We all experience what we call “internal dialogue”, also known as having a conversation in our head or thinking. This can range from what we want to eat for dinner, tasks that we need to complete, assumptions about situations, observations, what we think others think about us, how we feel about our self in a situation, and the list goes on. For some, these thoughts tend to be more negative than positive and can snowball out of control causing a change in their perception of reality. These negative thoughts can lead to self-destructive behaviors, dangerous situations, relationship changes, and overall awareness of self. They can result in feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, resentment, anxiety, inadequacy, and hopelessness. These negative thoughts are called COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS – they negatively distort a person’s perception of reality. Some of the more common negative thinking patterns include:
PERSONALIZATION: This is exactly what it says, taking things personally. People often blame themselves for something that is completely out of their control or has nothing to do with them. For example, assuming your friend is mad at you personally when they cancel plans you’ve made. Could it possibly be that they were busy? They forgot? They didn’t have the time or money to devote? The goal in reframing is to consider external factors that may have resulted in this decision.
CATASTROPHIZING: Assuming the worst possible outcome or thinking that it is far worse than it actually is. For example, you might get a bad grade on a test or assignment and you immediately think that you’ve failed the entire class. You get a consequence and suddenly feel like it’s “the end of the world”. The goal in reframing is to consider other outcomes and weigh whether it’s just not desired or truly catastrophic.
OVERGENERALIZING: This focuses around key words such as “always”, “never”, “every”, or “all. People make conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, and often in a negative way. For example, believing bad things always happen to you, nothing ever goes the way you want it to, or you’ll never get better. The goal in reframing is to focus on the cost and benefits of having this thought. Regardless of what may happen, we choose our attitude towards it and how it in turn affects our actions. Is it worth it to think that way?
BLACK & WHITE THINKING: Going from extremes and not considering the gray area. For example, nothing will work, so why try? People become frustrated that their medication isn’t working and therapy isn’t being effective and they lose hope. Nothing is truly ever black-and-white or all-or-nothing. Medications don’t just work or not work, therapy isn’t just productive or nonproductive, things aren’t just good or bad, right or wrong, succeed or fail. The goal in reframing is to look closer to find the gray and how that can be a positive.
DISCOUNTING THE POSITIVES: Similar to black & white, a person discounts the positive parts about an situation and only sees the negative parts. They have a tendency to not accept compliments or positivity they receive because they don’t personally believe them to be true. For example, making comments such as “that doesn’t count” or “it was just easy”. You might get several compliments on your art or talent and one criticism but then obsess over the negative and ignore all the positive. The goal in reframing is to be more accepting of yourself through positive self-talk so that you learn to believe it to be true.
When dealing with these negative thoughts, therapy assists to revive hope, gain personal power, and help one to better problem solve on their own. Many therapists utilize a form of therapy called CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to guide a person in changing their automatic negative thoughts which might be influencing their emotions and behaviors. There are a variety of techniques to help in reframing these automatic thoughts such as: recognize the pattern of negative thinking, identify the distortion, examine the evidence, consider alternative factors, think about what others might think or say if they knew you were thinking that, and replace the negative with more positive thought.
For someone experiencing depression or anxiety, these distorted thoughts become reality to them and it can be difficult for them to consider alternative perspectives or more realistic reasoning. There becomes a pattern in their thought process that they might not even realize and because it’s automatic, they struggle to change. This is when professional guidance can be helpful in recognizing and reframing.
Allison Kidd, LMSW, LAC
Resolve - Counseling & Wellness
Prairie Village, KS 66206