Understanding Negative Thinking
Depressed people engage in negative thinking: they tend to perceive themselves, others, and life circumstances, in a negative light.
As a result, they respond poorly to life situations, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of doing poorly, feeling lousy about themselves, and succumbing to depression.
Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, has highlighted three categories of negative thinking — the “cognitive triad”.
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS)
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) refer to the quick, reflexive negative thoughts that seem to come naturally into our minds.
As a consequence, we come to think that these thoughts are our natural responses to any life situation. We believe that there is no other way to think about it, and therefore, we have no control over our thoughts and responses.
Such thoughts include:
“I’m not good at…”
“It’s always me…”
ANTS are the outward reflections of the underlying patterns of Illogical/Distorted thinking:
- Selective Mental Filter: Focusing and dwelling exclusively on negative perceptions, experiences, and memories.
- Catastrophic thinking: Anticipating worst-case scenarios at all times.
- All-or-Nothing thinking: Adopting a black-and-white view: If something is imperfect, then it is a complete failure.
- Over-generalizations: Deriving sweeping negative conclusions about general patterns based on an isolated event.
- Negative Self-Referencing: Perceiving that you are responsible for undesirable outcomes and that others view you in a negative light.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Responding to situations as though you know that it is going to turn out badly.
- Jumping to Conclusions: Interpreting and responding to the situation negatively without any supportive facts.
- Emotional Reasoning: Evaluating the situation based solely on biased negative emotions.
Going deeper, we will find that the aforementioned patterns of thinking stem from entrenched assumptions about ourselves and life.
Some of these dysfunctional assumptions include:
- “I can only be happy if I am successful at everything I do.”
- “I can only be happy if other people like me.”
- “I am a complete failure when I make a mistake.”
- “I am only as good as what others think of me.”
At an even deeper level, such assumptions reveal the core beliefs we have about ourselves, which were probably inculcated within us by our childhood experiences and the adults in our lives.
Over time, they become such an ingrained part of how we think and feel about ourselves that we don’t realize that we can change our perceptions, thoughts, and responses. We then suffer from low self-esteem.
The two classic core beliefs of people with low self-esteem are:
“I’m a good-for-nothing.” and “I’m unlovable.”
By living according to these beliefs, they spent their whole lives trying to prove that they are good enough and/or that they are lovable. At the same time, they erect perfectionistic standards that no one can possibly live up to, thus perpetuating their vicious circle of negative thinking.
Changing Negative Thinking — Cognitive Restructuring
An important fact:
You don’t have to think like this!
What you will learn through an active and conscious process of cognitive restructuring is that you can counter negative thoughts with objective and accurate thoughts.
Cognitive Restructuring Procedures
In order to form new thinking habits through cognitive restructuring, you should keep a diary (actual book or an app on a mobile device) to keep a log of your thoughts and responses.
Here are the steps to follow:
- Identify ANTS: Jot down an ANT — the quick reflexive negative thought that comes to your mind.
- Evaluate ANTS: Evaluate the thought and determine whether it is objectively valid and constructive or not.
- Reframe ANTS: When you have determined that this thought stems from distorted thinking, reframe your thought to reflect an objective reality that is far more constructive and beneficial for you.
Transforming your thought process is not going to take place overnight; rather, it is an ongoing process that you should practice and practice until it becomes second nature.
“Psychotherapy 2: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”, by Gwee Kok Peng, from Beating the Blues Feeling Blue.