Challenge Negative Thinking in 5 Steps

When I was young, I played tennis competitively. When I was feeling good about my game, I would tell myself that I was a great tennis player and that I could win. Often, these positive thoughts improved my game. However, on many occasions I would beat myself up with negative thinking, including telling myself I could never win. My anxiety took over and I lost. Our thoughts can actually dictate how we feel, and ultimately influence our behavior either positively or negatively.

What Happens When We Believe Our Negative Thoughts?

It’s normal to have many thoughts swirling around in our heads. Some of us can go a whole day without letting negative and self-defeating thoughts influence our behavior. However, many of us let negative thoughts become so loud that we can’t move forward.

Allowing our negative thoughts to take over can affect our daily lives. When we are consumed with negativity, we believe our thinking to be true, even if it’s irrational or unrealistic. Rather than our positive mindset being in the driver’s seat, our negative thoughts steer us in the wrong direction.

Recognize Negative Thinking

Here are six examples of negative thinking styles taken from Do you recognize or exhibit any of the following?

All-Or-Nothing: This negative thinking style view events as being only good or only bad. This style is black or white with no gray areas between the extremes. If something falls short of perfection, then it is seen as a complete failure. As an example, you might think, “My work today was a total waste of time.”

Mind Reading: Even though they have not told you so, you believe you know what people think and feel about you, as well as why they behave the way they do towards you. “He thinks I’m stupid,” you find yourself thinking.

Catastrophizing: You expect things to turn out badly. An example of this might be: “If I ask my boss for a raise, he will yell at me.”

Should Have’s/Musts: You have strict rules about how you and others should/must feel and behave. You feel angry if others break these rules and guilty if you break them. “I shouldn’t take any time off. I must work hard all the time,” is an example of this line of negative thinking.

Jumping to Conclusions: You make illogical leaps in believing that A causes B without enough evidence or information to support your conclusions. Here’s an example: “My boyfriend was late in picking me up. He doesn’t really want to go out with me tonight.”

Comparisons: You compare yourself to other people, trying to figure out who is better, smarter, more attractive, etc. “She is so talented. I’ll never amount to anything.”

Do any of these thinking styles sound familiar? Are they affecting your performance, causing anxiety, or keeping you awake at night? If so, then it’s time to take action.

Break Your Negative Thinking in Five Steps

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps combat negative thinking patterns. CBT is a time-sensitive, structured, present-oriented psychotherapy directed toward solving current problems and teaching skills to modify dysfunctional thinking and behavior, according to Beck Institute. I use CBT in my counseling sessions with my clients. Here are five steps that I help you to employ in order to remove the negative thinking pattern from your life.

1. Identify the situation. What exactly is creating significant emotional distress? For example, many of my clients experience heightened anxiety from social situations. Sometimes they avoid these situations for fear of feeling anxious. Is your negative thinking pattern stemming from a certain situation or experience?

2. Identify the emotion and feeling in your body. Does your heart beat more rapidly, do you sweat, does your throat constrict, etc. when you have a negative thought? It’s important to not only identify thoughts in CBT, but also your emotions. As you recognize, lean into, and manage your emotions, they won’t feel as intense. For example, you might try some deep breathing techniques, meditating, or going for a walk. Once these emotions are less severe you will be more successful at reframing your negative thoughts into positive thoughts.

3. Identify the thoughts associated with your experience. You might find that certain situations bring about “automatic” negative thoughts. You may find you are not in control of these automatic responses. For example, after going to a party, one of my clients identified the following automatic thoughts:

  • “I know that the people at the party thought I was weird.”
  • “People didn’t want to talk to me because I am not as interesting and attractive as my friends.”
  • “I know that people could see that I was anxious.”
  • “This was the worst party I’ve ever been to because everyone hated me!”
  • “I should have been more talkative and friendlier.”

Recognizing your automatic responses to a situation will allow us to work together to reframe your line of thinking.

4. Identify your thinking “errors.” If we use the party example above, the types of cognitive distortions include: mind reading, unfair comparisons, catastrophizing, and “should” statements. Pinpointing and identifying the distorted line of thought, again, can help us recognize and move past our habitual negative line of thought.

5. Challenge the identified thoughts. As we get into a habit of challenging our negative thinking, we strengthen muscles and neurons in our brains, creating new and healthier thought patterns. It takes lots of practice and patience and it won’t happen overnight, but it’s worth the effort. Here is how to challenge your negative line of thinking:

  • Ask yourself for evidence that your thoughts are true/not true.
  • Ask yourself if your thoughts are helpful/not helpful; do these thoughts make you feel better or worse?
  • Identify alternative ways of looking at the situation which are healthier, more compassionate, and ultimately make you feel better.
  • Ask yourself, “What would you tell a friend in the same situation?”

It’s the same as building arm or leg muscles – if you lift weights just once, nothing will happen other than sore muscles. Like your body, it takes time to build muscles in your brain. When we consistently challenge our negative thoughts, our brain is able to form new neurons and forge new connections, turning negative thoughts into positive ones.

Take My Positive Thinking Challenge

I challenge you to try incorporating these steps into your daily life over the next month. Be patient and keep trying. My bet is that you will see the benefits after a few weeks, and you will feel more confident and better about yourself and your mental health in the long run. Catch yourself in the middle of having a negative thought, pause, and reflect using the steps above. Replace that negative thought with a positive one.

As always, please feel free to email me with questions, concerns, or comments. I welcome a visit with you to discuss further! Contact me for an appointment here.


Karen Chinca LICSWKaren Chinca is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) located in Brookline, Massachusetts, with over ten years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for treating individuals and families who are dealing with academic, personal, and professional stress.