How do we break those negative thought patterns and negative self-talk that often drive us down mentally and emotionally? Guest author Casey Watts offers expert insight from his new book Debugging Your Brain.
Imagine: One day you are devastated to find out your teen is doing poorly in school AND your toddler hit other kids at daycare. When you try talking with your partner about it they do not listen, nose in their phone. You start spiraling, having thoughts like “Where did I go wrong?” and “I’m an awful parent.”
Suddenly, an inner voice interrupts that train of thought with a loud “WHOOP!”
Thank goodness! That’s what you needed. That downward spiral of emotions was getting the best of you, but you noticed it and surprised yourself out of that moment.
How to Break Negative Thought Patterns
We spend much of our lives on autopilot, unaware of most thoughts and feelings that are going on in our subconscious. We can become more aware of these automatic thoughts and feelings by switching to a more mindful state (the “whoop!” above is one method of surprising our brain out of its default thoughts).
Some of these are counterproductive thoughts called cognitive distortions. These mental software bugs can really trip you up! Fortunately, they can be debugged.
Let’s debug an example, an automatic thought that afflicts so many adults: “I’m an awful parent.”
Calling yourself an awful parent implies a lot, most of which is probably not true. You imply more traits than you intend to when labeling yourself that way. Ignoring the positive things you have done as a parent is disqualifying the positive things that you have done and will do. Even if you truly did make mistakes that had negative consequences, saying you are awful as a parent is magnifying the negative parts of the situation.
Focusing on “I’m an awful parent” too much will likely make you feel worse and worse about it. Instead, notice it happening, take an introspective moment, and identify the distortions. Now you can counter them! Instead of unduly focusing on the negative, you are instead focusing on something productive and turn this day around?
When trying to break negative thought patterns, recognize these eleven common cognitive distortions, which I’ve broken into three groups.
- Magnification is focusing too much on something (often negative), and minimization is focusing too little on something (often positive).
- Catastrophization is focusing on the worst possible outcome of a situation, especially when it is a less likely outcome.
- Disqualifying the positive is when you convince yourself that certain positive things do not count. This could be completely discounting the positive or partially discounting it, reducing the relative weight of importance you give it.
Overconfidence in Own Powers
- Personalization is believing you have more control or influence over a situation than you actually do. This often happens when you focus on ways you, yourself, could have affected the situation, and do not take into account external forces impacting things.
- Mind reading is believing you know what another person is thinking or feeling without any evidence.
- Fortune-telling is believing you know how something will turn out, usually for the worse.
Lack of Nuance
- Overgeneralization is applying a small amount of information to explain a whole situation, inaccurately. It is when you do not incorporate enough nuance.
- Labeling is a subset of overgeneralization. This is using a short-hand description which leaves a lot implied. This misses a lot of what makes the person or situation unique.
- All-or-nothing thinking is when you think in a binary yes/no or good/bad kind of way. Truth often lies in a gray area between the two extremes.
- Post-hoc Rationalization is when you have already made up your mind based on a gut feeling and you defend that gut feeling with facts you come up with afterward. (“Post-hoc” meaning “after the event.”)
- Emotional Reasoning is when you believe something based on a feeling, as opposed to thinking about it and basing it on facts.
You likely fall prey to these distortions all of the time! Everyone does. Knowing about these distortions helps a lot, but you could use a few more skills to be your most effective. Take stock of your inputs (like via meditation), verbalize your experiences (like via journaling), and validate those experiences (like via talking to a friend).
Together, these techniques encompass the principles of the most common talk therapy, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” or CBT. Anyone can benefit from these techniques. My book Debugging Your Brain teaches you to wield these techniques so you can patch the software that runs in your mind.
Bad things happen, I hope you’re ready for them!
About the Author
Casey Watts studied neurobiology at Yale University. He has also worked in software development for 10 years, including at Heroku. His first book, Debugging Your Brain, brings together these two parts of Casey’s background: psychology and software development.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Parentology is an Amazon Affiliate and may generate revenue from select links on this website.]