Working through negative thoughts

People often walk around with thoughts about themselves or the world that they’ve based on previous experiences. I like to think of these as tapes, or background noise. Have you ever noticed how the music in a horror movie is really what makes it scary? Same thing goes with the background noise in your head – it’s all the setting that creates the intensity and unpleasantness. Some of these thoughts are helpful, but some perpetuate negative feelings that keep us down. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a therapeutic technique that anyone can use to help influence how thoughts shape their perceptions of themselves and the world around them. The basic principle of CBT is that our thoughts can influence our perceptions and our behaviors. A lot of CBT uses reframes and challenging negative thoughts.

For example, if a person often finds themselves thinking that their friends don’t like them when they take several hours to text or call back, the person can choose to reframe the negative thought they’re having and replace it with a more positive one. In this case, the negative thought is “my friends don’t like me” and the first step is challenging that thought. A challenge thought can be something like “Can you find evidence that points to the opposite?” which then helps them create a more nuanced picture of the whole relationship with the friend and come to the conclusion that this thought is simply not true. The person can then try to understand where the thought is coming from, and then once they have the whole picture, replace it with a positive thought.

Here’s the steps you can use to do a quick CBT exercise:

  1. Find the negative thought. These are sometimes called Thought Distortions, and usually take the form of something we fear, like people not liking us, judging us, or doubts about ourselves. Ex. “My friends don’t like me.”
  2. Challenge the negative thought. Pretend you are having a debate with yourself, and take the counter point. In what ways is that negative thought untrue? What could be other possibilities? What are you missing? Ex. “My friends call me up every weekend and tell me they like seeing me and do nice things for me, so that evidence shows me that they do like me, even if they don’t always call back right away.”
  3. Understand what’s triggering the negative thought and what your feelings about it are telling you. Is it because you feel insecure around a certain person or a specific thing? Can you see a connection with how you’re feeling now and something that may have happened in the past? In what ways is this situation different from the one you were in before? Ex. “I feel insecure about my friends not liking me because I don’t always like myself and I’m worried that people will not want to be around me.”
  4. Replace the negative thought with a positive thought. Now that you’ve gone through the logic and you realize the negative thought isn’t completely true, and you’ve identified where it may be coming from, it’s time to start working on a positive habit to replace it. Make a counter thought that you can pull out to replace the negative thought next time it comes up. “People in my life like me, and there are things about me that are likable. If someone doesn’t call me back right away, they are probably just busy and they’ll get back to me eventually.”
  5. Repeat. When your negative thought comes back into mind, pull out your counter thought. Keep reinforcing the positive thought when you start feeling the negativity come on, and identify other problematic thoughts that you notice and replace them with their own counter thoughts too.

For more reading on CBT, check out this book by Seth Gillihan, or these free worksheets to do exercises on your own!

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