October 14, 2021

Challenging Negative Thinking

By Roslyn Jordan
Identity Development

Do not be conformed to the patterns of the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. – Romans 12:2

This is one of the key Scriptures I often find myself repeating and letting my mind rest on when reflecting on God’s word. While there is a deeper implication in this Scripture, in a general sense, we learn that how we think impacts who we are and ultimately impacts how we think, what we do, how we feel and can impact our physical bodies and well-being. Cognitive behavior therapy tells us that how we think, how we feel emotionally, what we do and that our physical reactions are interconnected – addressing one area can help shift the others. For the purpose of this blog I am focusing on our thinking. 

Distorted Thinking

When considering the area of thinking and thoughts dependent on our life experiences as well as what we have told ourselves or internalized from others, we may think about ourselves, others and the world in ways that are not helpful and productive. ‘What if’ thinking, always imagining what might be, or catastrophic thinking – assuming the worst thing possible will happen – are some of the more popular unhelpful thinking styles with which many people engage. Another unhelpful thinking style arise overgeneralizing, a thinking style in which one mishap leads to making a broader conclusion about the situation. An example of overgeneralizing is not doing well on a test and then asserting, “I am never going to be anything.” One more unhelpful thinking style is fortune telling – the assumption that we know how or what someone else might say or react to a circumstance. These are but a few of the unhelpful ways we might find ourselves thinking if we are not mindful. 

Layered Thinking

When we consider the area of thinking and thoughts, we have automatic thoughts, underlying rules and assumptions, and core beliefs. Once again, these are shaped by those words spoken to or over us as well as our life experiences which we have internalized. Automatic thoughts are those thoughts, words, and or images that pop up in response to a situation which then may influence our self-talk and how we engage with others and the world in a moment. Underlying assumptions and rules are that next level of thought of which are often unconscious.  Rules and assumptions are learned and shaped by family, culture and other entities. They are like the track on which we travel through life, informing our daily lives, how we cope with situations and engage the world around us. Lastly, at the center of our thinking are the core beliefs we hold formed, often shaped in the crucible of childhood and impacted for good or bad over the course of our lives. These thoughts and belief systems internalized at a crucial time of our development informs our rules and assumptions and our automatic thoughts. Imagine the grooves in an album or record (remember those?). Like a groove in a record, we all received and have had imprinted in our minds messages that have shaped us, through which we have sought and continue to seek in order to make sense of the world around us. 

Problematic Thinking

Problematic thinking – negative automatic thoughts, maladaptive core beliefs and unhelpful rules and assumptions – shows up in conscious and unconscious ways in our lives: negative self-talk, criticism of ourselves or others, unhealthy and self-defeating behaviors are just a few ways to name. 

So, what are some of the ways we can combat problematic thinking that impacts various areas of our lives and relationships?  When distorted and unhelpful thinking shows up in our automatic thoughts, we can challenge the thought by stepping back in the moment and considering the alternative. We can ask ourselves, What is a different way to think about the situation causing the thoughts? Or, what would I say to a friend who vocalized the thoughts I am having? 

Problematic thinking that underlies unhelpful rules and assumptions is often rigid, inflexible, unrealistic and unreasonable.  Challenging unhelpful underlying rules and assumptions starts first with identifying what are those we hold. Often, unhelpful rules and assumptions are apparent in our speech when we lead off with words such as should, ought, must, have, do or the conditional phrasing, “If…then”. Next, we can step back and consider, “where did the rule come from? In what way is it unrealistic or unreasonable? What is the negative impact of upholding the rule or assumption? 

Unhelpful rules and assumptions and automatic thinking arise out of negative or maladaptive core beliefs; those messages internalized and beliefs we hold that are impacted by the unique experiences that have shaped our lives. Problematic thinking arises when our views of self, others, and the world are filtered through negative core beliefs. We factor in those things that support our belief and leave out the rest. Challenging core beliefs has to do with examining the evidence. The way I am thinking, believing about this or that…is it true? Where’s the evidence? What might I be overlooking or leaving out in my conclusion? Taking this approach often helps us make room to think differently about a situation. 

A New Way of Thinking

How we think impacts who we are, what we are becoming, what we say, what we do, how we feel physically and emotionally, and how we engage the world around us. If you are struggling with negative self-talk, negative self-evaluation, or negative thinking in general and would like help finding a fresh perspective on life while improving your relationship with yourself and others, we would like to come alongside and help. Give us a call!


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