ll fare at coping with stress and difficult emotions, relationships with others and making healthy choices. If your ability to self-regulate your emotions is weak, much of your actions and feelings are determined by your state-of-mind, and how your environment makes your feel. You are reactive. What you want for yourself, and what you want to feel, becomes blurred.
The key of breaking our negative thought patterns lies in improving our ability to self-regulate our emotions.
How to Break Your Negative Thought Patterns
It is important to understand that overcoming negative thought patterns will not be a one-time event, but a process that takes time and effort. It involves identifying our negative thought patterns and then using different strategies to counteract them. Breaking your negative thought patterns involves three steps:
- Acknowledge Your Negative Thoughts
- Track Your Negative Thought Patterns
- Reframe Your Negative Thoughts
These three steps each have their own function.
By acknowledging your negative thoughts, you become more aware of exactly what you are feeling and regain clarity. By tracking your thoughts, you discover when you often experience negativity and what triggers it. This will uncover the underlying patterns. By reframing your negative thoughts, you make them less impactful and actively counteract your patterns with positive thoughts.
Let’s start off by acknowledging your negative thoughts.
1. Acknowledge Your Negative Thoughts
The first step of breaking your patterns of negative thinking is to acknowledge your negative emotions.
To avoid showing the outside world that we struggle with ourselves, we develop all kinds of coping mechanisms. This allows us to put away our negative feelings for a moment. This is a tempting strategy, especially because we are encouraged to “think positive” all the time. But ignoring our negative thoughts can have serious consequences, from self-sabotaging behavior to depression.
So instead of trying to suppress our negative thoughts, let’s face them head on. Take the time to acknowledge and understand what you are feeling. What is the dialogue happening in your head?
Get in touch with your negative feelings. Don’t be hard on yourself for having these negative thoughts. Acknowledge that it’s natural to feel negative emotions and give yourself permission to feel them.
- Sit comfortably in a quiet area.
- Notice the emotion(s) you’re feeling.
- Name the emotion. Identify what it is and what word best describes how you are feeling.
- Accept the emotion as something natural. Don’t judge it, just let it move through you.
- Investigate the emotion, by asking questions like: How intensely am I feeling this emotion? Has my breathing changed? Are my muscles tensed? What other sensations do I feel in my body? What is my facial expression?
- Notice the thoughts or judgments that arise, but let them pass. If you start engaging with your thoughts, bring your attention back to your breathing.
It’s sounds paradoxical to gain control over your negative thinking by ruminating them over again. But it will help you to get a clearer picture of what you’re actually feeling.
By making your negative thoughts more specific, you will also be in a better position to create a plan to deal with them.
Instead of having a vague negative feeling, you should be able to say exactly what emotions you feel and why you feel that way. This will allow you to work with your emotions instead of against them.
“The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept thoughts, but don’t become them. Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person.”
2. Track Your Negative Thought Patterns
Write Down Your Thoughts
We don’t always talk about our negative thoughts because we don’t want to burden other people with them, and because we feel ashamed. The vast majority of our negative self-talk takes place inside our brain. As a result, negative thoughts become trapped inside our brain, creating an echo chamber effect where they are reinforced and amplified over time.
A good way to offer your brain an outlet is to start a journal. A journal is a personal record of experiences, reflections and thoughts that you keep on a regular basis. You can keep a journal on paper or digitally inside a note-taking app.
Think of your journal as a save game state. It is a temporary record of your thoughts at that particular moment in time. Your thoughts are safely stored, so you can let go. This provides immediate relief. The stuff is no longer on your mind, but on paper or your phone.
Journaling is an excellent way of processing your thoughts in a more structured and intentional way. It will help you to better understand the patterns and themes in your thinking, as well as the triggers that lead to negative thoughts or emotions. If you’d want to relive how you felt at a particular moment, you can read it back.
Create a Journal of Thoughts
Pick a type of journal that fits you. Do you prefer to work on paper, your phone or your computer? Make the process of journaling enjoyable.
Set aside a specific time each day to journal. This could be first thing in the morning or right before going to bed. Give yourself at least 10 minutes each day.
Begin by writing down your negative thoughts as they come to you. Don’t worry about writing in complete sentences or using perfect grammar – just write down what comes to mind.
Find a format that works for you. Do you ask yourself the same questions every day? Do you rate each day from 1 to 10? Do you prefer to write things down offhand?
The form is not the most important thing; what matters is that you are consistent in writing down your thoughts.
For example, your template to review your daily thoughts could look like this:
POSITIVE THOUGHTS I HAD TODAY:
WHAT TRIGGERED THEM?
HOW DID THEY MAKE ME FEEL?
NEGATIVE THOUGHTS I HAD TODAY:
WHAT TRIGGERED THEM?
HOW DID THEY MAKE ME FEEL?
Identify Your Patterns and Triggers
Your journal will give you an overview of all the thoughts you had throughout the weeks. You will see patterns and maybe even some improvements. Either way, the longer you keep your journal, the more aware you will become of the things that make you unhappy, and the things that make you happier.
Negative emotions are often caused by external triggers, such as a stressful situation or a difficult person. We can all encounter unpleasant situations from time to time, but if this happens on a daily basis, it would not be smart to put ourselves in these situations over and over again. Identify the triggers that frequently cause you to feel negative emotions and work on avoiding them.
Pay attention to how you’re feeling in various situations and take note of what is causing these feelings. This will help you to recognize when something is causing a negative reaction and help you identify the trigger. Notice if certain people, places or events consistently cause you to feel negative emotions. Talking to friends or family may also help you identify your triggers; they might know you a little better than yourself. They have the outsider perspective.
