Do you struggle with repetitive negative thoughts?

We all experience some degree of negativity when it comes to our thoughts and feelings, but if it is frequent or intense, it can get in the way of your highest potential in your life, in your career, and in your relationships. 

From a psychological perspective, an exaggerated or perseverating pattern of thought not based on facts is a cognitive distortion. It is our emotional brains convincing us to believe negative things about ourselves, others, and our situations without concrete evidence. 

In today’s episode, you’ll learn more about how cognitive distortions can show up in our lives and wreak havoc on our self-esteem and our interpersonal relationships. So if you are struggling with negative thoughts or feel like there’s a negative filter on your brain- take heart, you can achieve more mastery over your emotional brain (so it stops playing tricks on you)!

Prefer the audio? Listen to it here. 

You can think of cognitive distortions as irrational thoughts that can influence the way we feel. They can come in all shapes and sizes and can show up based on what we experienced in our family of origin, what kind of behavior we saw modeled when we were growing up, societal and cultural norms, and our individual personalities and behavioral tendencies. 

Our beautiful human brains are in part designed to create meaning from our experiences, to protect us from pain, and to keep us safe. It is our responsibility to check our thoughts and feelings instead of just believing every narrative our emotional brains tell us. 

Self-mastery requires slowing down, being mindful, and raising your awareness of emotional and thought patterns not grounded in facts. When our emotional brains are left unchecked, it can take a toll on our mental health and negatively impact how we experience life. 

The first step to changing anything is to identify where you might need to pause, ask questions, and redirect your thoughts based on real data. 

Read through the list below to learn some of the ways cognitive distortions can present and take note of the ones that resonate with you the most. 

1. Exaggerating or Minimizing 

Cognitive distortions can have a way of making things bigger or smaller than they are. This can look like minimizing your accomplishments and talents and exaggerating your mistakes. 

Let’s say you get a promotion at work. Do you think to yourself something like, “It’s no big deal,” “Anyone could have done that,” or “I just got lucky”?  This is an example of a cognitive distortion stealing your well-earned accomplishment and making you feel small. 

When you make a mistake, do you go over it again and again in your mind? Or maybe you make yourself wrong and take the blame when you have a misunderstanding with someone? This is an example of how a cognitive distortion can exaggerate an experience and contribute to repetitive negative thinking. 

2. Catastrophizing

I often call this future-tripping, where we project that the worst possible thing is going to happen in the future. When our minds tell us catastrophe is right around the corner, it can contribute to unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. The truth is while the worst thing might happen, the best, most delicious thing might happen too. 

I’ve heard from clients who think expecting the worst is a way to mentally prepare for it, but let me tell you, from a psychological perspective, this kind of negative thought pattern doesn’t actually prepare you for anything. 

When you catastrophize, you are deciding to feel all those negative emotions over and over again. I would say to my clients, and I say this to you now, “How about you decide you’re only going to feel this once? If something terrible happens, you’ll handle it then.”

You are stronger than you think, and I promise you, visualizing positive outcomes is much healthier. 

3. Overgeneralization

Raise your hand if “always” and “never” creep up in your thoughts on a regular basis. Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion where you make broad interpretations of things that happen. 

This can sound like, “bad things always happen to me,” or “I am always such a disaster”. Let’s say you go on one bad date. Is your primary or repeating thought something like, “I am never going to meet the right person”?

Overgeneralization can also be directed at others and can negatively impact your relationships. It’s a good rule of thumb to leave “always” and “never” out of your vocabulary when you are speaking to yourself and others because think about it- very rarely is something always or never true. 

When you catch yourself overgeneralizing, use your self-awareness to evaluate the evidence fairly. 

4. Personalization

This looks like feeling overly responsible for other people’s feelings. Our emotional brains tell us things outside of ourselves (not on our side of the street) are our job to fix or are our fault. Hello, codependency cognitive distortion. I see you. 

Personalization can lead us to over-accommodate in relationships and engage in codependent behavior patterns. For example, you might think to yourself, “I can’t break up with this person, they had a terrible childhood,” when of course, you are not responsible for their past experiences.  

You might feel guilty or blame yourself for things that are not your responsibility or are out of your control. Example: You blame yourself if your child gets a less than perfect grade and think you are a bad parent. 

5. Jumping to negative conclusions

This cognitive distortion looks like having a smidge of evidence and jumping to the worst possible conclusion. 

Examples: You see a text from a number you don’t recognize on your partner’s phone and decide they are cheating on you. Your boss asks you to do something different and now you’re thinking your position is on the chopping block. 

Jumping to negative conclusions without any facts to back them up is incredibly stressful and can detract from the quality of your life! 

6. Mind-reading

This cognitive distortion trap is where we interpret the thoughts and beliefs of others without any real evidence. Let’s say your partner was a little short with you on the way out the door before their morning coffee. You start creating a narrative on how they are pulling away from you and maybe they don’t love you anymore. Unchecked, this then spirals out into thinking they are going to leave you. 

Can you see how your mind can play tricks on you if you let negativity run the show? How about you just ask them how they feel? In reality, we can’t read anyone else’s mind. 

7. Disqualifying the positive

Recognizing only the negative aspects and disqualifying the positives of any situation is a cognitive distortion. As human beings, we are wired to have a certain negativity bias, because again, our beautiful brains use it as a survival mechanism throughout the course of our evolution. Did you know on average we remember painful experiences 5xs more readily than pleasurable experiences?

I want to be clear I am in no way vilifying negative thoughts. They are a natural part of the human experience. But it is important to keep in mind we are already coming from a deficit when it comes to positive versus negative thinking, so take note when you dismiss the positive things in your life and exaggerate the negative. 

We can’t just believe everything our minds tell us. We all to some degree experience cognitive distortions, but if you are plagued by negative and repetitive thoughts and feelings, I invite you to take some time and space to get into mindful inquiry. 

Raising your awareness of your “go-to” cognitive distortion could be a game-changer in your life, so be sure to download the list of cognitive distortions and steps you can take to raise your awareness of your negative thought patterns!  

Leave me a comment here or connect with me over on Instagram @terricole because I can’t wait to hear what you learned about yourself.

I hope you have an amazing week focusing on what’s right in your life right now and as always, take care of you. 

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    1. Hi Jen
      Great question! I would probably want to know more about their situation. I think when someone is acting in an unhealthy manner that we observe, it’s important to first ask if they want your two cents before offering. Sometimes unsolicited advice can do more harm than good ❤️

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