Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT, Financial Therapist, Owner, Symmetry Counseling

As therapists, we frequently work with clients who engage in a lot of negative thinking patterns. Part of providing clients with cognitive behavioral therapy is to help them deconstruct these patterns and begin to look at events more realistically. Listed below are some negative thinking traps that can befall all of us from time to time.

Are you guilty of engaging in any of the following negative thinking traps?

  • Black & white thinking/All or nothing/Dichotomous thinking: This is when things are good or bad, perfect or a disaster, successful or a total failure—this is when there is no in-between, no gray area. “The wedding has to have the perfect flowers or it will be terrible.”
  • Focusing on the negatives/negative filter: This is solely focusing on the negative, scary, or unfair things, and ignoring anything good that is happening. “How much more can go wrong today?”
  • Overgeneralization: The thought that one bad day and your life is now terrible and nothing will ever get better. If you have a negative interaction with someone, you write them off as being a total jerk.
  • Personalization: When you make every reaction or comment others make to mean something about you. For example, your boss didn’t say hello, this must mean that you are about to be fired. The doorman in your building gave you a funny look—you think, “What has he heard about me?”
  • Catastrophizing: A partner is delayed in texting you back and you think he/she is mad at you, or the relationship is over. Your boss gave you some negative feedback about your work, and you think you will be fired and your career is over, no one will ever hire you again, etc.
  • Perfectionism: Setting unrealistic expectations. It is expecting perfection of yourself and not allowing mistakes to be made without engaging in negative self-talk. This is when there is zero self-compassion.
  • Mind Reading: Acting like you know what people are thinking about you, and then reacting to the thoughts you have created that go along with a situation that doesn’t exist. “I can tell by the look on her face that she totally hates me.” I always tell my clients, if you are going to engage in mind-reading, at least have it be only positive thoughts!
  • Minimizing/Discounting: Here you focus on your failures or short-comings and discount your successes as a fluke, or just pure luck. When you fail you see it as being self-defining. “Yes, I may have been the top salesperson in the first 8 months of the year, but the other four months I was a disappointment to the top people.”
  • Blaming: Focusing on the other person as the source of the problem and overlooking your shortcomings. Wanting another to make things right and failing to step up. “Its all her fault, I did nothing wrong.”

In order to reverse or stop negative thinking patterns, you should start to practice positive self-talk. We all have an internal dialogue that plays over and over in our heads. This personal commentary frames how we think about everyday life. One of the ways to recognize and sustain optimism is to intentionally fill our thoughts with positivity, which takes practice.

We often remember negative things we were told as children by our teachers, parents, siblings, and friends. We also remember negative reactions from others that weakened how we felt about ourselves. Over time these negative messages started to fuel our feelings of guilt, fear, anger, and hopelessness.

For example, if a person learned they were worthless as a child, in therapy they will look at ways they add value. Journaling can be a great first step to getting these negative thoughts out of your mind and onto paper. Then you can work alone or with a therapist to re-write or override these messages. When making your list, be specific. Maybe you will write down the message and who you remember hearing that from the most.

Remember, for every negative message there is a positive truth that will override the weight of despair. You will make mistakes, to expect no difficulties or perfection in yourself or in anyone for that matter is unrealistic. Working with a therapist can help you identify the source of these negative thinking patterns and work to reverse or overwrite them. To speak with a therapist at Symmetry Counseling today, please call us at: (312) 578-9990, or contact us online.