Challenging Negative Thoughts

Last week we talked about automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions, which are negative thinking patterns that we’re especially prone to if we are feeling anxious or stressed.

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So now we know what cognitive distortions are and we’re really annoyed that they exist. Why can’t my brain be normal? we ask. Why can’t I live my life without assuming I messed everything up before I even started?

But this is the thing: we totally can. That’s not to say it isn’t hard – if you’ve been observing your automatic negative thoughts since my last post, you know how quickly they come on and how easy it is to just let them slip on by if you don’t take the time to stop and question them. And who wants to do that? When you’re having a negative automatic thought, you’re probably already feeling insecure, sad, anxious, or mentally exhausted. The easiest next step is sinking deeper into your bad mood, not challenging your thoughts.

Here at Morning Wellness, we’re trying to fight the temptation to succumb to “easy.” Easy Sunday mornings, easy listening music, easy math problems…those we’ll take. But responding to thoughts that make us feel icky in the easiest way is usually not the healthiest. “Easy” in these cases often means numbing, distracting, or lying to ourselves.

How can we fight “easy”? We can learn to notice our negative automatic thoughts and challenge them. Let’s walk through it, using the example from my last post: say your boss is usually very friendly, but today she made eye contact with you and didn’t smile. Your brain immediately thinks, “She must think I did a horrible job on that project. I really suck at this job.”

1.     Notice the negative thought.

We might be used to just having these self-deprecating thoughts and letting them slide, quickly moving on to the next thought. Challenge that. Really listen to the words you tell yourself about yourself. Write it down if you have to.

2.     Identify the cognitive distortion.

Rationally consider the negative thought you just had. Using the list of common cognitive distortions, see if your negative thought fits into one of these categories. When we’re thinking rationally, we can probably pretty quickly identify that our thought is definitely a “jumping to conclusions” scenario. We’re immediately assuming that our boss didn’t smile because she thinks we did a horrible job on our project, and we take that as proof that we suck at our job.

3.     Examine the evidence.

Ask yourself, “What evidence do I have to support my negative thought?” So, you think you really suck at your job. What evidence do you have that you suck? Have you gotten fired from this job? (Answer: obviously not…you’re still a working employee there). Have you been told you’re doing a bad job? Have you gotten demoted? Look for concrete evidence to support your negative thought. Is it there?

A lot of times, it isn’t.

4.     Find evidence that contrasts with your negative thought.

Have you gotten promoted? Complimented on your work by your boss? Oftentimes we are totally bombarded with evidence that contrasts with the negative thoughts we have, but we choose not to accept them, or to some how justify them. “Yes my boss has complimented me, but that’s just how she is.” No!! We have to stop having thoughts like this. We have to accept the positive as quickly as we are willing to accept the negative.

5.     Tell yourself what you would tell a friend who had this thought.

Imagine it was your best friend who came to you with this story. If someone said to me, “Lindsey, my boss didn’t smile at me today. She probably thinks I did horribly on my project and am a really bad employee,” I’d be like “…what?!” But for some reason, if I have that thought myself, I’m like, “Yep, sounds about right.” It truly makes no sense. If we change our perspective and imagine what we’d tell a friend who had this thought, we’ll have an easier time taking our own advice.

To me, challenging negative thoughts is really just about thinking rationally. Not allowing ourselves to sink into cognitive distortions. It’s really taking the time to mindfully consider our thoughts and whether they come from rational, evidence-based thinking.

If this post is speaking to you, there’s a lot online about challenging negative thoughts! I like these links here and here – they’re worksheets intended to be used for therapy, and they’re filled with great questions you can ask yourself when you think a distressing negative thought.

Challenge your thoughts this week! I'm gonna do it too. Let's see how it goes :)