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Negative Thinking

Negative Thought Patterns Guide

Faulty Thoughts: Where Negative Thinking Patterns Come From

Emotional health and well-being is associated with a positive, optimistic outlook. Our general outlook on life emerges from our thoughts and feelings, which, for better or worse, run largely on autopilot.

Negative thought patterns tend to become automatic, even though they may be profoundly riddled with cognitive distortions, tricks that our minds play on us to convince of things that aren’t really true; for example: “I’ll never be happy,” “I’m a total failure,” or “I’ll always be poor.” Such distortions arise when our cognitive appraisals or interpretations of people and events miss the mark. Faulty, negative thinking patterns form. And they can snowball, leading, over time, to a predominantly negative inner dialogue.

Chronic negative thinkers are creating endless feedback loops: one negative thought feeds another and another. They stop expecting positive outcomes.

Eventually, negative thinking can become a downward spiral into mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders.

Someone with an eating disorder, for example, may perceive themselves as being overweight when, in fact, they’re not. A socially anxious person dreads an upcoming party because she keeps telling herself that she won’t fit in and will only embarrass herself. A depressed person may tend to internalize all adverse situations, even accidents, as being their fault, which triggers unwarranted guilt. Depression, in turn, perpetuates negative thoughts and feelings.

A Stanford University fMRI study found that Major Depression increases connectivity between two brain areas that act in concert to filter out irrelevant thoughts and actions: the dorsal caudate (learning, motivation, and emotion) and a prefrontal cortex area involved in maintaining goals and regulating emotion. Because they also found parallel neurological evidence of an increased tendency to ruminate on negative thoughts, the enhanced connectivity between the dorsal caudate and the prefrontal cortex area may suggest that depressed people have trouble filtering, updating and manipulating the content of working memory. The result is that negative thoughts and feelings are perpetuated and ruminated upon, effectively crowding out positive thoughts and feelings (Furman et al, 2011).

Behind Faulty Thoughts: Irrational Core Beliefs

Faulty thought patterns are distorted interpretations of events that are triggered by irrational core beliefs that have taken root in a person’s emotional belief system. Renowned psychologist, Albert Ellis, proposed that we tend to perceive ourselves through the lenses of three irrational core beliefs (Ellis, 2003)…

  1. I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important — and sacred — respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer.
  2. Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me.
  3. The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it’s awful and horrible and I can’t bear it. I can’t ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living.
    • Ellis deliberately used extreme language to demonstrate how we often adopt unreasonable, extreme beliefs. He believed that irrational beliefs generally fall into four broad categories
  1. Absolute requirements. Thinking in absolutes (I must… I have to…), which sets unreasonable and often irrational standards for perfection, which only set us up for negative outcomes. Or to put it in awfulized language: “There is invariably a right, precise and perfect solution to human problems and it is awful if this perfect solution is not found.”
  2. The global negative. The tendency to evaluate all attributes of a person, place or thing as inferior, rather than allowing for individual properties and shades of gray. (e.g., He’s a loser. This is the worst restaurant ever.)
  3. Catastrophizing. Exaggerating the importance and impact of events — even relatively insignificant events — and concluding that they’re unbearable.
  4. Low frustration tolerance. An inability to tolerate adverse events without experiencing frustration, which may manifest as irritation, angry outbursts or short-term hedonism, such as obsession with immediate gratification. (e.g., I can’t bear this anymore!)

You can see that, at the core of irrational beliefs, lies a system of arbitrary, rigid rules and demands — shoulds, oughts, and musts — and a tendency to ‘awfulize’ situations, which tends to also surface in our verbal language cues. Spoken language can betray our innermost thoughts.

Spotting Common Faulty Thought Patterns

Faulty thoughts can take many forms, but you’ll see how irrational core beliefs manifest in these common negative thought patterns…

Negative filter

Magnifying the negative details of a situation while filtering out all the positive aspects. (e.g., My boss only promoted me to get rid of me! Look how many people don’t like me!) A tendency to look for a threat in a situation, rather than seeing the situation as a challenge or opportunity. Negative filterers focus on the negative details exclusively so that their overall perception becomes negative, dark and distorted. For example, someone scores 90% on an exam, but can’t stop obsessing about the 10% she got wrong.

