October 13

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Understand your Unhelpful Negative Thoughts

By Zoe Clements

October 13, 2020


I need to tell you something…

I’m a recovered negative overthinker.

There I’ve said it. Maybe I could have told you that in Part 1 of this series (click here if you missed it) but I think now we are acquainted, and you’ve got to Part 2, you’ve earned the right to know. It started when I was nipper, gathering speed like an Eastenders Christmas plot in my teen years and catapulted me into my early adult life with more holes in my self-worth than a block of Swiss cheese.

To be honest most people wouldn’t have noticed, I’m naturally an introvert, I wasn’t taught to ask for help and I was very good at hiding it. Don’t get me wrong, I could function, I got through my education, paid the rent and made friends but my brain was not in a good place.

There are lots of things that have helped me to stop overthinking, firstly as we found out in Part 1, negative thoughts are natural and our brains way of surviving. This was such relief as I realised I was normal! (Okay so I’m not a massive fan of the word normal so let’s substitute that for typical - it was natural and lots of people did it.)

What also helped was to learn about my favourite types of unhelpful negative thoughts. Yep some psychologist somewhere has identified specific types of unhelpful negative thoughts and as soon as I start looking down the list it was like someone had been listening in on my brain.

So here's the deal...

If I share with you my brains top 3 types of unhelpful thoughts howsabout you to go through the list and pick out yours. I’m not asking you to share them with me (or the internet) but this is going to be super helpful as knowing your favourite types is key to taming them.

How does that sound?  We got a deal.  Okay let's go...

Here are my brains top 3 Unhelpful Thought Types…

In the number one slot we have my brains personal favourite unhelpful thought type ‘Labelling’. Passed on like a dodgy air loom from my parents, it’s the gift that just kept on giving, (well giving anxiety). Calling myself an idiot was part of a daily ritual for me, from getting my spelling wrong at school, to taking a telephone number down wrong to dropping a plate. My brain saw these as evidence that I was ‘an idiot’. It was like having my internal bully on repeat. Ouch.

Remember the poem "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me"? Well if you experience labelling as a repetitive unhelpful thought type you know that this is totally wrong as words like: "You’re an idiot......stupid.....worthless" pack a very hurtful punch.

I personally think this is my most impressive, I use to think I could mind read. Yep....actually MIND READ. I use to do it ALL the time. She thinks this about me, he thinks that about me. Turns out though I actually wasn't mind reading, I was just projecting what I thought about myself onto other people.

So one day in my previous life (I use to work in a city job) I was in a meeting with Wendy and she was, let's just say, a little on the touchy side. She had a face like thunder, clearly angry and was unhappy about the progress of the project. After the meeting I thought, she hates me, she has always hated me, she thinks I'm rubbish at my job and she wants me out. Twenty minutes later she drops by my desk, apologises for her behaviour and explains her Mum is ill and she is really worried. Uh oh - turned out my mind reading skills were way off track.

Mind reading is all consuming, we project our insecurities onto someone else, we get consumed in our thoughts and create conspiracy theories that are not true. Super unhelpful.

In third place we have the classic unhelpful thought type: CATASTROPHISING. All humans have the capacity to take a few bits of information and turn it into a catastrophe in the blink of an eye and I am was no exception.

So picture this, I was flying to the US about to embark on an epic adventure and shortly after we landed I started to wonder if I had left the front door open. In 5 seconds I went from merely wondering to visualising 3 robbers emptying the house, hearing the woman from the insurance company saying they wouldn't pay out and my other half leaving me for my sheer stupidity. Obvs I didn't leave it open, I've never left it open, I've never left the iron or straighteners on either but in that moment my drama queen brain created an epic movie plot scenario and I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

So I’ve spilled my guts out, which was quite cathartic actually (thanks for listening) so now it’s your turn.

Here are 5 more unhelpful thoughts types, which ones resonate with you?

I refer to this Unhelpful thought type as 'shoulding all over yourself!'

Why? Because when you have an attack of the shoulds you are setting yourself up for a fall

Let's give this a try....

I should always be on time, I should have a boyfriend, I should clean the house, I should be exercising, I should be this, I should be doing that...

Arrrghhh it's never ending, it's exhausting and quite frankly it's creating a ton of pressure which turns into stress, anxiety and a very full head

Congratulations, you have been promoted.

