I’m not worth it. There’s no use. I can’t do it. I’ll never follow through. People won’t like me. Others are better than I am. I am not enough. I must be perfect. I am a failure. The world is evil. All people are bad.
If these phrases sound similar to your thoughts, you may struggle with unhelpful thinking patterns. Often unhelpful thoughts stem from negative perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Negative perceptions can directly influence our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and reactions to life events. It is unrealistic to expect that we can think happy thoughts all the time. However, we can train our brain to adopt a more realistic and healthy mindset. After all, spiraling into unhelpful thought patterns may increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
For more detailed explanation of unhelpful thought patterns, check out this psychoeducational worksheet that describes commonly used thinking errors.
After learning more about common thinking errors, keep scrolling to check out some useful tips for conquering your inner critic and decreasing negative thinking habits.
Catch Your Thoughts
Our thought patterns can eventually become habitual. This means that we can experience unhelpful thought styles without being aware of it. The first step in gaining control over our thoughts is to notice them. I encourage my Wellness Warriors out there to pay attention to your thoughts and attempt to label them. Learning about your negative thought patterns (triggers, related emotions, etc.) can give you the power to overcome them.
As a therapist, I love teaching clients to utilize an automatic thought record. This simple worksheet begins by allowing one to identify negative thoughts while encouraging further exploration and processing. To take catching your thoughts a step further, you can practice categorizing your thoughts using labels from the commonly used thinking errors worksheet.
Play out the Narrative
Often times, unhelpful thoughts can present in the form of chronic worries and “what if” statements. What if I fail? What if I get sick? What if my partner gets angry with me? Chronic worrying can send us into a negative thought spiral.
To combat this, consider what would happen if your worry came true. Ask yourself what you would do to address the situation. Developing a plan of action can be incredibly useful; if we have a plan, we naturally tend to stress less.
Practice Thought Stopping
If I tell you to think of a pink elephant, what do you think of? Most often, it is, indeed, a pink elephant.
After you catch your unhelpful thought, utilizing thought stopping techniques can help you break the cycle of negative thinking.
Common thought stopping techniques include finding a replacement thought or visual image, such as counting to ten or visualizing a scene from your favorite movie. One can also simply yell or think “Stop!” and find an alternate activity for a distraction.
Check the Evidence
There is no better way to challenge an unhelpful thought than to examine it. Remember, we are not attempting to exclude all negative thoughts. Instead, we are training our brains to think more realistically. We can achieve this by putting our thoughts on trial and exploring the evidence.
I often use this example: Imagine you are about to take a test. Your thought is, “I am going to fail.” Naturally, we may identify this thought as negative and engage in thought challenging and ask, “What evidence do I have that supports the thought that I am going to fail?” List all of the reasons why that thought might come true. Did you prepare for the test? Did you study for an adequate amount of time? Did you pay attention in class? Did you take notes? Did you study in a way that is effective for you? Do you feel focused?
If the evidence we identify supports the negative thought, it may just be that the thought is realistic. If the evidence contradicts our thought, consider that this thought is likely unrealistic and untrue.
Reframe Negative Thoughts
After we identify negative thoughts, we can reframe them to appear more balanced and realistic. Reframing simply means creating alternative, more helpful thoughts. By doing this, we begin to change our perceptions of events, experiences, or emotions.
In the earlier example, we established that the thought, “I am going to fail,” is likely true. It is important to recognize that we can still reframe negative thoughts if they appear to be true. Instead of thinking, “I am going to fail,” we might consider the reframe, “I will do the best I can.”
Take your own advice
It is so much easier to give advice than it is to take our own. Taking our own advice is challenging, but it is a critical step to overcoming unhelpful thinking habits. A helpful practice is pretending you are giving advice to your best friend. Consider the following: Would you try to get more information about what happened? Are you considering other’s perspectives? What are the different ways the situation might unfold? Finally, what advice would you give him or her?
Allowing yourself to step away from the experience and explore it objectively is amazingly simple, yet incredibly effective.
Gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness and contentment. Practicing gratitude increases our ability to see that there is good in the world. Check out this previous post where I practice gratitude after a series of hard events and negative thought spirals.
To incorporate gratitude into our daily routines, we can keep a gratitude journal, write gratitude letters, or use visual reminders (like sticky notes on your mirror).
Practicing mindfulness can help relieve stress, regulate emotions, and remain nonjudgmental. Mindfulness involves simply observing, not judging, our thoughts. Imagine your thoughts are like cars passing at a busy intersection. When cars arrive at the intersection, sometimes they just pass by and sometimes they stop for a while. If we get stuck on a negative thought, we can simply engage in deep breathing while focusing on the breath, not the thought. In time, just like the cars, our thoughts pass by.
Okay, Warriors, it’s your turn: What negative thoughts have you been struggling with? How have negative thinking patterns impacted your life? What have you done to overcome your inner critic?