Polarized, dichotomous, black-and-white thinking.

An immature, all-or-nothing, good or bad, either-or view of the world. If you’re not perfect, you must be a total failure. There are no shades of gray, no middle ground. (e.g., I always fail when I try something new!). Forcing things to be black or white allows us to feel that our choices are right — they must be right. It’s easy to unconsciously paint the world in black and white because it helps us anchor ourselves in something definitive, especially if we’re operating under the influence of fragile self-esteem. But the ability to recognize the many shades of gray in life is a wider, healthier perspective. Black-and-white thinkers use language like “always” and “never,” polar opposites that are characteristic of viewing everything in extremes. Developmental psychologists view polarized thinking as “primitive” because it’s characteristic of children, who tend to express their thoughts in black and white terms because they haven’t yet grasped the subtlety of gray shades. For example, a child who feels unloved assumes that she must be hated because she doesn’t understand how positive and negative feelings can coexist or how to reconcile feelings that fall in between. But unfortunately, even as adults, we may slip into primitive, immature thoughts and behaviors as a defense mechanism, essentially regressing to how we viewed the world as children.

Catastrophizing

Making mountains out of molehills, exaggerating the importance and impact of (often insignificant) events; a tendency to always expect disaster and to believe that you will not be able to bear it. Descriptions of events tend to include extreme adjectives such as “terrible,” “horrible,” “awful” (e.g., I’ll never recover from this! I can’t stand it! It’s the end of the world! My whole life is ruined! I’ll never be happy again!)

Overgeneralization, assigning distorted global impact

Forming an extreme general belief based on a single specific incident and inappropriately applying this generalization to different or dissimilar situations. Overgeneralizations often use language such as “never” or “always,” (e.g., You never let me have any fun…) as if every single specific event that occurs is just one more incident in a never-ending process. Overgeneralizers may generalize their failure at a specific task as proof that they’re a global failure, a “total loser.” (e.g., I can’t even boil eggs without scorching them. I’m a total failure.) Or after experiencing one unpleasant outcome, a person might conclude that the same result will happen again and again. For example, a man who is rebuffed by a prospective suitor, may conclude that he will always be rebuffed by every woman he falls in love with. Or a person who has a troubled relationship with a work colleague may decide that she is a failure in all her relationships.

Global labeling.

Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others. (e.g., He’s no good! I’m a rotten person.) Global labels tend to use emotionally loaded language. For example, when a daughter drops her children at daycare, her mother accuses her of “abandoning her children to strangers.”

False ‘should’

Interpreting events in terms of how things should be, rather than simply focusing on what is, which pressures us or (or we may pressure others) to achieve goals that may be unrealistic, unattainable. When we (or others) fail, we feel frustrated and resentful.  (e.g., I should do well in this job. If I don’t, I’m a failure.)

Personalization

A tendency to think that everything people do or say is a direct, personal reaction to you. (e.g., Why are they staring at me? What’s wrong with me?) Personalizers tend to assume a disproportionate amount of blame for negative outcomes. (e.g., It’s my fault that the marriage failed.) Personalization involves linking two events when there’s no objective, rational basis connecting them. For example, a student who raises his hand in class is not called upon by the professor and concludes that it’s because the professor doesn’t like him. Personalizers are self-esteem-challenged individuals who tend to constantly compare themselves to others to determine who’s smarter, better looking, etc. (e.g., He’s got all the talent.) They usually see themselves as ‘mind readers’ — they assume that they know what someone else is thinking about them without sufficient evidence of that person’s thoughts. (e.g., He thinks I’m a loser!)

Rumination

The term rumination is a nod to the suborder of mammals Ruminantia (cows, sheep, goats, deer, and giraffes), that endlessly “chew a cud” of regurgitated, partially digested food. Human ruminants dwell endlessly on the past (e.g., If only I had…), churning negative feelings over and over again, re-analyzing past negative events again and again in a non-constructive way, which provokes chronic stress and yet more rumination. Ruminators usually have a regret orientation, obsessing over how they could have done things better in the past, rather than focusing on what they can do better now. (e.g., If I had only tried harder, I could have had a better [fill in the blank].)

