Addressing Negative Thinking

By understanding why you think negatively, and the patterns/logic of cognitive distortions, you can begin to change how you think and feel about yourself and situations you face.

Drawing from the Mental Health First Aid Canada workbook, the categories below are common thinking distortions, also known as cognitive distortions, that give an overview of unhelpful thoughts as well as how they form. By discussing these, and seeing which ones are relevant to each of us, we can start to work on addressing and reframing them: 

  1. All or Nothing Thinking (black and white thinking): A person uses terms like 'always', 'never', 'forever' in situations that are grey areas and not so absolute. If performance is not to perfection, it is a failure. For example, Bob did not get the promotion he applied for, and now he feels like he will NEVER get a promotion and will have to stay in his current position FOREVER.

  2. Overgeneralization: A negative event is never-ending pattern of failure. Jill is very lonely but she once went to a function and did not meet any people. Her friends want her to go out and meet new people. She does not want to go out because she feels it is useless. Nobody really likes her and people are just mean and do not want new friends.

  3. Mental Filter (selective thinking): All a person remembers is the negative events that have occured. Even though their day have been filled with positive experiences, they focus on one or two negative events. While driving to work, John was cut off in traffic. When he arrives home for the evening, all her can remember about the day (even though many things went well) was the rude driver who cut him off.

  4. Disqualifying the Positive (converting positives into negatives): A person takes a positive event or comment and turns it into a negative. A person will make excuses when given a compliment. The person may feel that they "don't deserve" the positive feedback. For example, Susan just had a painting made of herself by a local artist. Her mom tells her she looks lovely in the picture. She brushes it off and says the artist just made her look nice so she wouldn't feel bad. In real life she is ugly.

  5. Jumping to Negative Conclusions: A person comes to a negative conclusion even though there is no substantial evidence to support it. For example, Janet is waiting for her boss, who is twenty minutes late for lunch, she is convinced that the reason her boss is late is that he doesn't like her or she did something wrong. On the other side of town, he is actually held up in traffic.

  6. Emotional Reasoning (mistaking feelings or facts): A person lets negative feelings dictate how they see themselves or the world. For example, Mary was upset and scolded her child for moving the table. She feels horrible for yelling; therefore, she must be a horrible parent.

  7. Setting Unrealistic Expectations: A person tries to motivate themselves using statements such as 'should', 'shouldn't', 'must', or 'ought to'. The statements are unrealistic and often set the person up for failure. For example, Joe says he should be a perfect parent. Jen says she must lose 30kgs by the end of next month. When the goals are not met they consider themselves a failure.

  8. Labelling and Mislabelling (making a mountain out of a molehill): A person will negatively overgeneralize a situation and make negative comments about themselves. Jack made a mistake and had a cheque return for non-sufficient funds. Once he realized what had happened, he called himself an idiot loser for making such a mistake.

  9. Catastrophizing: The importance of events or comments are magnified and made into life and death issues. It is taking labelling and mislabelling to the extreme. Joan has a sore throat. Therefore, she has throat cancer.

  10. Personalization: A person will see themselves as the cause of negative things that are happening, even though they are not the cause. For example, Johanne's 25-year-old son was fired from his job at a local restaurant. Joanne feels if only she had been a better parent, he would not have been fired.

Which of the thinking distortions above, if any, apply to you? Share with the group then brainstorm how to reframe.

How you react to setbacks and failure in life can be a big deal! 

How do you currently handle a setback or failure?

  • Are you optimistic and try to think positively? (Is the glass half full?)

  • Are you pessimistic and tend to think negatively? (Is the glass half empty?)

  • When something does not work out the way you thought or how you would like, don't beat yourself about it.

Instead, look upon it as a learning experience for the next time it happens and ask yourself the following: 

  • What went well?

  • What can I learn from it?

  • What opportunities do I still have?

  • WHat would I do differently in the future?

  • Were there any early warning signs that this was not going to work?

  • How can I try to recognize early warning signs the next time?

Every setback is an opportunity to learn and grow!

"Nobody's journey is seamless or smooth. We all stumble. We all have setbacks. It's just life's way of saying: Time to change course."


Thoughts on Setbacks and Failure

Acknowledge it - no one is immune to setbacks; setbacks and failures are opportunities to learn, grow and find a better path. 

Setbacks and failures are a part of human experience - everyone has experienced such moments in their lives in one form or another: you are not alone.

Don't over-identify with failure or setbacks: just because you have made mistakes does not mean you are doomed to repeat them - in fact, you can learn from them and be better for it.

Eliminate blame; set backs are irreversible and "the blame game" doesn't do any good.

Give yourself time. Wounds take time to heal. 

Allow yourself to be vulnerable - it is okay to be imperfect; having feelings, even uncomfortable feelings is perfectly natural. 

Explore your spirituality: whatever that may look like, having a spiritual background can allow you to find meaning and strength in even the darkest times and events.

8 Steps to Help Overcome Setbacks:

  1. Reframe "failure"
    Instead of seeing failure as a negative thing, see it as a life-learning experience - it has been said that the road to success is paved with many failures, so we cannot succeed if we never fail.

  2. De-Catastrophize
    A negative experience is not always as terrible as it feels. If we allow the negative feelings often associated with failure to guide us, we will avoid risks and never attempt to achieve difficult goals. Although a set back is painful, recognize that you can go on.

  3. Accept Responsibility in order to Learn and Grow
    Examine the events that led up to this experience. You are responsible for the choices you make, and you can resolve to make better choices in the future.

  4. Acquire Knowledge
    Your life-learning experience may have let you know that you need to change direction, but what direction should you go? What is it that you need to do differently? What type of education might be useful for you right now? Academic? Professional? Interpersonal? Emotional? Only you know what is best.

  5. Persevere
    Often, learning from your setbacks means changing your behaviors in ways that will lead to success, but not giving up on your goals. (Thomas Edison is said to have failed over 1500 times)

  6. Join Forces
    Talking about your experience can be very helpful. Others may be able to see the behaviors that led to your current setback or failure more clearly than you can/ They may be able to see your strengths more clearly as well. Even better, if you know someone who has recently experienced a setback, you may be able to support each other.

  7. Set Goals
    In order to change your direction and/or habits so that you can be more succesful in the future, it is helpful to set goals.

  8. Build Self-Confidence
    Experiencing failure and setbacks has the potential to tear down some of our self-confidence. To help repair the damage, develop confidence-building strategies.

While a setback can seem devastating, it can also serve as an opportunity. It is our failures that make us interesting people and can help us acquire wisdom. Our setbacks teach us to see life more clearly and to cope more effectively with the problems life sends our way.