How to Ward Off Negative Thoughts Using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

A friend of mine was recently passed over for a promotion, and now he is sulking. “I took too long to answer some of the questions,” was his conclusion.

As Daniel Kahneman says, failures, losses and negative emotions affect us way more than positive emotions. We often tend to overthink, overanalyse, and overgeneralise things after a setback. We end up blaming ourselves more than we deserve.

Truth is, your brain is good at making you feel exactly what you’re thinking. We have automatic negative thoughts that lead us to get upset or frustrated over things that may not be true. The more our thoughts cause us distress, the more they are likely to be distorted and untrue. Seneca aptly says, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

One distorted thought like, “I took too long to answer some of the questions” is harmless, but it could snowball into more upsetting and distorted thoughts:

“Because I took too long, I was passed over for promotion.”

“Because I failed this time, I’ll probably be passed over in all future appraisals.”

“Because I’ll be failing in all future appraisals, my career will never progress here, and soon I’ll be let go.”

This thought pattern is a type of Cognitive Distortion. A Cognitive Distortion is like a logical fallacy that’s often the root of your automatic negative thoughts. This particular distortion is known as Catastrophising or Catastrophic Thinking. It often leads to anxiety, phobia, panic, or depression.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that aims to fight the cognitive distortions, and improve mental health. It modifies dysfunctional emotions, behaviours, and thoughts by attacking and eliminating negative irrational thought patterns or beliefs.

CBT was originally designed to treat depression, but its uses have been expanded to help overcome general stress, fear, and sadness we all encounter in life. CBT is widely considered to be the most effective, evidence backed treatments for catastrophising and similar distortions. One doesn’t need to be diagnosed with anything to try CBT.

The underlying concept behind CBT is that our thoughts and feelings play an important role in developing our behaviour, and shaping our attitude.

If you are a person who fears public speaking, and if you spend a lot of time thinking that you might stutter, go blank, or trip over on stage, you are very likely to avoid being on stage as much as possible.

CBT helps you interpret these very thoughts, challenge them, and eventually change them so that you don’t overthink past events, or overimagine future events. By becoming aware of the negative and often unrealistic thoughts that dampen your feelings and moods, you are able to start engaging in healthier thinking patterns.

1. Challenge The Thought

Mental Distortions (like Mental Models) give you a framework to challenge the negative thoughts. Here are a list of distortions that ought to cover bulk of the negative thoughts you experience.

  1. Catastrophising: “I took too long to answer some of the questions. Because I took so long, I bet they won’t promote me. Because I failed this one, I'll probably fail in all future appraisals. Because I’ve no chance in future appraisals, I'm probably never going to get promoted, I’ll be stuck, and eventually asked to resign. Therefore I should give up now itself.”
  2. All or Nothing Thinking: “I failed this one, so I'll fail in all future interviews.”
  3. Emotional Reasoning: “I feel that this one went very bad, therefore it must be true.”
  4. Fortune Telling: “I’ll fail this interview for sure.”
  5. Minimisation of the Positive or Magnification of the Negative: “Most of my answers were satisfactory, but I failed to articulate some of them. I suck!”
  6. Labelling: “I wasn’t promoted. I’m incompetent.”
  7. Mind Reading: “I stuttered a bit. I bet they think I’m dumb.”
  8. Overgeneralization: “I couldn’t bag this promotion. I’m not getting promoted ever again.”
  9. Self-Blaming: “My team wasn’t appreciated for the project. I must be the reason.”
  10. Should Statements: “I should be getting better at leadership.”

Once you identify the mental distortion, it’s time to challenge it. I asked my friend who missed the promotion to do the same. “Are you absolutely certain that failing to get promoted makes your incompetent, or are you labelling?” Also, “Is it true that failing one appraisal round will stagnate your career? Or are you overgeneralizing?” Digging deeper into your thoughts can help you find core beliefs that fuel the thoughts.

2. Change The Thought

Once you challenge it, you can change it. While you cannot control every aspect of the world, you can take control of how you interpret it, and deal with it.

If you let yourself sit and cycle through this types of negative thoughts, you’ll only be making yourself miserable. Instead, undistort your thoughts by writing down what a logical thought might be. For example, “I took too long to answer some of the questions,” can become, “It might not have been the best interview, but it wasn’t the worst as well. It was good practice. I know the mistakes I made. Next time I’ll make sure that I’m better prepared.”

For CBT to be effective, you have to be ready and willing to spend time and effort analysing your thoughts and feelings. Such self-analysis can be difficult, but it is a good way to learn more about how internal states impact your outward behaviour. One of the greatest benefits of CBT is that it helps you develop coping skills that can be useful both now and in the future.

If you are an entrepreneur, you are likely to face negative thoughts and emotions every now and then. It can often feel like nothing is going well. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can come very handy in times of trouble.

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