Negative thinking or negative self-talk can be among the biggest barriers we face when embarking on the road to recovery. It can be like a little ghost sitting on our shoulder constantly whispering lies, discouragement and irrational thoughts into our ear, every time we try to do something. Negative self talk can originate from many experiences such as:
a) Negative things that have been said to us by others
b) Experiences of difficulties in important relationships, or traumatic life events
c) Constantly comparing ourselves unfavourably with others, or to impossible ideals (like fashion models)
d) Internalising social stigma associated with mental health issues
If we persist with these types of negative thinking patterns, it can have enormous impact on our lives. For instance it can:
a) Make us less physically healthy
b) Make it more difficult for us to succeed in a job
c) Lower our quality of life
d) Contribute to depression
e) Make it harder to build or maintain relationships
Let’s look in more detail at certain types of negative self talk. We will see if we can find ways of counteracting their toxic effect with a rational comeback!
This involves looking at only one part of a situation to the exclusion of everything else.
Example: I feel down because I had to quit my job
Questionable underlying belief: My feelings depend entirely on whether I am still working for that company or not and whether I have employment.
Rational comeback: I am now free from a job I was miserable in. This is a great opportunity to look for a job more suitable for me!
This is where a person perceives everything at the extremes, either black or white with no grey in between. It also leads to mood swings. Things are all great or all horrible and there is no middle ground.
Example: I have mental health issues, so I will never be able to live a normal life and be happy like other people.
Questionable underlying belief: My happiness solely depends on whether I have a mental illness diagnosis or not.
Rational Comeback: Even though I have a mental health diagnosis, I can still do things that make me happy like going to the beach or doing some artwork. As I recover it will be possible for me to get closer to my goals.
This is where a person reaches a broad, generalised conclusion based on just one piece of evidence.
Example: I went out with a man who was unfaithful to me. All men are unfaithful
Questionable underlying belief: If one man is unfaithful, therefore all men are unfaithful.
Rational comeback: the world is full of people who do good things and people who sometimes do bad things. Each person is different. I have to take each person as they come. It is incorrect to assume that all men are the same.
This is when a person bases assumptions and conclusions on their “ability” to know (or THINK they know) other people’s thoughts.
Example: My workmate Georgina seems very silent and has a very mean and angry look about her today. I must have done or said something to upset her.
Questionable underlying belief: When people look mean angry or upset it must be due to something I did or I said
Rational comeback: Just because Georgina is in a negative mood today does not mean it has anything to do with me. She could be feeling sick or have concerns or troubles outside of work.
Possible action: I could ask Georgina what is the matter and find out for sure if it was to do with me!
This is where a person always expects the worst in every scenario. The accompanying story is a description of how one actual person got so carried away by his own tendency to catastrophise that he began to fear death.
When a person interprets everything in ways that reflect on themselves.
Example: My supervisor has been very stressed out lately. It must be because of problems related to managing me and my fellow colleagues.
Questionable underlying belief: Whenever my supervisor is highly stressed it must be caused by me in some way.
Rational comeback: My supervisor has many responsibilities and stresses at home, too. I am not aware of there being any problem with me, so the problem is likely to have other origins.
This is when a person feels their life is totally controlled by a force outside themself or that they are somehow magically responsible for everything.
Example: My little toddler fell off the monkey bars and broke his arm. It’s all my fault as his mother. I should have been looking more closely to what he was doing.
Questionable underlying belief: Whenever my child gets hurt it is because I was not looking out for him properly. It’s because I am a bad mother
Rational Comeback: it is part of normal human development that toddlers are very hard to supervise and also accident prone. I can only do my best. Accidents do happen. Life is not perfect.
Fallacy of Fairness
This is when a person judges other people’s actions by what is and what isn’t fair. The problem is, everyone has a different view of fairness so everyone is bound to feel hurt or wronged somewhere along the line.
Example: If my husband really cared about my wellness he’d take on more responsibility with the house and kids
Questionable underlying belief: How much my husband cares about my wellness is defined by the amount of housework he takes on.
