The past couple of months have not been my best.
I lost my brother unexpectedly and tragically, and a few days later my father-in-law passed away.
Around the same time, there were some other family events that were upsetting, stirring up painful and difficult memories.
More recently, I slipped and fell on a sheet of ice, breaking my wrist on my dominant hand. For a writer and blogger, this has been a challenging setback to say the least.
Going through this series of unfortunate events has taken a toll on my usual upbeat emotional state. Of course, it’s normal to grieve the loss of people you love, but I found myself sinking into a low level depression.
My mind kept latching on to painful thoughts and memories, and the more I looped these thoughts, the worse I felt.
It was as though the entire focus of my perceptions about life had shifted. All of the positive, good things about my life (and there are so many) receded into the background, and every possible negative belief and fear was spotlighted and magnified.
Fortunately, I was aware enough of what was happening that I took action — finding someone to talk to, getting more exercise, meditating, and most importantly, becoming more aware of my negative thoughts and how they were impacting me.
In my efforts to recalibrate my thoughts and emotions, I discovered a book that I can’t believe I hadn’t run across earlier in my life. It’s called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, MD. Whether you are feeling down and depressed right now, or you want to learn some great skills to prevent depression in the future, this book needs to be on your “must read” list.
One of the most enlightening parts of Dr. Burns book is his explanation of the various negative thinking patterns, or “cognitive distortions” as he calls them, that lead you down a mental rabbit hole toward despair, anxiety, and hopelessness.
If you are feeling down, review these 10 negative thinking patterns to see if you might be trapped by one or more of them:
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
With all-or-nothing thinking, you view yourself or life situations through a black or white only lens. If someone puts you down, you must be an unlikable person. If you don’t get the new client, you must be a complete failure at your job. If your friend cancels a dinner date, he must not like you anymore.
This kind of thinking doesn’t allow for the probability that there are other more positive realities. Your mind B-lines directly to the most negative, unpleasant reasons or outcomes.
All-or-nothing thinking often begins with exaggerated expectations or distorted perceptions. When you view life in terms of absolutes, you set yourself up for unhappiness and disappointment.
The key here is to notice how you might be falling victim to all-or-nothing thinking. Where are your expectations and perceptions out of line with reality? Once you identify these patterns, begin substituting more realistic thoughts and beliefs for your black and white mindset.
You might say to yourself something like, “Mary cancelled our lunch date today, but it’s highly likely she had an important reason to do so. It doesn’t mean she dislikes me or doesn’t want to spend time with me.”
With overgeneralization, you view one negative event as indicative of an ongoing pattern. For example, during my difficult few months, my mind kept going to the thought, “I’m just destined to have bad things happen to me.”
Of course this isn’t true. I have and will continue to have many wonderful and positive things happen. But my distorted perceptions only had room for this myopic thinking.
When you overgeneralize, you get stuck in the thought that one bad event triggers a never-ending sequel from which you can’t escape.
But the truth is, people have difficult challenges or painful circumstances occur all the time, but they move on from them and experience more positive outcomes in the future.
If you are stuck in this overgeneralizing thought pattern, your job is to remind yourself that you are reinforcing a lie. If you keep telling this lie, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to move forward and try again. You create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.
Break the thinking pattern, and you are free to view your future much more optimistically.
3. Mental Filtering
With mental filtering, you scan an event or situation for the most negative detail and then focus on that detail excessively. As a result, you perceive the entire situation as negative.
For example, let’s say you’re giving a dinner party, and you accidentally burn the dessert. With mental filtering, you jump to the conclusion that the entire party was a disaster. Even though everyone at the party was enjoying themselves and all other parts of the meal were delicious, you can only see the one negative thing, and it taints your entire perception.
When you’re feeling down or depressed, this is an easy trap to fall into. Rather than wearing rose-colored glasses, you’re wearing dark glasses that only allow you to see your mistakes, disappointments, or flaws.
