9 Questions to ask of your negative thoughts

Prompted by today’s word of the day.

Mental illness is usually associated with misleading thought patterns that have left well-worn tracks in our brain. Oftentimes however, we take those paths simply because they’re easier at this point and we don’t notice the opposing evidence. Recognizing our cognitive faux-pas can be difficult, and making a habit of it even more so, but this CBT exercise is a helpful list of questions to go through as you try to challenge your maladaptive beliefs.

I find writing it down really helps. You can even set an alarm to do this once a day with a thought that has been occupying your mind and see what comes of it. What’s helpful, is that life often repeats itself. We typically end up in similar situations with similar people and our thoughts consequently can carry consistent patterns. By deconstructing these patterns and the negative (or positive) motivations behind them we can be more prepared to respond constructively when they arise in the future.

*Please note: I do NOT claim to be a professional and I’m just sharing this exercise as a suggestion from personal experience.

1. What is the evidence for this thought? Against it?

It will be easy to come up with evidence for the thought, but that’s not the focus here. What you want to really try and flush out is the evidence against. If you have to, it can sometimes help adopt someone else’s perspective, try and see things from another point of view. I often go through this activity with my boyfriend or family member and ask them their take, as they can often see things more objectively.

Try to make the evidence against sound as little like an “excuse” to the contrary as possible. Treat it as if you were a lawyer arguing a case from the other side. Ask questions of yourself and the perspectives as you go through to make it believable, and therefore more meaningful.

2. Am I basing this thought off facts or feelings?

As you tried to come up with evidence for your thought in question 1, consider where the evidence might be coming from. Is it possible that we are inclined to think a certain way or see things that align with our emotions? (Scientific evidence would support this is the case. Now we just have the challenge of recognizing it in ourselves so we can do something about it.)

What emotions are we feeling? If you’re having trouble identifying what your emotions might be, here is a great list that might help you put a name to them. How might they be related to our thoughts? Rather “unexplainable” moods are unfortunately common in mental illness that could easily be affecting our thoughts but this doesn’t mean we have to give them control.

3. Is this thought black and white when reality is more complicated?

As humanist psychologist Maslow would suggest, one characteristic of a highly-functioning person is their ability to reject black in white thinking and to view the world in all of its shades of grey. Recognizing that things are seldom as simple as the first conclusion we jump to is important in helping us adopt a more realistic framework.

4. Could I be misinterpreting the evidence? Am I making any assumptions?

Think back to the evidence from question 1, are we favouring one side over another? Are our emotions involved? Are we ignoring the different shades of grey that could be influencing reality?

Are we filling in gaps in our knowledge based on feelings? For example, with low self esteem it is common to think that someone has cancelled plans because they don’t want to hang out with you, but we really don’t know their thoughts – were just making assumptions based on how we feel when a lot more really could be going on.

5. Would others have different interpretations of the same situation? What might they be?

Some people frequent different thought tracks in their brains. Maybe they’re those people you’re a little jealous of who’s minds don’t tend to jump right to the most negative conclusion (that can’t be just me). What would someone who has higher self esteem think about their friend cancelling plans? How does this potentially more stable thought process okay out?

6. Am I looking at all the evidence or just that which supports my thoughts?

Think about Mr. Ideal and Secure – What evidence would he find? What would your best friend say? Elaborate your answers to the previous questions.

7. Is this a habitual thought?

It Likely is…. The point we’re trying to drive home here is that just because it’s a habit to think a certain way doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most constructive way to think. Changing these habits requires the patience and effort needed to build new ones.

8. Did someone pass this thought to me? Did it come from a reliable source?

In some cases it’s possible that someone, or something, has had a significant influence in shaping the way you think. (Eg bullying, abuse, misinformation, a bad relationship, unstable childhood etc etc.). For whatever reason, identifying the origins of a thought can allow us to evaluate their legitimacy. It could be after all, the source of your thoughts stems from your mental illness. In which case, I know that telling yourself they may not be true or reliable isn’t necessarily reassuring and doesn’t relieve the stress you might feel, BUT it provides us with a moment of insight into how we can change those things. Which in itself is an important first step.

It’s not your fault that you tend to think this way. It’s not your fault for adopting the habits or beliefs you have been taught. But, it is your responsibility to create healthier responses, you deserve that much.

9. Is my thought a likely scenario or a worst-case scenario? What’s the best case scenario? The most likely?

One activity I have been taught in therapy is one to help you evaluate the outcome of a situation. Maybe you’ve heard this called “catastrophizing”, maybe you call it “worrying”, maybe to you it’s just “being prepared”. Either way, an unbalanced anticipation for situation outcomes isn’t always constructive.

Compare the worst case scenario, with the best case scenario, and then settle somewhere in the middle on the most likely outcome. This allows us to acknowledge that you might be worried about the worst case outcome but also gives consideration to how the other extreme would manifest. Then we recognize that the majority of the time the actual results fall somewhere in between “catastrophe” and “miracle”.

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