3. Reframe Your Negative Thoughts
Decrease the impact of negative thoughts
I know that it’s really hard to do when you’re caught in a negative thought patterns, but try to rationalize your negative thoughts.
The reason you’re thinking negatively, is because you’re unhappy with something. So in a way, your body is giving you signals that guide you towards something what you want to do next. You are not willfully frustrating yourself; but you have to learn how to co-operate with yourself.
Just like we discussed above, you should simply acknowledge the fact that you’re having these negative thoughts, and don’t judge yourself for them. It’s the judgment-part that will ignite the negative self-talk. Practicing mindfulness and doing meditation exercises are both great ways to bring your attention to the present moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. When you notice a negative thought, acknowledge it and let it pass, rather than getting caught up in it.
The thoughts are something you carry with you during the day, but don’t determine who you are. The emotions you’re feeling are just temporary, even if this temporary seems like an eternity. Don’t let them take you down.
Sure, you might feel a lot of sadness or anger today. But we mustn’t let this emotion take over in all our decision-making. Make sure that your taking good care of other aspects of your life. Eat well, drink well, try to sleep at regular hours. Taking good care of yourself physically will help you retain your ability to self-regulate your emotions. Without enough sleep or food, it is a lot harder to control emotions.
Talking to yourself in the third person can be a helpful strategy for managing negative thoughts. Rather than using the first-person pronoun “I”, you would refer to yourself by your name. So for instance:
First-person: I’m feeling really grumpy today.
Third-person: Daniel is feeling really grumpy today.
Talking to yourself in the third person creates psychological distance between you and your thoughts. This can make it easier for you to step back, and observe your thoughts and feelings from a more detached perspective. It can make your thoughts and feelings seem less intense and personal, and more like a story or a scenario that you are observing from the outside. It is as if you’re listening to a friend who just asked for your advice on something they’re struggling with.
When you notice a negative thought, or when you’ve written down a negative thought in your journal, take a step back and question it.
Transform negative into positive
When you find yourself stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts, it might seem impossible to see the good in yourself and get out of this depressive pattern of thinking. Often we will fall for the cognitive distortions that we discussed in the beginning of the article (All-or-nothing thinking, Minimization / Selective Abstraction, Personalization, Arbitrary Inference, Catastrophizing, Overgeneralization).
To break out of these spirals of negative thought, we need a game plan. Two techniques are actively disproving your thoughts and cognitive restructuring.
Often our negative thoughts are irrational and not based on facts. So we need to challenge them, by proving ourselves the opposite.
When you notice that you are thinking negatively, question the thought and look for evidence that contradicts it. Ask yourself: is this thought based on fact? Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought? Remember the things you have done well in the past, or positive feedback you have received from others. Does everyone share the negative belief you have of yourself? Is this what everyone in your family, friend groups, or at work thinks of you?
Cognitive restructuring is a technique used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that involves identifying and challenging negative or distorted thoughts, and replacing them with more realistic and balanced thoughts. This will help you see situations and events in a more constructive way. Here are some examples of possible reframes:
Negative thought: I can’t do this.
Reframed thought: I may not be able to do this right now, but I can learn and improve.
Negative thought: I’m not attractive.
Reframed thought: Attractiveness is subjective, so there are many different ways to be attractive. I am unique, and if I show authenticity, there will be people that are attracted to me.
Negative thought: Everyone thinks I’m a loser.
Reframed thought: I cannot read people’s minds, there’s no way of knowing what everyone thinks. It is extremely unlikely that people spend a lot of time thinking about me, because they all have their own concerns.
Negative thought: Life is unfair.
Reframed thought: This may not be what I wanted, but I can find a way to cope with it.
Fill yourself with positivity
Your thoughts and beliefs shape your reality. If you constantly think negative thoughts and focus on the negative aspects of your life, your daily reality will be gloomy and miserable. Focusing on the good things in life, would bring back color into the world.
You know best what makes you happy. You hold the seeds to joy. Plant those seeds in your brain, and cultivate a positive mindset. Let your positivity outgrow negativity. Water your spirit with fun activities. What is the shit that works as your fertilizer? What is the stuff that makes you happy?
For me it’s eating good food, getting out of the house, starting new projects. Or I ride my skateboard, play tennis with a friend or walk around the forest to take pictures. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with stress. Then visit a spa, get a massage, dive in a bath with ice water. The latter always makes my dick shrink to less than two inches, but I step out of the tub full of adrenaline and a smile on my face. The rest of the spa laughs, too. Well, it was just a suggestion.
Give your body positive impulses, challenge yourself. Surround yourself with positive people. Who lifts you up? Who makes you laugh?
Feed your brain so many positive thoughts, that you just don’t have time to do your negative patterns today.
Appreciate The Good
The same way we did with negative thoughts, acknowledge your positive thoughts as well. Appreciate it when you feel happy. Express gratitude. On good days, don’t say that things are going not too bad. Tell the world you feel good. Show it.
Secretly dance around your room when you hear a groovy song. Have a chat with a complete stranger. Compliment all the men you run into on their mustache. You will fall in love with the world if you are open to receiving.
And the great thing about positive thoughts? It’s fine to lose yourself in them for a while! Don’t be afraid to let your positive thoughts consume you. It will give you a natural high. It’s both cheaper than cocaine and a lot healthier.
Remember, it’s not about being positive all the time. It’s about learning to handle negative emotions and situations in a healthy way. You cannot control every thought that comes in, but you can sure decide what action to take. With practice and optimism, you can fill yourself with positivity and live a happier, more fulfilling life.
Are you ready to make that happen?
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