Disputing Negative Thoughts
By replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, it is possible to greatly enhance your mood and sense of wellbeing.
Human beings have a tendency to focus much more on negative thoughts than positive ones. Sometimes it is rational and necessary to think about negative things in order to improve them, or to avoid repeating mistakes. It is often the case, however, that people are thinking about negative things in an irrational manner. A simple, common example is a thought like, "I always screw everything up." Is it really the case the every time this person has ever attempted anything they have failed? Obviously not. They somehow have managed to make it this far, which means that they have succeeded much more often than not. So the thought "I always screw everything up" is actually an exaggeration.
You may not think this kind of exaggeration is a big deal, but actually thoughts of this kind can cause people to become unhappy, anxious, and depressed. Our thoughts affect our feelings, and negative thoughts that are exaggerated have exaggerated effects. Imagine the emotional effect of the same thought if it changed to something more accurate, such as "I sometimes screw things up." Even this slight change to a more correct assessment already makes the thought less negatively charged.
The idea behind the Disputing Negative Thoughts technique, then, is to "listen" to the thoughts in your head, and to evaluate their accuracy. If a thought is not accurate or rational, you replace it with one that is more positive. Over time, this will make your emotional state more positive in general. It also allows you to respond to situations in a more helpful manner.
Every time you notice a negative thought, check if it is accurate. If it is not, replace it with a positive thought.
If you find that you are feeling angry, depressed, upset, or anxious, take this as a clue to examine your thinking. Make a habit of using your negative feelings as a cue to begin the Disputing Negative Thoughts practice.
- Reality Testing
Check the accuracy of the basic facts behind your thinking.
- What is my evidence for and against my thinking?
- Are my thoughts factual, or are they just my interpretations?
- Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
- How can I find out if my thoughts are actually true?
- If your thought is a core belief, write it out and ask yourself, “Is this thought 100% true ALL of the time?”. Begin creating a list of any and all instances you find that are not true.
- Look for Alternate Explanations
- Are there any other ways that I could look at this situation?
- What else could this mean?
- If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation?
- Put Things in Perspective
When you are feeling upset, you are likely to think about things in a way that is much more extreme than the actual situation. This can make the negative feelings a lot worse. Putting things in perspective, can help you to reduce this extreme self-talk.
- Is this situation as bad as I am making out to be?
- What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it?
- What is the best thing that could happen?
- What is most likely to happen?
- Is there anything good about this situation?
- Will this matter in five years time?
- Use Goal-directed Thinking – Recognizing that your current way of thinking might be self-defeating (i.e. it doesn’t make you feel good or help you to get what you want) can sometimes motivate you to look at things from a different perspective.
- Is thinking this way helping me to feel good or to achieve my goals?
- What can I do that will help me solve the problem?
- Is there something I can learn from this situation, to help me do it better next time?
- Do a cost-benefit analysis of believing your thought. Ask yourself, “How will it help me to believe this thought?” and “How does it hurt me to believe this thought?”. Write down your answers and decide if believing this thought is more harmful than good. If so practice choosing to let it go, or opening to the possibility that your thought is not true.
This technique is one of the core practices of cognitive therapy. This direction in therapy was mainly pioneered by Aaron Beck, and popularized by David D. Burns with his book The Feeling Good Handbook.
The specific version presented here is a variation of the one created by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond at the Foundation for Life Sciences. It also includes techniques from Dr. Burn's book, The Feeling Good Handbook, and from Dr. Christine Padesky and Dr. Dennis Greenberger’s book, Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think.
Disputing negative thoughts takes a substantial investment of time and energy in order to be effective. However, the results of long-term application of this practice are quite positive.
For a more complete version of the Disputing Negative Thinking practice, take a look at the Thinking Errors fact sheet.