“It’s all my fault.”
“No one will understand.”
“I’m just a burden to everyone.”
Thoughts pop up in our heads all day long, uninvitedly.
It happens so automatically that we rarely take the time to wonder if what we’re thinking is actually true. Instead, we take our thoughts at face value and instantly respond with feelings and actions. But when your inner critic or negative Nancy is taking over your mind, it’s time to take back control and change your thought patterns.
Because thoughts are powerful. They influence your mood, your decisions and even your neurobiology. Every time you have a thought (“Oh god, everybody is staring at me!“), your brain releases neurotransmitters and hormones that prepare your body and mind to respond to the (imaginary) situation – by blushing, stumbling, running off or making a self-deprecating joke.
That’s why automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) take a toll on your mental health: they trigger a cascade of biochemical reactions and emotions that adversely affect how you feel and behave.
Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.
— Chinese proverb
But the good news is: you can break this vicious cycle of negative thoughts and reactions, and train your mind to see things more positively. Have a look at this beginner’s guide to change your way of thinking.
1. Recognize Common Thinking Errors
Take a step back and observe your thoughts objectively. What’s going through your mind when you’re reacting strongly to certain events? Can you see a pattern? Do you hold negative ideas about your self, the world or the future?
Learning to recognize your own cognitive distortions is the first step to changing your thinking pattern. There are a number of common cognitive errors that we’ve all made:
- Black-and-white thinking: Reasoning in terms of either good or bad, right or wrong, with nothing in between. For example: “Oh no, I had one piece of chocolate and now my entire diet is blown, I might as well give up.”
- Overgeneralisation: Making wide assumptions based on one-time incidents, such as believing you’ll never find a job after one rejection letter. You can identify overgeneralization by the use of words like always, never, every, all.
- Personalisation: Taking things too personal, like holding yourself responsible for things outside of your control. For example: “I must have said something wrong; it’s been an hour and he still hasn’t text me back.”
- Catastrophizing: Blowing things out of proportion or expecting the worst-case scenario. “Oh god, I screwed up big time. My boss will surely fire me. How am I supposed to pay my bills without a job? Where will we live?”
- Fortune Telling: Predicting the future will turn out badly, even though there’s no cause for negativity. “Nothing good ever happens to me.”
Your mind can be your worst enemy or your greatest ally.
2. Challenge Your Thoughts
Next, do a thought experiment to test the validity of what you’re thinking. Hold your own thought pattern under scrutiny and ask yourself:
- Is this thought true and accurate? Build your case with real-world evidence: write down all proof for your beliefs in one column and the counter-examples in the other.
- If you do find support for your beliefs, is that evidence accurate or just another symptom of your distorted thinking?
- Is this thought helpful in the long run or just distressing?
- What’s the worst thing that can happen? On a scale from 1 to 10, how likely is it that this will actually happen?
- What would you tell your best friend if they had these negative thoughts?
- In which ways would your life change if you stopped believing your negative thoughts?
3. Replace Negative Thoughts with Helpful Statements
Changing your negative thought patterns is not about pushing away your true feelings or becoming overly optimistic, but rather about choosing realistic but helpful statements over untrue or harmful ones.
Why? Because obsessing over what happened in the past (rumination) or worrying about possible doom scenarios in the future are strong predictors of mental illness like depression and anxiety. When you train your mind to think more positively, you create mental space for your problem-solving skills to kick in and come up with a new outlook or creative solutions you hadn’t thought of before.
Thought replacement is a bit like comforting an upset child: “Of course you’re not a loser. You might not have won this game, but you played well. And remember how you scored last time?” Whenever you notice a negative thought popping up in your mind, you try to find a more empowering alternative.
“Ok, it might not have been the smartest move to order those fries when I’m trying hard to improve my health. But one unhealthy meal does not mean that I messed up my diet; every meal is a new chance to make a healthy choice.”
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
So how do you change your inner dialogue?
- To help you get started with replacing negative thoughts, check out the strategies from The Powerstates Blog to beat 10 common cognitive errors, like jumping to conclusions and emotional reasoning.
- Another trick to tame your mental monsters is “omdenken“, the Dutch art of playfully flip-thinking a problem into an opportunity. Have a look at their 15 strategies for choosing an empowering attitude over a gloomy one.
- Finally, keeping a gratitude journal, where you list 3 positive things that happened to you that day, helps to train your mind to notice the good in every situation, no matter how small.
4. Practise, Practise, Practise
Becoming aware of the flaws in your way of thinking and changing your negative thoughts is a complex process that requires a lot of practice. But silencing your inner Debbie Downer all starts with taking the first step.
Healthy Psych published a helpful worksheet for challenging your cognitive distortions by learning to distinguish between the objective situation, your thoughts and your emotional response. You can use this exercise to apply the theoretical tactics you’ve learned in practice and work on a more positive outlook on life. The Feeling Good Handbook (1989) by David D. Burns, M.D., also is a massively popular workbook to help you overcome negative thinking and emotional distress.
And once you’ve gotten used to identifying and questioning your own common cognitive errors, you could even make up your own Automatic Positive Thoughts.
“I am enough.”
“I can do this.”
“Always remember, you are loved.”
Being your own cheerleader feels a lot nicer than being your worst critic.
Do you have a tendency to think negatively? Which cognitive errors do you seem to make? And what’s your best strategy for squashing your ANT’s? I’d love to hear your experiences with changing your thinking patterns in the comments.
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