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Hijack Your Negative Thinking

As human beings, we are actually wired for negativity. Our primitive mind uses fear and negativity as a way to keep us safe. This may have been highly effective hundreds of years ago but we are no longer living in a time where our lives are in danger with daily physical threats.

Many of us tend to have cognitive distortions, these are negative thinking patterns that our mind perceives as reality. These thinking patterns can lead to anxiety, frustration, depression, and overall discontentment in life.

These common thought patterns occur automatically in your normal day-to-day thoughts. Your mind is generally on autopilot which makes these thoughts difficult to recognize, as their habitual nature is wired into your brain.

Everyone experiences some form of cognitive distortion from time to time. The difference is some people can recognize fairly quickly that these thoughts are irrational and can bring themselves back to reality. Others may have difficulty recognizing what they are thinking is false and inaccurate.

It is important to recognize that all cognitive distortions are:

  1. Habitual patterns of thinking or beliefs

  2. False, inaccurate, and often exaggerated thoughts

  3. Manifest as negative emotions or feelings

  4. May increase anxiety and depression, potentially causing psychological damage

Our brain tends to take shortcuts. It remembers things from your past and will tend to make that same connection when similar thoughts or emotions occur. This is good for helping you remember things but can be dangerous for negative thoughts and emotions such as anxiety or depression. If the thought distortions are reinforced often enough due to your habitual thinking, it can lead to an increase in anxiety, depression, and unhealthy relationships.

By familiarizing yourself with the common cognitive distortions list, you can identify negative thoughts and patterns to avoid negative thinking traps altogether. Managing your thoughts in a positive way will help you recognize negative thinking and move towards automatically influencing how you feel and will improve your mental well-being.

1. Polarized Thinking Polarized thinking is when you have “All-or-Nothing" or “Black and White” thinking patterns. When you have polarized thinking you believe you have to be perfect or you are a complete failure because you see things in terms of “either/or” categories. There is no middle ground that allows for the complexities of realistic thoughts. A person with black-and-white thinking only thinks in extremes.

Polarized Thinking Example A student who gets an A- on an exam feels like a failure because they are used to getting A+ grades only. They have the mentality, “If I am not successful at everything I do, I am a complete failure”.

2. Mental Filtering Mental filtering consists of two types of distortions. Both occur when you focus solely on the negative aspects of an experience.

Negative Mental Filtering Negative Mental Filtering is when you focus on the negatives of a situation and filter out all the positive aspects. You will magnify those negative details and dwell on those feelings. Your vision of reality can become dark and distorted due to your focus on the negatives. This prevents you from seeing things clearly as you are focused on what’s not working, rather than what is working. You have probably received many compliments in life but focus only on your negative features.

Negative Mental Filtering Example You receive a performance review at work and it is a great review but you focus solely on the one negative critique your manager made.

Disqualifying the Positive This differs from Negative Mental Filtering in that this distortion acknowledges the positive experiences but refuses to accept them. Disqualifying the Positive is a complete rejection of positive experiences. You will invalidate and ignore the positives while finding excuses to turn them into negatives. This occurs even though there is clear evidence that it is positive.

Disqualifying the Positive Example You have been working on your cooking skills and make an excellent meal for your family. After everyone compliments you on it you acknowledge it as simply luck or fluke instead of a result of your hard work and effort.

3. Overgeneralization Overgeneralization thinking occurs when you focus on a single event that occurred and you make a conclusion based on this single piece of negative evidence. Since you reached this conclusion from a single occurrence, you incorrectly conclude all similar events going forward will result in the same failure or negative experience.

Overgeneralization Example You hold your first event as an entrepreneur and it is poorly attended. You decide that you should never hold an event again.

4. Jumping to Conclusions There are two types of this distortion, both consist of jumping to conclusions and making assumptions that are not based on any actual evidence.

Mind Reading This distortion occurs when you think you know what the other person is thinking. You assume what other people’s reasons or intentions are and take that interpretation as the only valid reasoning. This is done purely out of assumptions and generally with little or no physical evidence. In reality, there could be many possibilities but you won’t acknowledge them.

Mind Reading Example When you are spending time with a friend, but they seem distracted or uninterested. You automatically jump to the conclusion that it has something to do with you. There could be many reasons, unrelated to you, why they are feeling that way.

Fortune Telling Fortune Telling is similar to mind reading in that it is purely based on your assumptions. This distortion is when you make conclusions and predictions based on little or no evidence. The prediction is generally arbitrary and has a negative outcome.

Fortune Telling Example You have a date with a wonderful person but you predict that the date will go bad. You start making assumptions about how the date will go before it even occurs. The predictions are not based on any actual evidence.

5. Catastrophizing Catastrophizing thoughts occur when the magnitude is exaggerated or diminished.

Magnification Magnification is an over-exaggeration of a thought. This type of thinking leads to worries escalating quickly and becoming the worst-case scenario. Magnification can occur when there are unknowns that you can’t control.

Magnification Example You are waiting for your husband or wife to come home. However, they are running late and you begin to assume the worst. Your worries escalate quickly and the thoughts become exaggerated when there could be many reasonable explanations for why they are late.

Minimization The opposite of magnification, this cognitive distortion consists of minimizing positive experiences. The magnitude of the importance of positive qualities is diminished when this distortion occurs.

Minimization Example You lose 10 pounds but do not acknowledge your accomplishment. Instead, you minimize the importance of the weight loss because you still have more weight you are trying to lose.

