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What You Need to Know About Negative Thinking

By Pam Dewey • mental health, anxiety, depression, coping, negative thoughts, negative self talk, cognitive distortions, thinking errors, minimizing, black and white thinking, fear, failure, catastrophizing, • March 02, 2022

Everyone has gotten down on themselves at some point. After failing a test, you might have told yourself you just weren’t smart enough for college. Maybe you weren’t invited to your cousin’s wedding, so you decided Cousin Mark hates you. Or perhaps, your boss assigned a big project that you’re sure is over your head. 

Negative thinking can have a powerful influence on your life. It can increase depression and anxiety symptoms. Negative feelings can also be overwhelming and paralyzing. This type of negative thinking is known as cognitive distortion, or thinking errors.

Positive Psychology states, “All cognitive distortions are:

  • Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing;
  • That are false or inaccurate;
  • And have the potential to cause psychological damage.”

In other words, just because you tell yourself something or think something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s an important lesson to learn — for adults, teens and children. Here are a few kinds of cognitive distortion and how to handle these feelings.

Black and white thinking

One type of cognitive distortion is black and white thinking or either-or-thinking. The Child Mind Institute states, “A common distortion that makes you think — and therefore feel — that if something is not all of what you want then it’s none of what you want.” That could be something like, not getting your dream job, so feeling like you’re a total failure. Or for your child, that could mean they didn’t get an A on their math test, so they assume they’re not smart. But this type of thinking assumes that you must be perfect to be successful. If that were true, no one would be successful. And it certainly doesn’t allow for people to learn from failure, which is a particularly important lesson for children.


Minimizing is when you look at something positive that has happened and then discount it. That could be a friend saying, “You’re so talented!” and you think that they’re just being nice. The truth could be, that you are talented, and your friend noticed. But because you’ve been caught in a negative thinking pattern, you willfully ignore the evidence that suggests you are talented.

If your child minimizes, stop them, and point out things that support the opposite. Maybe they got an A on their English test, so remind them of that when they suggest they’re not smart for getting a C on their math test. Then offer to help them study for their next test.

Stop “Shoulding” Yourself

You likely have a long list of things you should be doing. You SHOULD be working out more, vacuuming once a week and making sure your kids eat their vegetables every day. While these are noble goals, the reality is, the guilt from not doing these things can be crippling. Healthline states, “Should statements can contribute to anxious thought patterns because they put a demand on you that’s sometimes impossible to live up to.” You can restructure these should statements. Instead of saying, ‘I should vacuum every week,’ say, ‘I will try to vacuum every week, and I can make time, if I ask my partner to pick up the groceries.’ Try to be kinder to yourself, and recognize you may need help to meet these goals.

Identify the negative thoughts

When you have a negative thought, stop and think about the situation. Why do you automatically assume you’re going to fail or mess up? And if you do, why does that mean you’re not smart or capable? Is that because you’ve made mistakes in the past? Healthline suggests, “Play out the worst-case scenario and see how you feel about it. Break down your emotions and moods to see if your anxiety or automatic thoughts have any legs to stand on.” Sometimes, looking at the worst-case scenario helps you realize that even if that does happen, it isn’t the end of the world.

Examine the evidence

After you’ve identified these thoughts, look at evidence that might support these beliefs. Healthline states, “You want to focus on credible evidence — not feelings or thoughts. Then it’s time to focus on evidence that doesn’t support your thought.” Come up with reasons why you might fail at that new project; for example, maybe you made a mistake on a similar project, etc. But then come up with evidence that shows why you could succeed at this project. That evidence could be that you learned a lot from your past mistake, or your coworker has been mentoring you.

Judge this thought

After you’ve come up with evidence for both sides, judge your original thought. Then try to reconstruct your thought, considering all the evidence. You might realize you were being too hard on yourself. You made mistakes before, but that was before you gained more knowledge. And remember, even if you do make a mistake, mistakes are how you learn.

This is also a good thing to remind your children. Making mistakes is how they will learn about themselves and the world. Encourage them to experiment with paint, or try out for the soccer team or the dance team. Tell them that not being good at something is okay, but that they won’t know until they try.

Cognitive distortions make us believe our negative thoughts are reality, when in fact, they come from fear or anxiety and are false or inaccurate. Situations are rarely black and white. Not every compliment is just someone being nice. Telling yourself you “should” do something can do more harm than good. Learn to identify these negative thoughts and teach your child how to do it too. Examine both sides of the evidence, and learn to judge these negative thoughts objectively.