We’ve all experienced the consequences of allowing negative thought patterns to control our emotional state. All too often, counterproductive thoughts can turn into an insidious habit, undermining our emotional health and sabotaging mental clarity. One of the first and biggest steps in taking charge of repetitive and self-destructive thought habits is simply in recognizing them for what they are.
- Black and white thinking – Black and white thinking doesn’t allow for nuance or balance. This mindset views the world in extremes and absolutes such as “always,” “never,” “nothing,” and “everything.” A mind frame that tends to see extremes fails to recognize that both positive and negative qualities can exist together as part of a cohesive whole. In life, things usually aren’t “all good” or “all bad.” The key is looking for the positive in a negative situation, and not allowing a small negative to ruin an overall positive experience. Instead of thinking “My efforts are either successful, or I am a complete failure” or “If I fail to get into my school of choice, I will never amount to anything,” a healthy mindset seeks to see balance and opportunities.
- Labeling – Another thought pattern involves placing a negative label on a person or event, rather than identifying the components of a situation in an objective manner. This is a form of extreme generalization that bypasses deep thought over the cause of a problem. Concluding “He’s a jerk,” “I’m a loser,” “This is hopeless,” without considering the particulars of a scenario are all examples of labeling. This type of reasoning is very similar to black and white thinking but is characterized by a snap judgment and a reductive descriptor.
- Emotional reasoning – Assuming that negative emotions reflect reality, despite contrary empirical evidence, is a very common way of thinking. Taken too far, emotional reasoning can easily spiral out of control. An example of this thought pattern in action is anorexia, where an individual feels fat despite clear signs they are underweight.
- Jumping to conclusions – Reaching judgment on a situation without sufficient facts is a recipe for rash conclusions. Associated with this cognitive bias are the habits of mind reading and fortune telling. Mind reading refers to the false sense of being able to access the intentions or thoughts of others, while fortune telling is having a rigid expectation for events that have not yet occurred. For instance, “Everyone thinks I’m ridiculous. They’re all laughing at me behind my back.” This is an example of mind reading. Fortune telling, on the other hand, might look like this: “I’d never get the job, so there’s no point in even applying.”
- Mental filter – Someone with this type of thought pattern picks up only on the negative details, to the exclusion of anything positive in a situation. This type of pessimistic thinking exemplifies the classic “glass half empty” outlook and is thought to lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression. Closely related to this is the tendency to “disqualify the positive,” in which positive outcomes are always attributed to chance or luck while negative outcomes are deeply internalized as personal failures. “They only gave me that premotion because I’ve been here so long,” and “I didn’t close the deal because I’m an unmotivated loser” are examples of how this type of reasoning might present itself.
Four Ways to Curb Negative Thoughts Patterns
Now that we know what to look for, let’s talk about ways that you can combat negative thinking through positive mental habits. The mental health coaching app MindBoost is a great way to implement some of these practices into your daily life.
- Be aware of your thought patterns – Recognize when you fall into a negative thought pattern and work to cut it short before it runs away with you. Practice mindfulness. Focus on being aware in the moment, calmly recognizing your thoughts and feelings while giving yourself grace to accept and challenge personal deficiencies.
- Challenge your assumptions – Take a step back to question your thoughts and beliefs from a distance. As much as possible, remove personal emotional investment and examine your underlying assumptions from multiple angles. Are they objectively valid? Are you applying the same standards to others as you do to yourself?
- Consider alternatives – If your assumptions lack credibility (or even if they don’t), reflect on ways another individual might see your situation. What is a different way the situation could be interpreted? Is it more or less plausible than how you’ve understood it?
- Reframe the event positively – Resolve to see the positive in a negative or challenging situation. This may look like identifying an upside to an undesired outcome, or appreciating a lesson learned through a challenging situation. Deciding to see the positive within the negative can help restore your sense of self-efficacy by keeping you in the driver’s seat of your emotional state, no matter the outcome of a particular situation.