A Guide to Overcoming Negative Thoughts

When a newborn comes into the world, they do not automatically adopt negative thoughts. And yet, most of us have an ‘Oscar the Grouch’ living inside our mind rent free. It is the fierce inner critic that pops up when we encounter a potential threat. When our inner alarm bells start to ring, the automatic thoughts that surface tend to be negative and unhelpful. These thoughts are known as ‘cognitive distortions’ in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. They create a filter that impacts how we perceive our experiences, thus impacting how we feel and respond to different situations. Instead of rose coloured glasses, it’s as if we are seeing the world with grey coloured glasses.

Negative thoughts happen automatically and typically occur in response to a trigger. If thoughts are internalized into negative self-talk, the content tends to be something we learned explicitly or implicitly by the people in our lives. It often originates from exposure to an environment where we are heavily judged or threatened beyond our ability to cope. We can take on the messages we received growing up and internalize them into regular thought patterns.

Building awareness is the first step to addressing automatic negative thoughts. By redirecting our focus from ‘what’s wrong with me’ to ‘what happened to me’, we can begin to untangle ourselves from the web of these negative thoughts by noticing when we are operating from a pattern that is outdated and limiting.

Step 1: Identify negativity in action

While we realistically cannot eliminate negative thoughts, there are ways we can ‘reprogram’ our brain through neuroplasticity. This is a process where instead of defaulting to the same negative neural pathway, our minds can entertain other possibilities. Imagine yourself inside of a car holding the steering wheel, transitioning from a single-lane school zone to a four-lane highway. Our goal is to disrupt the single-lane cycle and lay the tracks for alternative possibilities.

To be mindful of when negative thoughts occur requires us to recognize different types of irrational thoughts. By acknowledging when a thought is negative, we can begin the process of deconstructing it and increasing our capacity for other perspectives.

Many people I have worked with are surprised to learn what classifies as an unhelpful thought. Take a look and see if there are any you engage in regularly. The list below is derived from Dr. Daniel Amen’s work.

Types of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANT)

  • All-or-Nothing: Believing other people, relationships, or scenarios are strictly good or bad.
  • Less-Than: Believing you are not as good as others by comparison.
  • Pessimistic: Noticing only the negatives in people, relationships or situations.
  • Guilt-Beating: Using words such as “should”, “must”, “ought”, or “have to” indicate shame and guilt.
  • Labelling: Prescribing negative labels to others or yourself.
  • Fortune-Telling: Also known as catastrophizing; assuming the worst possible scenario without much or any evidence.
  • Mind-Reading: Jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking, particularly unkind thoughts, even when they have not disclosed these thoughts to you.
  • If-Only or I’ll-Be-Happy-When: Unable to be in the present moment often desiring the future, or arguing about past events.
  • Blaming: Giving others ownership over your problems, or blaming yourself for the problems others are having.

Step 2: Put the negative thought to the test

Let’s fast forward to after you have spent some time engaging in this practice. Now that you are aware of the different automatic negative thought types and have been mindfully discerning when these thoughts occur in the moment, you might wonder why are you still feeling negative. Awareness is just step one; the next step is to redirect your mind to consider other ways of thinking. Below is an exercise from Dr. Daniel Amen’s approach aimed at getting us to challenge these thoughts through targeted examination:

Ask yourself the following:

  • Is this thought accurate?
  • How does this thought make me feel?
  • How would I feel if I didn’t have this thought?
  • Flip the script and come up with a thought from the opposite end
  • Find evidence to support this alternative thought

Practicing this over time teaches our minds to recognize thoughts that do not serve us and introduce alternative thoughts that inspire confidence. 

Negative thoughts act as ‘filters’ that distort our perception of our life, ourselves, and those around us. Challenging these thoughts can allow us to have more control over our mind and derail misleading thoughts from running the show. It can also help to think about the cost of immersing ourselves in these irrational thoughts.

The key here is to practice consistently. Think of this exercise as if you are taking your mind to the gym. Just as you can’t get ripped by working out once or twice, the same applies to breaking mental patterns. Engaging in a new practice is like a marathon, and like trying anything new, there may be some slip-ups along the way. If this happens, it is important to be compassionate with yourself. Rome was not built in a day.

Step 3: Reflect on what influenced the negative thought

While this exercise can be effective in reducing the occurrence of negative thoughts, it can also help make sense of why these thoughts exist – what purpose they served in a previous life chapter. Coping patterns are often developed to keep us safe and to address challenges in meeting our core needs. Two questions to consider are ‘where did you learn to think in this way?’ and ‘what past experiences did you need to predict outcomes in order to be safe?’.

There are aspects of how these thinking patterns form that can be helpful to process with a counsellor. If you are interested in working through your negative thoughts together, please don’t hesitate to get in touch for a consultation.

With care,


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I express deep respect and gratitude for the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, their ancestral homelands, and the care they provided to the area where I am privileged to live, work, and play.

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