Have you ever had a negative thought that you weren’t quite sure where it came from? It’s not like you purposely chose to think that thought, it just sort of showed up out of nowhere; it shows up in your brain over and over again, and you don’t even know why.
This is called a negative thinking pattern, and when left unchecked, it can significantly, negatively influence our overall happiness and well-being.
Automatic thoughts happen to all of us, and most of the time, they’re harmless and actually genuinely helpful in our day-to-day lives; think of brushing your teeth, showering, driving the same route every day.
The downside of automatic thoughts is because they happen automatically, we often don’t pay attention to them — and when they’re negative, they can be consistently tearing us down and we don’t even realize it.
What is an automatic negative thinking pattern?
An automatic negative thinking pattern is when you have negative beliefs that occur consistently. These automatic negative thoughts are an involuntary response to people and situations; a response that’s been shaped based on the subconscious beliefs you hold about yourself, others and the world around you.
Since these negative thoughts happen automatically and regularly, they can deeply affect our self-image, relationships and the overall ability to live our lives to the fullest. They can lead to anger, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem — they can convince us we’ll never be loved in the way we hope to be, or that we’ll never achieve what we’ve always wanted to. A chronic negative thinking pattern can be completely crippling.
That’s why in this article, we’re going to give you five steps to challenge your negative thoughts so you can replace them with ones that are genuinely beneficial to your life.
1. Identify and isolate thought patterns
If we’re being honest, we know who or what in our life kicks off the most negative thoughts. Maybe it’s our job, our parents, or where we live — identify the areas of your life that fuels the most negative thoughts so you can know when you’re most vulnerable to pessimism.
Developing this level of awareness takes a lot of practice, especially because you’ve been thinking negatively on autopilot for so long. You may not even realize just how often or how extreme your thoughts have become until you decide to pay close attention to them.
When you notice yourself having a particularly pessimistic thought, pause; you can even say “stop” out loud to strengthen the habit. Learning to pause when you have a negative thought is what’s going to allow you to complete the next step.
2. Distance yourself from your thoughts
One of the reasons our thoughts can be so damaging is because we believe them. If we do manage to have some level of self-awareness, it can often result in recognizing a thought and then beating ourselves up for having such an awful thought. This will only perpetuate your negative thinking patterns though.
When you have a negative thought, observe it without judgment. One of the best habits you can establish when learning to change negative thinking patterns is to distance yourself from your thoughts. This will help you to begin clearly seeing how unpleasant (and often untruthful) they are, which will remove their power to keep you stunted.
3. Challenge negative thinking
Since a negative thinking pattern happens on autopilot, we can get so used to listening to this pessimistic commentary that we don’t bother to question if what it’s saying is true.
For instance, if you’re late on your first day to work at a new job and as you walk in the door, your mind starts rambling about how everyone is going to hate you, you’re never going to get a promotion now, the boss might even fire you — challenge those thoughts with logic.
No one is going to hate you for being late. Some people might judge you, but so what? Everyone has, at some point, been late to work.
Being late once is not enough to sabotage your chances of getting a future promotion. It might not make the best impression on your boss, but it’s not enough to cripple your entire career.
As for being fired because you were late the first day? That’s just not going to happen.
Challenge your negative thoughts; they can’t hold up when contradicted with the truth.
4. Practice, practice, practice
It’s going to take time and consistency to challenge and change negative thinking patterns. You can’t only occasionally challenge them, don’t believe it’s not going to work or give up the practice after only a couple of months. You have to choose to commit to the process and practice consistently, even if you don’t see results right away.
5. Reach out for additional support
When it comes to changing negative thinking patterns, it can feel like a daunting task. If you’ve been thinking this way for perhaps longer than you can even remember, the thought of changing your entire thought process can feel overwhelming.
Talking to friends and family can help, but it’s not a replacement for professional help. That’s why we here at Pyramid Counseling have a variety of counseling services available to help you change your negative thinking patterns.