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Challenging Negative Thinking: Key Steps

Automatic Negative Thoughts

It is only human to think negatively about the world. It helped prehistoric men survive as being prepared for the worst-case scenario ensured that they stay afloat in a dangerous and hectic world of yet unexplored dangers. It was definitely beneficial to believe that if you enter the dark cave, you would be eaten by the tiger than to hope for a shelter. However, humans have tamed the world since that time, thus, rendering their learned behavior bunkum.

It is easier to adhere to ingrained principles than to challenge and transform them. People often do not realize that what they think informs their feelings, which in their turn construct their reality and determine their future. Thoughts are seen as a mere part of human nature like eating or sleeping, but they should be given more credit. People are so vulnerable to fallacies partly because of how little attention they pay to the way their cognitive processes flow.

In this article I would like to discuss the most typical pitfalls of thinking which trap people and stunt their development.

Why Should I Care?

Old wisdom stimulates that actions speak louder than words; therefore, most people would leave their thoughts at the periphery while assigning utmost importance to their deeds. However, if you consider it for a moment, you will realize that all your goals and motivations are born in the recesses of your brain.

So, if you want to have a happy and fulfilling life, first of all, you need to clear your thoughts of all the trashy ideas and misconceptions. You need to detect where they come from and pull out the metaphorical roots of the problem. 

Thoughts can be poison, or they can be medicine. You are the pharmacologist of your own brain; thus, you need to train for this important life-long job. Many people live their lives without even realizing how dysfunctional their thinking is and how pernicious it is to their well-being. Do not repeat their mistakes. Learn to think accurately to have the best experience with your fleeting existence.

The Common Traps

Of course, we are all unique, and it is impossible to measure everyone by the same yardstick. However, psychiatrists have long ago singled out the most typical cognitive distortions which their clients develop.

  1. Personalization: People are pretty self-centered creatures. It is no wonder, as everybody’s main goal on this planet is to complete a life journey from the beginning till the end in the best way possible. There is no dual responsibility here, and it forces humans to put their personal interests first.

    However, sometimes it can make people think that everything that happens is somehow related to them. For instance, if you fail to show up at the meeting and your company loses a tender – you might infer that this failure wouldn’t have occurred if only you were there. Such thinking can cause you to feel intense guilt over things you can barely control. It has a potential to crush your self-esteem because such mishaps are quite frequent in the modern life, and if you assume responsibility for every single one, you will become a real loser. No kidding here.

  2. Catastrophizing: As you might deduce from the name, this fallacy requires a creative ability to blow even the tiniest event out of the imaginable proportions. Let’s imagine you were denied from a university of your dream. As an ardent proponent of catastrophizing, you would immediately conclude that education is not for you, and that no university in the whole universe is ever going to accept an idiot like you. Even though for a reasonable person it is obvious that the sample size is too limited and the results have not been once replicated to draw such drastic conclusions.
  3. Fairness: It is tempting to believe that if you work hard, you will reach all your dreams, and all the roads will be paved with gold, and all the mortals will be fascinated by your greatness. However, it is naive to expect this degree of fairness from the world. If you believe that everything should work out in your favor if only you put enough efforts, you are on the fast lane to anger, resentment and disappointment. There is no intrinsic justice governing the world. You should accept its randomness and unfairness if you want to be strong in the face of difficulties.

Ways of Coping

There are multiple techniques which can help you combat negative thoughts.

  1. Writing: Writing down your thoughts and subsequent feelings as well as describing the events which preceded or followed them is a great way to circumvent the habitual short cut thinking and actually access a more detailed picture. Even if you are short on time, it is crucial that you do it as it helps you expand you understanding of the problem and view it in a wider context.
  2. Reframing: The world is full of clues, and it is up to you, which ones to spot and which to ignore. If you trained your brain to notice only the negative aspects of your life, it would be very hard for you to shift the flow of your thinking. However, you should simply start. Sooner or later your brain will understand what you want from it, and will alter your thoughts’ pattern.
  3. Relaxing: It is confirmed that sport and meditation help gain a new perspective on life. Muscle relaxation and breathing techniques will open your brain to processing new ideas which are bound to improve your future.


You should understand one simple fact – your thoughts are not facts. Therefore, it is silly to stick to them even when they obviously harm you. There is always a better way – and you should start looking for it in your brain, not in the external reality.

Life can be harsh and unfair, and you need to accept it if you want to throttle your negative thinking and live a happy life. Everybody has their flaws, but being imperfect is not an excuse to base your existence on faulty preconceptions and automatic thoughts.

As a psychiatrist Aeron Beck once discovered, it is not the events, but our perception of them that frustrates us. We need to go beyond our natural emotional reactions and dig up logical explanations in order to have an accurate or at least a close understanding of our lives and the world around. 

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