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What Negative Thinking Patterns Should I Avoid?

Which negative patterns are the most destructive, and how do you avoid them? Find out on HealthyPlace.

Negative thinking patterns can become vicious cycles that are hard to break, however hard we try. For many of us, negative thoughts are unavoidable – or so we think. A degree of negativity can be useful. Feeling bad about a job or relationship is an indication that something in our life needs to change, for instance. However, most negative thinking patterns are unhelpful, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, without actually helping us solve the problem. So which negative thinking patterns should we avoid and how do we do it?

Identifying Negative Thinking Patterns and Emotions

Before you can change your thinking, you must learn to identify negative thinking patterns. What is important in this exercise, according to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teachings, is learning to tell the difference between thoughts and emotions. This can be confusing because we often conflate thoughts and feelings as though they are one and the same.

For example, “I feel like my colleagues don’t like me” is not an emotion, despite the words “I feel” being expressed. A more accurate choice of words might be, “I feel like my colleagues don’t like me and it is making me feel sad and anxious.” (See: "How to Stop Thinking Negatively About Yourself")

CBT has been used to treat emotional problems and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns since the 1960s. It is based on the idea that the way we make sense of events affects how we feel and behave. In CBT, it is not the thoughts themselves that create the problems, otherwise, everyone would respond to negative thoughts in the same way. Instead, it is our learned emotional responses that determine our behavior.  

Negative Thinking Traps to Avoid

Although thoughts themselves can’t be changed overnight, the good news is that you can learn to avoid negative thinking traps by changing how you respond. The first step to breaking negative thinking patterns is to know which traps to avoid. Here are some common negative thinking styles.  

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Overgeneralizing
  • Mind-reading
  • Personalizing
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Catastrophizing
  • Disqualifying the positive
  • Should/must/ought to

To use our previous example, “All my colleagues hate me” follows the following negative thinking patterns.

All or nothing: Some of your colleagues might like you, others might not. Some may be ambivalent. These truths are far more likely, but all or nothing thinking dictates that there is no middle ground.

Over-generalizing: You’re thinking in terms of all or none, similar to before. Some of your colleagues may dislike you, but that doesn’t mean they all do.

Mind reading / jumping to conclusions: Have your colleagues told you that they don’t like you? If not, you are assuming you can read their minds, which is unhelpful. One curt comment may have led you to the conclusion that no one in your office likes you – but how realistic is this?

The following unhelpful thinking patterns might also apply:

Catastrophizing: Again, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. Your colleagues may be in a bad mood because it's Monday, or perhaps you have done or said something that irritated them. That doesn't mean they all hate you. They could feel completely different tomorrow.  

Disqualifying the positive: It's likely that you're forgetting all the positive things your colleagues have ever said about you. Perhaps excluding the people who smiled at you as you made your way into work this morning. Instead, you're choosing to focus on those who made you feel bad, instead of having a balanced view.  

Personalizing: You're taking responsibility for your colleagues' rudeness or bad moods, assuming that their behavior must be due to you.  

Shoulds/musts/oughts: “All my colleagues hate me” could well lead on to other negative thoughts, such as, “I should have gone out for after-work drinks last night” or “I ought to make them coffee more often.”

Next time you have a negative thought, see how many of these unhelpful traps you can spot. Of course, context is important here, so not all of these negative thinking patterns will apply to your situation. Don't get too caught up labeling your thoughts; the idea is to identify unhelpful thoughts so that you can challenge them with the following questions.

Is your thought helpful or unhelpful?
Is there a more balanced or realistic view?
What evidence is there for this belief, and against it?
Are you likely to still feel this way in a year?

Right now, you're following the path of least resistance. You have always followed negative thinking patterns, so this is a difficult habit to break. Over time, however, and with practice, you can train your brain to take a different route – one with a far better view.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2018, December 11). What Negative Thinking Patterns Should I Avoid?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, May 22 from https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/positivity/what-negative-thinking-patterns-should-i-avoid

Last Updated: 2019, April 14

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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