26 Feb 2019

Negative Thinking

Do any of these sound familiar?

“I feel like I’m up against the world.” “I’m no good.” “Why can’t I ever succeed?” “My life is a mess.”
“No one understands me. “I’ve let people down.” “I wish I were a better person.” “I’m so weak.”
“What’s wrong with me?” “I can’t get things together.” “I’m a loser.” “I feel so helpless.”
“My life’s not going the way I want it to.” “I’m so disappointed in myself.” “I can’t get started.” “There’s no point in even trying.”
“What’s the matter with me?” “I can’t finish anything.” “There must be something wrong with me.” “Sleeping is the only time I have peace.”


What are these?

It is part of the human experience that we ‘hear’ an inner voice – this is self-talk. We all experience these negative subconscious thoughts at some point. This voice reflects our beliefs, values and experiences, and although we may not be conscious of it, these underpin our thoughts. Sometimes negative thoughts can warn or protect us; throughout the ages they may have played a role in our survival and saved us from predators like tigers!

Our brains are constantly processing and trying to make sense of what happens to us each day. Our inner voice can be a tremendous ally when it dissuades us from being frightened, encourages and cheers for us. If the negative self-talk dominates, though, this can result in us being frozen into inaction, using avoidance tactics and being unable to regulate our emotional reactions.

 Mostly, we eventually find ways to manage these thoughts to avoid them dominating our lives. Research into automatic negative thoughts began in the 1960s with Dr Aaron Beck who studied the links between such thoughts and depression. Previously, we assumed anxiety or depression caused us to think negatively, however, we now know that the negative thoughts can produce the feelings and prompt the behaviours. People trained in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tell us that often what we think powerfully influences what we do and say.

Of course, if we habitually listen to our negative, exaggerated self-talk, it can have an impact on academic and social success, self-esteem and happiness. It is important to remember that thoughts are just that, thoughts. They are not necessarily true or facts. Dominant negative thoughts can be problematic for some of us and can contribute to:

  • Generalised worry (‘I won’t be able to cope with the stress of the IGCSE exams’)
  • Anxiety (‘I’ll make an idiot of myself during my House assembly speech’) which may lead to fear and avoidance
  • Depression
  • Phobias (‘I’ll faint it I see a snake on the Geography hike’)
  • OCD (‘I will get sick if I touch the door handles of public toilets’)
  • Panic (‘My heart is racing – I know I’m going to panic in the Maths exam’)

Such thoughts may cause us to make predictions (‘My parents will be disappointed in me because I didn’t get an A*’) or assumptions (‘He didn’t look at me in the Library so I KNOW he doesn’t like me’).

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

E. E. Cummings

Links between negative thoughts and well-being

Ideally, we would all master cognitive, emotional and behavioural flexibility, and have the ability to defuse self-criticism. We all want to have self-compassion, to build meaningful, rich and full lives so that we are ‘well’, in every sense. Being able to identify our negative self-talk takes bravery and perhaps another person (a parent, teacher, counsellor, coach, friend) to support us. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to negative thinking because of the many, internal and external changes, they face.

One way CBT experts try to help people counter negative is thoughts by asking:

  • Is this REALLY true? Am I exaggerating?
  • Will I let this thought control my life or how I feel about myself and others?
  • Is this thought helping me? What thoughts would be helpful right now?
  • Am I making things out to be worse than they really are?
  • What other explanations could there be?
  • Have I missed something?
  • What would I tell a friend in this situation?

Asking ourselves for the evidence that the negative thoughts are accurate is another approach. For example, if we catch ourselves thinking: ‘I disappoint my parents’ or ‘I am always picked last by the teacher to answer questions’, where is the evidence that this is true? Am I catastrophising (‘It would be a disaster if I was stuck in a lift’), am I using black and white thinking (being either right or wrong, good or bad – nothing in between), shoulding and musting (I must go to the gym five days a week’ or ‘I should visit my grandmother because she’s lonely’), using personalisation (‘The cafeteria running out of rice is my fault because I had the last seving’) or a mental filter (‘Everything about the Year 13 Ball was disappointing’)?

So, although we can’t magically stop our minds speaking negatively to us, we can practice non-judgmental awareness and think more positively because some researchers tell us these sorts of thoughts can counteract and blunt the effects of negative automatic thoughts. Other ways to deal with negative thoughts are to:

  • Identify them
  • Challenge them
  • Substitute them for positive thoughts

In Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) another approach is suggested. This is to try ‘defusing’ from harsh self-judgements and ‘not good enough’ stories. We can do this by noticing, naming and delinking from these cognitions. Learning to see them as nothing more than pictures and/or words can free us from being pushed around by thoughts. Instead, we can just allow them to drift in and out of our minds.

Gently, step by step, we can all build the critical life skills of:

  • Noticing the negative thoughts
  • Defusing from the tough self-talk
  • Treating ourselves with kindness
  • Accepting our thoughts by opening up to them, or allowing them to flow through us, without fighting them, trying to escape them or permitting them to boss us around.
  • Reminding ourselves that it’s normal for everyone to have painful thoughts at times
  • Trying connecting with other people – we don’t have to struggle alone

If we can forge new, compassionate relationships with our thoughts we may liberate ourselves from struggling to control them. This way we might save a lot of energy which we can then use to pursue things which are directly linked to our goals and values.

Ms Rowlands