Everyone is victim to negative thoughts from time to time, thoughts that are critical and usually self-defeating in nature. However, for some, negative thoughts are much more frequent, automatic, and sometimes subtle, which then lead to problems such as anxiety, stress, guilt, depression, and low self-esteem, to name a few. Cognitive therapists believe that it is your thoughts and beliefs that create your feelings. So, if you are thinking or believing negative things, such as “It is my fault, I can never do anything right”, you’re going to feel very bad about yourself too.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat these chronic, negative thinking patterns. Cognitive therapists have developed a range of evidence-based techniques to help you overcome negative thinking patterns. Below are five sample techniques to help change the way you think and thus how you feel.
1. The Double-Standard Method
Ask yourself: “Would I say this to a close friend of mine?”
Why is it okay for you to constantly berate yourself, call yourself awful names or tear yourself to shreds, when you would never, ever speak to a friend in that same way? If your friend also did not succeed at their desired task, would you start calling them a “loser” and tell them it’s “all their fault”? No, you would comfort and console them, remind them that they tried their best and help them to come up with another solution. Turn the compassion you use for your friends’ inwards and treat yourself like you treat those you love. Speaking to yourself in a comforting, encouraging way will not only avoid the bad feeling that follows negative self-talk, but may also give you the confidence to try again.
2. Thinking in Shades of Grey
Ask yourself: “Am I looking at this in an all-or-nothing way?”
Often, people who are prone to negative thinking tend to think in an all-or-nothing way; you are either a complete success or a total failure, there is no in-between. This can then lead to negative feelings such as shame, guilt, anxiety etc. One way to combat this type of thinking, is to think in shades of grey. Do this by breaking the situation or negative thought down into percentages: “On a scale of 0-100, how much of a disaster was this event?”. It’s likely you won’t answer “100%” because things are rarely 100% a catastrophe. Instead you’ll find yourself answering along the lines of “90%”, allowing yourself to see that some good had come from the situation. Not only will this way of thinking reduce negative feelings that follow, but it also provides an opportunity for you to learn and grow from the situation.
3. The Survey Method
Ask yourself: “Would other people agree with this thought?”
This is quite a simple technique; all you have to do it conduct a survey. Ask your friends, family, work colleagues, or anyone in your life if they think your thoughts are true. Say you find that you consistently tell yourself that you are “incompetent” or “can never do anything right”. I can assure you that if you ask those around you if these thoughts are true, if you actually are an incompetent human who messes up everything, they will you give you a million reasons as to why it’s not true and will even be completely baffled that you are thinking this way in the first place! This is because they can see things about you that you don’t or refuse to see yourself. They can give you an objective view, with evidence, showing you that your negative thoughts are fairly inaccurate.
Ask yourself: “What else has contributed to this outcome?”
This technique is particularly useful if you are prone to self-blame as it helps you explore other possibilities outside of your control. By looking at alternative causes, it allows you to see that your original, automatic thoughts and beliefs may be incorrect. Once you explore other possibilities and find out what the cause of the issue is, it becomes much easier to handle it. This is not to rid yourself completely of any responsibility– it may be that you did have a part to play in the outcome. However, asking yourself “what did I contribute?” as well as “what did others contribute?”, gives you the opportunity to learn from the experience, rather than use is as another reason to wallow in guilt.
5. Cost-Benefit Analysis
Ask yourself: “What are the advantages of this thought being true and what are the disadvantages?”
This technique highlights the impact negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours have on your life, good and bad. It gives you the opportunity to check in and see how it both helps and hurts you to believe/feel/think a certain way. Completed as a written exercise (sample Cost-Benefit worksheets can be found online), you compile one list of advantages and another of disadvantages of the thought/feeling/belief in question. Once you have completed this, sit back and evaluate them all. Most likely, you will see that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, and you will soon find it much easier to talk back to that thought when it occurs, having accumulated evidence-based comebacks to the thoughts. On the off chance the advantages of the thought outweigh the disadvantages you can then use this belief as a form of motivation, rather than succumb to its self-defeating nature.
These techniques have been adapted from Dr David D. Burns’ book “The Feeling Good Handbook”. This handbook has many more evidence-based techniques and exercises to help you overcome negative thoughts as well as many other cognitive and behavioural issues you may be experiencing.
If you want more information on Dr Burns’ ‘Feeling Good’ method, you can visit his website feelinggood.com.
Need immediate help? Contact Pieta House on 1800 247 247 or Samaritans on 116 123.
If you feel your or someone else’s life is in immediate danger, call 999 or go directly to emergency services.
Written by Nicole Russell, a volunteer with the Limerick Mental Health Association and psychology graduate of the University of Limerick.