It takes a conscious effort to take off those dark glasses and view your world through a more positive lens.
When you find yourself in this frame of mind, step back and review the situation again, intentionally looking for good things rather than focusing only on the bad.
4. Disqualifying The Positive
This distortion can go hand-in-hand with mental filtering. Not only do you focus on the negative parts of a situation, but you discount the positive.
In fact, sometimes you twist the positive so that it no longer counts as something good, and instead you perceive positive situations as negative. It’s as though you’re intent on finding proof that your negative beliefs are true, even when evidence shows they aren’t true (or entirely true).
For example, you might think, “No one really loves me. I’m all alone.” Then your sister points out that she loves you and is there for you, but you discount it by saying, “Yeah, but you’re my sister. You have to love me.”
By throwing cold water on the good things in your life, especially when those good things undermine your negative beliefs, you’re committing yourself to a life sentence of unhappiness, making your world needlessly bleak.
If you see this quality in yourself, even in small ways, it’s your call to make change and focus on the positive. Research has shown that focusing on gratitude as a daily habit can made a huge difference in your feelings of happiness.
5. Jumping to Conclusions
When you jump to conclusions, you make a negative assumption about a situation before you have all of the facts. Your knee-jerk reaction is to assume the worst, even though you may not have any evidence to support a negative outcome.
One way this plays out is that you get a negative idea in your head and completely buy into it without any supporting evidence. You might go to a party, walk in the door, and think, “I have nothing in common with anyone here. No one is going to like me.”
This assumption is erroneous, but because of your frame of mind, your thoughts go to this negative belief immediately.
Another way you can jump to conclusions is by conjuring up terrible, unpleasant events from thin air. You predict that you’re doomed to some dire situation, or you anticipate a negative outcome.
To help with this distortion, view yourself as a detective determined to ferret out the reality and trut
h of your beliefs. Do you have enough evidence to prove the negative thoughts you are thinking? Are your conclusions really based in fact?
Most of the time you’ll find there is little to no evidence that the negative conclusion you’ve reached has any real validity.
When you practice measuring your assumptions against reality, your negative thoughts will lose some of their power, and your mood will lift.
6. Magnification and Minimization
With this negative thinking trap, you tend to catastrophize your mistakes, imperfections, or difficult situations. Your thinking is out of proportion to the situation, as you can only see the worst possible outcome or reality.
For example, your doctor might suggest he wants to run some additional blood work after your physical, and you assume you must have some terrible disease. Your fear and anxiety are so exaggerated that you might as well have had a dire diagnosis — but you haven’t.
Minimization of the positive goes hand in hand with this tendency to catastrophize. Anything positive that might reveal the another, happier possibility is diminished in your mind.
In the example above, your doctor might say, “Don’t worry. This is just a precaution. I have no reason to think your blood work will be abnormal.” But you continue to focus on the terrible “what ifs” rather than assuming the odds are in your favor.
This is a bad mental habit to adopt and one that can cause you tremendous suffering and anxiety if you don’t address it. You have to train your emotions using the power of your mind.
Examine the situation rationally, focus on the good points, and remind yourself of these facts every time you begin to magnify problems and minimize good possibilities.
7. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning leads you to believe that your feelings have more validity and truth than reality does.
You feel depressed, so you assume that your life must be terrible. You feel angry, so you think you are justified in letting your irritable mood infect everyone around you. You feel insecure, so you assume you will never achieve anything.
As I’ve mentioned, feelings are produced by your thoughts and beliefs. If your thoughts and beliefs are negative and distorted, you are bound to have unpleasant emotions. But because feelings are so powerful, they trick you into believing that they hold the truth.
Your goal here is to learn to step outside of your feelings long enough to use your rational brain. Examine the thoughts behind your feelings. What have you been thinking that might be contributing to your bad feelings? Are these thoughts distorted?
