Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Pessimistic thinking styles can have a strong and sometimes overwhelming impact on all aspects of life. Robbing the pessimistic thinker of joy, happiness and self-fulfillment. This blog post focuses on ways even the most stubborn pessimist can learn to become more optimistic.
Cognitive therapy includes a model which focuses on identifying and correcting negative thinking patterns in people who tend to look at the world around them, and themselves, in a pessimistic manner.
These identified thought patterns in negative thinkers tend to be illogical in nature and quite self-defeating. Negative thinking is habit forming and is typically learned from primary caregivers during childhood. Most notably, negative thinking patterns in adults often contribute to adult self-doubt, low self-esteem, as well as, many mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Wondering if you, or someone you care about is, struggling with negative thoughts? Ask yourself the following questions to find out.
Are you often overly worried about things you have zero control over?
Do you frantically plan for an F5 tornado every time it gets cloudy outside?
Do you feel stuck in a puddle of overwhelming guilt?
Do you have a strong desire to be 100% perfect at every-single-thing you do?
Does it feel like the entire world is out to get you?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, keep reading to learn how to identify and eliminate self-destructive, negative thoughts, as defined in a great book by, Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD, entitled, The Self-Esteem Workbook, which has sold more than two million copies worldwide. Not only can the habit forming, “Negative Nellies,” as I like to refer to them, be eliminated, with practice, they can be replaced with more realistic views of yourself and the world around you.
When an upsetting event occurs, (real or imagined), the human brain becomes flooded with automatic thoughts. Despite the fact that we are fully capable of thinking logically about the upsetting/fearful event, sometimes we don’t. Rather our automatic thoughts become inaccurate, unreasonably negative and distorted.
Automatic thoughts often occur so rapidly, like many habits, we don’t even notice them. What we do notice however, is that our mood suddenly changes for the worse. Feelings of fear, self-doubt, anxiety, depression or anger can take over, causing our outlook on life to take a nose dive. These automatic, negative thoughts are referred to as “negative thought distortions”.
Negative thought distortions can fall under many different categories. For the purposes of this blog post, I have narrowed them into six categories, which you can read more about by ordering, The Self-Esteem Workbook, from Amazon by clicking here. Scan through the list below to see which negative thought distortions you most identify with. Then, take note of the challenges offered to counter the negative with more realistic, positive thoughts.
All or Nothing Thinking- with all or nothing thinking you hold yourself to the impossible standard of perfection. When you fall short of the unreachable high standard, you feel like a total loser, a complete failure. Example, “If I don’t make at least a 95 on every test, I am stupid.” “If I don’t look or perform perfectly, I am a complete flop.” Black and white type global statements, such as these, are unreasonable, depressing and inaccurate. Perfection is impossible.
To replace all or nothing thinking, challenge it by using more positive language. Ask yourself, “Why must I make a 95 on every test?” Then remind yourself, a poor performance does not make a person worthless or a failure, rather it makes them human. All humans are fallible, or filled with flaws. Accept it and learn to appreciate imperfections of a less than perfect performance. After all, the imperfections and quirks are part of what makes us unique.
Assuming- When you assume the worst without testing the evidence. Example, “When I met Jane walking down the hall, she frowned at me, so Jane must be angry with me.” Assuming negative self-talk can also include automatic thoughts such as, “I know I won’t have fun, or I know I will do a lousy job, so why try?”
We can challenge these negative assumptions by- testing the evidence. Rather than “assume” Jane is angry with you, simply ask her why she is frowning. Perhaps Jane had a terrible day. Rather than making assumptions about self, challenge them by telling yourself, “I might or might not enjoy myself, but I won’t know until I try.”
Catastrophizing – When you think something is a catastrophe, you tell yourself it is so terrible and awful that, “I can’t stand it!” Essentially telling yourself that you are too weak to cope with life on life’s terms. For example, “I could not stand it if he were to leave me. It would be too awful!” Although things might be unpleasant, difficult or inconvenient, we humans can actually stand just about anything short of being steam rolled over to death.
As Albert Ellis, the famous psychologist has said, “I don’t like this, but I certainly can stand it.” If you repeatedly find yourself engulfed in drama, chances are you struggle with catastrophizing. One way to help eliminate catastrophizing thoughts, is to ask yourself the following questions in an effort to challenge the belief that something will actually become a catastrophe.
What are the odds of this happening?
If it does happen, how likely is it to do to me in?
If the worst happens, what will I do? (Planning for a potential problem and formulating a plan for that potential problem can increase your sense of confidence.)
Five years from now, will anyone care about this?
Making Feelings Facts- is taking your feelings about a person, idea or situation as “proof” of the way a person, idea or situation really is.
“I feel ashamed and bad. I must be bad.” “I feel ugly. I must be ugly.”
It is important to remember that feelings originate from our thoughts.
If our thoughts are distorted, as they often are when we are stressed or sad, our feelings may not reflect reality. Therefore, it is important to question your feelings. Ask, “What would someone who is 100% ugly or bad be like?” “Am I really like that?” Doing this, challenges the tendencies of all or nothing type thinking. Remind yourself that feelings are not facts. When your thoughts become more reasonable, your feelings become more optimistic and realistic.
Personalizing- Personalizing is a negative thought distortion focusing on the idea of seeing yourself more involved in negative events that you actually are. For example, A college student drops out of college and the mom thinks, “It’s all my fault. If I had been a better mother, he would not have dropped out.”
It is important to distinguish influences from actual causes. Sometimes we can influence another person’s choices or decisions but the final decision is always theirs to make and carry out, not yours. Instead of wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” Look at other influences outside of yourself. For example, instead of thinking, “This is all my fault!” Ask yourself, “What other outside influences contributed to his choice of dropping out of college?” Likely, you are not the central character. Remember, the only behaviors and thoughts you have complete control over, are your own.
Blaming- Blaming is the exact opposite of personalizing. Rather than feeling as if something is 100% your fault, with blaming, you view ALL negative events or situations as someone else's fault. Blaming puts everything outside of yourself. Blaming is often used by those who don’t feel confident enough to accept responsibility. Further, blamers tend to equate their worth as a person to external performances, situations or events.
She has ruined my life and my self-esteem!
He makes me so mad!
I am a looser because of my crummy childhood!
The problem with blaming, much like catastrophizing, is that it tends to make you think of yourself as helpless victim who is too weak to cope. The antidote to blaming is to knowledge outside influences, while still taking responsibility for yourself, “Yes, his behavior was unjust and unfair, but I don’t have to turn bitter and cynical because I am better than that.” When we refrain from blaming, we are free to acknowledge what is our responsibility and what is not.
It is important to remember when we take responsibility for our role in a situation or event, not to judge our core worth as a human being, but only judge the action. No one can make another person angry. Rather, you choose to allow yourself to become angry.
Becoming aware of automatic negative thought distortions is a great way to open the door for positive change in your life. It opens the door for more logical thoughts, for increased optimism and self-confidence. Anyone can replace negative thoughts with positive ideas, if you put forth a little effort. Research shows it takes twenty-eight days, give or take, to create a new habit. That means, theoretically, if you start challenging habitual negative thinking patterns today, next month, you could have a brighter outlook on life, and most importantly, yourself.
Go ahead and give it a try. Challenge those negative thought distortions. After all, you’re worth it.
Misti Luke currently maintains a small private practice in beautiful Broken Bow, Oklahoma. . For correspondence, email firstname.lastname@example.org