Are negative thoughts really that bad?


Often when we’re told to think positively by therapists, motivational speakers, and in positive psychology books, we assume that we must think nothing but positive thoughts in order to lead the life we want to live. This is quite an unrealistic goal but we strive for it nonetheless. We might make a significant improvement in the way we think day to day, but inevitably we still have some negative thoughts. So does that mean we’ve failed? Not at all!

Negative thoughts are a natural part of being human. In fact, our brain is wired to think negatively. Back in caveman times, those who thought the worst about every situation were the ones who remained safe. And because they survived, this way of thinking was passed on to their ancestors as being useful for the continuation of the species. So here we are, thousands of years on and we still have negative cognitive biases.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong about thinking negative thoughts. It’s only when we start to believe in those thoughts as if they were the gospel truth and we get caught up in a spiral of thoughts that come off the back of those beliefs, that it becomes a problem. This is known as ‘fusion’. When we fuse with our thoughts, we get caught up in them and they end up having a negative impact on how we feel and how we behave. It might dent your confidence, self-image, and self-esteem; make you feel anxious or depressed; stop you from trying new things, doing things that you want to do in life and keep you in your comfort zone; and more besides.

We’ve all been out socialising and said something to someone that we wished we hadn’t. We might think “Why did I say that? They must think I’m an idiot”. This is a perfectly normal thing to think in this event. The thought isn’t a problem at this stage. If we left it at that and just got on with the rest of the evening and the next day reflected upon what was good about our night out, that negative thought is fairly harmless. We don’t need to think we’ve failed that the thought came up. It was there but it didn’t affect us.

That thought only becomes a problem when we start to believe that they think we’re an idiot. Off the back of this belief, we might start thinking that we made a right fool of ourselves, that they think we’re an oddball, that we’re someone to stay clear of. This might start to make us feel embarrassed, ashamed, and upset. Next time we go out, we might not talk so much. We might start feeling anxious and fearful and so we start avoiding going out when we think that person might be there or just not socialising at all. We might start to think that nobody likes us and that there must be something wrong with us. Our self-esteem takes a tumble and we start feeling isolated and alone. Then the depression sets in. This example is, of course, contrived but it gives you an idea of the kinds of follow on thoughts, feelings and behaviours that can result when we fuse with that original thought!

With most of my clients, we look at the different types of negative thinking biases that they might have such as black or white thinking, catastrophising, negative mindreading and forecasting the future, to name just a few. We then seek to discover where the thought is getting them, in addition to what evidence they have for and against the thought, in an attempt to dispute it. And with this extra insight into the negative thought, we look at restructuring the thought into something more constructive and more accurate for them. This works really well but some thoughts can be stubborn.

This is where the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) technique of defusion comes in. The first step of diffusion is to notice that we are having a thought. If our thoughts are helpful, we’ll make use of them, that is we can make changes where necessary. If they’re not, we don’t try to get rid of the thoughts. But instead, with defusion, we give them space and let them be. The purpose of defusion is to be present and take effective action in order to ‘unhook’ from the thoughts which stop them from affecting us. Then we can see our thoughts as nothing more nor less than just words running through our mind. Last year I wrote a post on the blog which details some of the defusion techniques used in ACT. The techniques take a little practise but they are really effective.

I recently finished reading an excellent book which outlines defusion (and other ACT techniques) in more detail than I have gone into here and in the other posts on the blog. It’s The Confidence Gap by Dr Russ Harris. I highly recommend it.

Related articles:
Engagement with the present - the ACT way
Acceptance of emotions - the ACT way
Negative biases in anxiety and depression
Are your thoughts setting you up to fail?