Deflecting blame

Blame deflectors have a childish tendency to blame something or someone else when things don’t go their way because they’re usually operating from a place of fragile self-esteem. They believe that other people are the source of their negative feelings and tend to hold others responsible for their pain. (e.g., Stop trying to make me feel bad about myself! My husband made me do it. It’s my boss’s fault I didn’t finish the report in time. I would have done better in school if my parents had been more supportive.) Blame deflectors may manipulate language so that they will appear to be right, righteous, honest or truthful. For example, someone who gets caught in a lie might say, “I didn’t lie — I changed my mind.” (The politician’s favorite!)

Fortune telling

Fortune tellers predict negative outcomes with certainty without sufficient evidence and before they’ve even experienced the situation. For the fortune teller, danger always lies ahead, things are always about to get worse. (e.g.,  I’ll never live to see my 60th birthday. I have an interview next week for a great job, but I won’t get the job.)

Arbitrary inference

Jumping to negative conclusions about oneself or others without sufficient or relevant information. When we have a strong expectation of a negative outcome, our feelings-based prediction can seem like an already-established fact. (e.g., A man interviews with a potential employer, doesn’t get the job and concludes that he’s totally worthless and that no company will hire him. Or someone performs badly on one math exam and decides that she’ll never be good at math.)

Emotional reasoning

Letting your feelings determine your interpretation of reality. (e.g., I feel depressed, therefore, I must hate my job. I feel bad, so I must be bad.) Depressives, in particular, tend to accept their feelings as evidence of truth and in doing so, allow feelings to determine the facts.

Transforming Negatives Into Positives

Sometimes optimism can be a simple but effective cure for faulty thinking. Maintaining an optimistic outlook reduces the risk of health problems and helps us cope with major life stressors. Finnish workplace studies of 5007 employees, for example, found that the number of sick days following a major life event was smaller for those who scored higher on optimism scales. Sick leave is typically considered to be an indicator of whether someone will retire early due to disability and is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, alcohol-related illnesses and suicide (Kivmaki et al, 2008).

A recent review of 200 scientific studies found that optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness actually offered protection against cardiovascular disease, regardless of other common risk factors such as age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight.

The most optimistic individuals were found to have a 50 percent reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event (Boehm, Kubzansky, 2012).

But the absence of the negative is not the same as the presence of the positive. Since words are the building blocks of negative thoughts, making slight changes to your internal semantics can help transform negative thoughts into positive ones. Adjusting black-and-white, emotionally loaded language to more flexible language allows to consider a wider perspective that includes the gray subtleties in life. For example:

 

Replace thisWith this…
 I should I prefer or I want
 I should not I do not prefer, I don’t want
 I must I wish
 I have to I would like to
 I must not I prefer not to
 I deserve I desire
 Always Usually, often, frequently
 Never Rarely
 Forever Until, unless
 Awful, horrible Unfortunate, unfavorable
 Perfect Successful

 

Next time you catch yourself having a negative thought, ask yourself: Now, is this really true? Could you convince a jury that your interpretation is true? If this is a recurring thought, has it ever proven to be true?  Examine your logic. Examine the evidence — believe in the evidence. Once you become aware of your own faulty thought patterns, it becomes much easier to adjust them to rational, balanced thinking.

And meditation can help. How? See How Sahaja Meditation Adjusts Faulty, Negative Thinking).

References

Boehm, J. K., & Kubzansky, L. D. The heart’s content: The association between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular health. Psychological Bulletin, April 2012.

Ellis, Albert (2003). Early theories and practices of rational emotive behavior theory and how they have been augmented and revised during the last three decades. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 21 (3,4).

Daniella J Furman, J Paul Hamilton, Ian H Gotlib. Frontostriatal functional connectivity in major depressive disorder. Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders 2011, 1:11 (8 December 2011)

Kivimaki, Mika, Ph,D., Vahtera, Jussi M.D., Elovainio, Marko Ph.D., Health Psychology, “Optimism and Pessimism as Predictors of Change in Health After Death or Onset of Severe Illness in Family,” Vol. 24, No. 4.