You have poured blood, sweat and tears into getting this promotion, you celebrated in style all weekend and then, on Monday morning, this happens:

Brain: What am I doing? I don't know enough? Who do I think I am? Why did I go for the promotion? They are going to find out I'm a fraud, I'm an imposter!

Sometimes the brain can be a right killjoy.

Phoneyism and Imposter Syndrome are verrrrrrrrrry common in humans from CEOs, actors and actresses to counsellors and coaches.

Recipe for Over Generalising by Z C Hinett

  • Take a few nights of crappy sleep
  • Throw in a snotty cold
  • Add a bunch of delayed trains (What do you mean leaves on the line?!)
  • Drop some coffee down your new top

Et voila you have created over generalising....
EVERYTHING is terrible, NOTHING works out for me.

Come on hands up, who has this recipe down to a T?

Yep it's easy to create but thankful easy to stop once we have a good rant about the trains and a good night sleep. HOWEVER we have to be careful this unhelpful thought doesn't fester because, when it does, it snowballs in our minds and creates a whole lotta destruction.

Comparison is a great big happiness thief.

Imagine this...

You are having a great day, you slept well last night, you got a free coffee on the way to work, you hit the gym at lunchtime (and are feeling super smug as a result) and you aced your meeting with Bob.  All is well in the world until you spot Susie from Accounts who seems to be wearing the same top you bought on the weekend. 

Enter Happiness thief "Comparison".....

Brain: Is that the top I bought on Saturday? Oh god she looks loads better in it than me. Why can't I be as tall as Susie? She is so pretty, no wonder she has a boyfriend and I don't. I don't know why I bother going to the gym....

From happy to unhappy in 2 seconds. Thanks Happiness Thief.

Last but not least we have discounting the positive,  when we do this we are blocking out the good stuff.

"I only got the job because no-one else applied for it."

NOPE

You got the job because you have lots of skills and experience and you showed all those great traits in the interview.

By discounting the positive you are taking a sledge hammer to your self-worth and confidence. Ouch.

So how did that go for you? Did you recognise your favourite types of Unhelpful Thoughts?

Yes, so what do I do next????

Well, knowledge is power people and with this new awareness we can start taming those thoughts. Over the next few weeks I want you to notice when you are thinking in these unhelpful thinking styles. Understanding your types and patterns is key to bringing them under control.
Here's a reminder of the types:

Unhelpful Thinking Types

Examples:

1) Labeling

"I didn’t get the job, I’m worthless"
"I made a mistake, I’m an idiot”
"I missed the deadline, I’m a failure”

2) Mind Reading

"She is going to sack me"
"He thinks I'm an idiot"
"She hates me"

3) Catastrophising

"I'm late, I will be fired and loose my family"

"What if I left the iron on, It will burn down the house and the entire street"

4) Shoulds & Musts

"I MUST be perfect"
"I SHOULD be productive at all times" 
"I SHOULD be a SIZE 8" 

5) Phoneyism

"I'm an imposter"
"I'm going to be found out"
"I don't know enough"

6) Over Generalising

"Everything is terrible
"I don't know anything"
"Nothing works out for me"

7) Comparison

"My sister is prettier than me "
"My friend earns more than me"
"They have more friends than me"

8) Discounting the positive

"I only got 90% because the test was easy"
"I only got the job because I was lucky"
"I only when because they felt sorry for me "

The Story so far....

We have learnt...

  • Negative Thoughts are natural as we are animals and, like animals, we scan for danger to keep ourselves safe
  • Negative thoughts are great in life threatening situations but really unhelpful in non-life threatening situations and lead to negative consequences on our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and self-worth

Part 2: Understand your Unhelpful Thought Types

  • We learnt there are many types of Unhelpful thoughts
  • We helped you recognised your favourite types of Unhelpful thoughts

Coming Soon...

  • In the final part of the Taming Negative Thoughts series we are going to tame these unhelpful thought types by using a series of techniques. Whoop!

Thanks for reading....

I've had some great feedback on Part 1 of this series and I'm excited to hear your thoughts on Part 2. Why not follow me on social media and join in the chat:

Zoe Clements

About the author

Zoe Clements is an experienced BACP Accredited Counsellor and Author specialising in overthinking, anxiety, people pleasing and pesky self doubt.

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