6. Personalization This will cause you to take things personally. It will cause a direct and personal reaction to everything others do or say even if it was unrelated to you. You place self-blame for circumstances beyond your control as well as assume you have been intentionally excluded or targeted.

Personalization Example You attend a party but all your friends are busy engaging with other people. You feel like they do not have any interest in being your friend and engaging in conversation with you. This makes you think you don’t belong or are unfairly excluded.

7. Blaming This mind trap consists of blaming others for your problems. It is different from Personalization in that you direct the blame externally. Rather than blaming yourself or taking some responsibility, you tend to play a victim role and hold other people responsible for your pain, your life, or your situation.

Blaming Example Placing blame for relationship issues on your partner instead of sharing the responsibility for actions taken by both partners. You assume the victim mentality and think everything they do is to hurt you.

8. Labeling Labeling is an extreme form of Overgeneralization. When this type of thinking occurs, you assign judgment to yourself or others based on one negative occurrence or incident. Instead of recognizing you or others made a mistake, you attach a label to it. This mislabeling of the situation is generally exaggerated and is solely based on that single incident.

Labeling Example You ask a colleague for help with a task you are working on. Your colleague quickly dismisses your attention and does not help you. Based on this, you assume they are a selfish jerk. However, they could be swamped with work and have immediate deadlines, and are feeling enough pressure themselves. They react negatively to you asking for help but you do not realize the pressure and stress they are under.

9. Always Being Right This thinking pattern causes you to always have the need to be right. You internalize your opinions as facts and will put others on trial to prove that their own opinions or actions are the correct ones. Being wrong is not acceptable and you will go to great lengths to demonstrate your own belief.

Always Being Right Example Two people at work have a disagreement about how one technical part of the project should be executed. One person believes it should be done their way because that’s how it’s always been done. But the other argues based on facts that there are industry-standard procedures that need to be followed. The person completely ignores these facts and argues their opinion to any extent.

10. Should Statements This distortion is a statement of what a person “should” do, “must” do, or even “shouldn’t” do. The statements are enforced on yourself or others. These rules create a lot of pressure, imposing a set of expectations that is not likely to be met. Feelings of guilt, frustration, and even anger or resentment could occur from disappointment.

Should Statements Example Statements like, “I should be working out more," create expectations that are not likely to be met. The pressure created by the “should” statements makes it difficult to meet those expectations and when the failure occurs there is guilt and frustration which makes you less likely to make another attempt.

11. Emotional Reasoning You believe whatever emotion you are feeling during this thought distortion must be true. Your emotion is accepted as fact because all logical reasoning is blocked out. You are incorrectly assuming that the negative feeling brought out by your emotions is the only truth.

Emotional Reasoning Example You might feel lonely because at this moment you are by yourself and your friends are off doing something fun. However, from this feeling, you assume no one loves you or wants to be around you.

12. Control Fallacies The control fallacy cognitive distortion is defined by two beliefs, external and internal control fallacies.

External Control Fallacy External Control is the belief that your life is completely controlled by external factors and fate has already been decided. This distortion creates the feeling you have absolutely no control over your situation.

External Control Fallacy Example You cheat and lie to your partner and when they leave, you feel that it is all their fault for leaving. You think that you had no control over what happened, but you fail to see how your actions affected what happened to you.

Internal Control Fallacy Internal Control is the belief that you have complete control of yourself and your surroundings. This belief assumes you are responsible for the pain and happiness of those around you. If someone isn’t happy, you will assume it was your fault.

Internal Control Fallacy Example A colleague made a technical error on a task at work. This mistake created severe consequences for other tasks. You feel guilty and responsible because when you reviewed their work you missed the mistake.

13. Fallacy of Change This thought distortion assumes that others should change to suit your own interests. You will pressure others to change because you feel the change will bring you happiness. You are convinced that happiness is dependent on the other person changing.

Fallacy of Change Example You might pressure your partner to change a few of their manners. You believe your partner is perfect in every other way except those few minor things and expect those changes will make you even happier.

14. Fallacy of Fairness You assume that all things in life should be applied and measured based on fairness and equality. However, in reality, not all things work out the way you expect them to and you will feel angry and resentful towards those things in life.

Fallacy of Fairness Example A person who struggles with low income might feel anger and resentment towards others who make more money than them. They might feel that they work just as hard if not harder than other people but are not rewarded the same. What the person fails to realize is that others who make more income could have different educational backgrounds with different types of jobs.

15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy This belief is related to the Fallacy of Fairness, in that if we lived in a fair world we would be rewarded fairly. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy distortion is based on the reasoning that you should be rewarded based on how hard you work. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy Example You were expecting to get a promotion this year because of your hard work. You believe you worked harder than the rest of your colleagues but you didn’t get the promotion. You feel resentment towards your colleague because you believe you should have been rewarded for your hard work. However, there could have been many reasons why they were promoted over you, hard work isn’t the only consideration and there are other skills required for the promotion.

If you can correctly identify these negative thinking patterns, it will allow you the opportunity to challenge and dispute those negative thoughts. By continually challenging those thoughts over and over again, the habitual tendency towards cognitive distortions will begin to diminish. Over time, your thoughts will automatically be replaced by more rational thinking!

This takes mindful awareness. The next time you catch yourself in negative thinking, stop and pause. Ask yourself if these thoughts are true. I find gratitude is the antidote to any negative thinking so when you catch yourself in these patterns, you could also try to shift your mind to recognize what you have to be grateful for about this situation, person, or experience.

You want to be your biggest cheerleader, not your biggest critic. You want your headspace to be a happy place! But ultimately, you are the boss inside your mind. Only you can change your mind and change your life.



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