Rational Comeback: My husband does a lot of other things that show how much he cares about my wellness: he’s attentive and tender toward me, he reads to me in bed and does all the yard work. He also works very hard at his job (which pays my doctor’s bills). I can talk to him about feeling overburdened by the housework and all the demands the kids make on me. If we work together, we might find some solutions.
This is the mistaken belief that everything you feel must necessarily be true
Example: I feel stupid therefore I must be stupid
Questionable underlying belief: My subjective feelings always reflect objective reality.
Rational comeback: Feelings can change even if facts stay the same. No one is entirely “smart” or entirely “stupid”. We are all a mixture of qualities. Sometimes I make poor choices but that’s just part of being human. We LEARN from our mistakes.
Fallacy of Change
This is the assumption that other people will change to suit you if you pressure them enough. The illusion is that happiness depends on bringing about these changes. Co-dependency relies heavily on this fallacy.
Example: If my mother would only stop bossing me around I would probably feel more comfortable with her
Questionable underlying belief: The quality of my relationship with my mother depends on her changing her behaviour.
Rational Comeback: It is very unlikely that I can (or even should) change my mother’s behaviour towards me. What I CAN do is learn to be assertive with her and change how I relate to her.
This involves making a broad judgement on very little evidence
Example: Hans comes from Bavaria. He has no sense of humour. Therefore Bavarians have no sense of humour.
Questionable underlying beliefs: It’s accurate to judge all people in a particular group by one member of that group. Also, my idea of a good sense of humour applies to all nationalities.
Rational Comeback: Maybe Hans is different from other Bavarians. If I met more Bavarians I might think differently.Anyway, maybe Bavarians have a different idea of what is funny or not funny.
Bad things that happen are always someone else’s fault.
Example: The cause of my depression must be due to how my family treated me when I was a child
Questionable underlying belief: There is always a causal effect or someone to blame when bad things happen to me. Hence whenever I suffer from problems like depression or low self esteem it must be due to my family.
Rational comeback: It’s true that I grew up in a dysfunctional family, but my depression can be due to many other factors in my environment. It is also possible that my own unchallenged beliefs and behaviour might be contributing. In any case, blaming doesn’t aid recovery.
This is where a person operates from a rigid set of rules about how everyone (including the self) should act.
Example: As a married woman I should never feel attracted to another man apart from my husband
Questionable underlying belief: My feelings should always conform to a rigid set of rules
Rational Comeback: I’m as subject to a wide range of emotions as any other human being. It is not wrong to have feelings. However, I have a choice as to how I act on those feelings. So I will choose not to act in a way that may be detrimental to my family.
This is where you continually need to justify your point of view or way of behaving. This makes it impossible to listen to a new perspective.
Band Member 1: I’m discouraged because people are complaining about our music.
Band Member 2: Perhaps the style is too rocky
Band Member 1: It’s certainly not too rocky! How can anyone say that? I think you’re just trying to be too critical and putting our band down!
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
If you always do the right thing you will eventually be rewarded (even if doing the right thing means ignoring your own needs).
Example: If I ever I do the wrong thing, however small it may be, God is going to punish me.
Questionable underlying belief: My actions are a direct cause of the bad or good things that will happen to me.
Rational Comeback: I must use common-sense to ensure I cater for my own well being and survival.
As you can see there are many ways one can think negatively. These thoughts can affect our emotions and eventually our actions. Try to pinpoint any that you may be practicing. Perhaps you can record your thoughts in a journal. Write down the event, negative thought then try to rethink it and give a more positive, rational comeback. You could try writing these ‘comebacks’ on an affirmation card and read it every morning. It may be difficult at first but with practice it can become easier.
Wishing you all the best in your recovery journey against negative self talk!
Pathways to Recovery: A Strengths Recovery Self-Help Workbook (by Ridgway, McDiarmid, Davidson and Ratzlaff)
15 Styles of Distorted Thinking: access.ewu.edu/caps/selfhelp/stressmanage/distortthink