Put more faith in your reasoning ability to sort out your thought patterns rather than blindly accepting what your feelings are telling you. Work on your thoughts, and you’ll discover your feelings will follow.
When your feelings tell you that you’re not motivated, or you can’t do something, take action anyway. You’ll find that in addition to changing your thoughts, taking action is a powerful antidote to apathy and depression.
8. Should Statements
Making “should” statements can really undermine your happiness, as you end up feeling bad about yourself or frustrated with others.
If you think, “I really should get up and exercise,” but then you don’t do it, then you feel more self-loathing and guilt. Making should statements only sets you up for another heaping dose of unhappiness, because they highlight how your behavior has fallen short of your expectations.
When you make should statements about others — “He really should have followed through on his commitment” — then you stir the pot of resentment and disappointment. Your bitterness and expectations can sour your relationships, which adds further to a sense of disconnection and depression.
Take the pressure off of yourself and others by eliminating the word “should.” Don’t be your own judge and jury, whipping yourself whenever you miss the mark you’ve set for yourself.
Change your language to reflect a more positive, realistic point of view. “I want to exercise today, and I’m going to do my best to make it happen.” If it doesn’t, you can say, “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
If someone let’s you down, give them (and yourself) some grace. “I wish he’d followed through, but I can’t control his behavior. Maybe he’ll learn from this and do better next time.”
Making these subtle shifts in your self-talk can make a huge difference in how you feel.
9. Labeling and Mislabeling
This thought trap is an extreme form of overgeneralizing. And it’s a form of self-talk that is highly destructive to your self-esteem and happiness.
With this trap, you identify your sense of self with a negative event or mistake. Let’s say you screw up a presentation at work. Rather thank thinking, “I flubbed this presentation, but I know what I did wrong, and I will do better next time” — you think, “I’m a total screw-up. I’m not cut out for this job.”
We often label (or mislabel) ourselves based on labels that were applied to us in childhood that are no longer accurate. If your dad constantly yelled, “Don’t be such an idiot!” then you may still carry this self-perception with you.
If you were viewed as the shy one or the difficult child, you may still apply these names to yourself, even if they aren’t true for you any longer.
When you label yourself, the words you use can be very self-destructive and unkind. We often say things to ourselves that we’d never say to another person. “What a pig I am!” “I’m such a loser.” “I’m not very smart.”
Your identity is far more complex than any one event or series of events. You are so much more than your last mistake or bad decision.
One of the best ways I’ve learned to quash this labeling trap is by viewing myself as my own best friend. How would a loving, supportive friend speak to you after a mistake or failure? How would they talk to you about your appearance or your intellect?
Use kind, loving, supportive words with yourself, and give yourself the same deference and grace that you’d give someone you care about.
With personalization, you assume you’re responsible for a problem or negative event when it’s clear you had no control over the situation.
For example, if one of your children gets in trouble at school, you blame yourself for his or her behavior, thinking you’re a bad parent.
Personalization causes you to feel an unnecessary emotional burden and guilt for circumstances that aren’t in your control. You may have influence over other people’s behavior and decisions, but you can’t control others.
Dealing with this distortion requires some realistic acceptance on your part. You need to accept that what others choose to say or do is ultimately their responsibility. This is especially true when dealing with other adults who may choose not to accept or follow your advice or influence.
Even though we have a certain amount of control over minor children, we still can’t control all of their decisions and behaviors.
Children are still developing their judgment and need to make mistakes and bad decisions in order to learn from them. Being a “perfect” parent with perfect kids is not only unrealistic, but also it doesn’t serve your kids in the long run.
As you learn to recognize these negative thought patterns in yourself, your awareness will be the first step in making change. Catching yourself in one of these mind traps will give you enough pause to challenge your thinking and reframe the way you perceive a situation and your thoughts about it.
With practice, you’ll develop a new habit of viewing life through a more realistic, rational, and positive lens. As your thinking changes, so will your emotional state. You will feel more positive, confident, and hopeful about the future.