Challenging Negative Thoughts

Stop being so negative! Are these words familiar to you? Everyone has negative thoughts from time to time. Negative thinking is helpful when it protects us from dangerous situations or motivates us to complete tasks. However, when our negative thoughts become constant and unrealistic, they become what is known as a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are sometimes called ‘thought errors’ and can quickly become a habit. Once you can identify automatic negative thoughts you can start to challenge them! 

What are some common thinking errors?

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Sometimes referred to as black-and-white thinking, these thoughts conclude that a situation is either good or bad, with nothing in between. Imagine you are a star student expecting to receive a good grade on a paper you worked hard on. You receive your grade and see that your teacher gave you a C on the paper. A black-and-white thought might be “I did not receive an A on this paper, I’m such a failure.” Challenge this thought: Ask yourself is it that bad, or am I seeing things in black and white? How else can I think about this situation? What would my friend say about this situation?

Overgeneralizing: Overgeneralizing is very similar to exaggerating, it is assuming that something is true in all cases because it was true in one case. For example, imagine yourself presenting in front of your class. After the presentation, you are feeling a little uncomfortable, and you label yourself as being ‘awkward.’ An overgeneralization would be “I was so awkward during my presentation. I am always so awkward.”  Challenge this thought: Ask yourself if you are overgeneralizing the situation. List both the facts of the situation as well as your interpretation to see the full picture. 

Mind Reading: Have you ever passed someone at school or in a store and thought they were giving you a strange look? Maybe you assumed that they were judging you, or that they disliked you for a reason unknown to you.  When you tell someone a joke, and they laugh, you may conclude that they found your joke funny. These are all examples of mind-reading. Mind-reading can be harmful when it always assumes the worst. Challenge this thought: Don’t assume you know what others are thinking. Instead ask yourself: how do I know what this person is thinking? Does assuming I know what they are thinking mean that I am right?

Catastrophizing: Sometimes called magnifying, this thinking error turns little problems into big problems. An example of catastrophizing: “My friend has not answered my text yet, I must have said something to upset them and now they no longer want to be my friend.” Challenge this thought: Try to state only the facts of what you are facing. Instead of the thought shared above, you could tell yourself “My friend has not answered my text message, but that does not mean they are upset with me. If they are upset with me, I can do my best to talk to them about the issue and repair the friendship.” 

As you learn to challenge automatic thoughts, be patient with yourself. It is okay to say at one point in time mind-reading was a coping skill you used while interacting with an unpredictable person in your life. Or maybe you began catastrophizing after going through a traumatic event as a way to protect yourself from further harm. Remember that automatic negative thoughts don’t change overnight. It takes time and practice to create new thought patterns!

Do you find yourself falling into the trap of these thinking errors? How do you challenge your negative thoughts?

Moderator ★

Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: We look forward to talking to you!

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