Negative thinking styles part ii: reframing negative thoughts

In part one of this two-part series, we worked through the ways that recognizing, naming, challenging, and then converting negative thoughts to neutral ones may directly clear the way for positive action. At times, however, merely completing the initial re-framing will not be enough to make action possible. Why? Because it is possible to re-frame a negative, but still believe in it.

Part One:

This doesn't mean there's something wrong with the process or wrong with how you are working through it. Remember, many negative thoughts we encounter in daily situations stem from negative core beliefs, and a core belief does not change overnight: it is changed bit by bit, by working on the smaller negative thoughts. It is therefore pertinent to have problem-solving techniques handy, in order to find a real-world solution to your challenge, and then move onward to your goal--taking positive action.

Step 5: problem solve
It's easy enough to tell someone to solve a problem, but we all know that it can be very difficult to figure out where to start, especially when the problem is yours, and you are invested in a good outcome. This step will give you three different techniques you can apply towards problem-solving.

All three techniques have been chosen specifically because they can be used singly or mixed-and-matched; it is easy to flow from one to the other. Different problems call for different approaches--or cocktails thereof--and it is important to have more than one technique you can apply. Moreover, these techniques work particularly well on challenges that incite fear or require stepping into new territory, two scenarios that are very likely to lend themselves to negative thinking styles.

The most common pitfall at this stage of the game is to circle back to the initial negative thought because you cannot find a way to take apart the problem.Use these techniques to avoid that mistake.

Remember, at this point we are no longer working on the larger mental health issue (the thought/belief); we are working on our real-life, in-the-moment problem.

I am going to switch examples, and use a particular negative thought that many people with PTSD have at one point in time or another:

"I can't get therapy".

It might be because there isn't anyone near enough for you to get to, it might be because of money, it might be time, it might be having had a bad experience in the past, it might be fear of what could happen inside therapy, or fear that someone will find out you are in therapy, or believing you can't do therapy, that you are incapable of it, or one of a hundred other reasons.

For our example, let's use,

"I can't get therapy because I am too afraid to talk. I don't know what will happen if I do, but I know it will be so unbearable. I will never recover".

Quickly, lets review steps 1 through 4 - Recognize, Name, Challenge, Create. First, you can recognize there is a likely cognitive distortion in the concept of 'so unbearable, I will never recover'. Indeed, the name for that cognitive distortion is 'catastrophizing'--believing that an action will lead to the worst kind of disaster, an unrecoverable catastrophe. The challenge against this distortion is straightforward, because there is little to no proof supporting the fear, even if you have had multiple failed attempts at therapy in the past, you still cannot knowit will result in something unbearable, nor can you know that you will not be able to bear the difficulties of it now, even if you couldn't bear them in the past. Create your balanced thought:

"I don't know how to go about getting therapy. I'm afraid of even talking about my problems, because I don't know what will be the result, whether it will be positive or negative."

Excellent. But now, we need to be firmly in step 5. We need to solve the problem. How do we get from the re-frame to a solution?

This problem is intensely personal and likely to be encumbered by many negative thoughts. In order to solve it, you will need to create some cognitive space between the problem and yourself. Cognitive space means exactly what it sounds like. It is room to think, without the distraction of the problem itself.

Technique #1: As If It Were Someone Else

Ask yourself,

"What if someone else thought they couldn't get therapy because they didn't know what would happen there, and they feel afraid? How would they solve this problem?"

Notice two things about that last question. It begins with "how," which keeps us rooted in action, not "why," "can," etc., which are more passive and contemplative. Then, the use of the word "solve," which assumes that there is a solution. This is the exact opposite of assuming there is no solution- and while that might sound unbelievably simplistic, you'll find it to be incredibly powerful.

So, how would 'they' solve this problem? Take the problem apart into pieces. You might want to do this on a piece of paper. Remember, it's about someone else. Keep using the language of 'they' and 'them' in order to maintain cognitive distance.

They don't know what will happen in therapy if they talk.

This indicates that 'they' don't have much knowledge of what goes on in a therapy session, and they literally don't know what will happen to themselves--emotionally and physically, in and out of the process. How can they solve these issues?

They can learn about what therapy really is: look up "types of therapy." Search psych forums (like this one!) for different types of therapy and experiences others have had. When they encounter something they don't understand, search a little deeper, or call their local library; most people don't know that librarians worldwide are trained to help people find the answers to questions. Keep track of what they are learning using a journal.

Note: never be afraid to learn what you think you already know. Even if you can rattle off five types of therapy, go and look up what else there might be, or even continue to look more deeply into what it is you think you understand already. You'll be going over some familiar ground, but that only means you are a few steps ahead. Remember, you're researching this in order to help "someone else," the mysterious 'they' referred to in this technique.

They can talk to some mental health practitioners; if they find you aren't learning enough specifics from reading, find a way to ask a therapist what they do. They might be able to do this by writing into blogs, or scheduling a meeting with a resource they learn of through the preliminary research. Be creative on behalf of your imaginary person!

Remember: learning about something doesn't mean it's going to happen - it's just learning.

They can talk to people on mental health forums about their experiences in therapy, good and bad, and ask them questions, even write about their own fears and get other peoples' responses.

After going through this process, your 'someone else' will have learned a great deal about what options are out there. At some point, you may even have stopped thinking of it as their challenge and started identifying it as your own. By educating yourself, you have addressed and neutralized many of the individual components of your fear. It is likely that along the way, you discovered what your first avenue for your positive action might be, and then you can move along to step #6.

But what if all the education did not move you past the fear? You can try the next technique.

Technique #2: Listing

For some people, making lists is a very enabling action. It brings order to the chaos. If you have never tried making a list, you should see if it is a technique you enjoy.

Lists begin with topics. When using lists for problem-solving, it is a good idea to think in terms of two columns: whatand how. Like our examples in Technique #1, using whatand howstatements will keep everything practical and doable.

Remember our initial problem:

"I can't get therapy because I am too afraid to talk. I don't know what will happen if I do, but I know it will be so unbearable, I will never recover."

Let's identify the what and the how.

First, what are all the pieces of the fear? What are you afraid of? Here is a potential list:
  • Hearing a diagnosis that is frightening (being told you are "crazy")
  • Being hospitalized
  • Falling apart and not being able to fulfill daily responsibilities
  • Having to take medication
  • Having to talk about the past
  • Never getting better
Next, add a second column: How can this fear be overcome?

We will use four tools. Each is suited to a specific kind of question. If you need help remembering them, you can use the acronym BAD FOG.
  1. Bargaining
  2. Diminishing
  3. Following the thought
  4. Guessing the worst
As with anything, you will find that you really work well with some of the tools listed above, and some turn out to be not as useful. Try them out, and learn which ones help you. If you are struggling, start by using them one at a time. We'll do that, below.

First, we remind ourselves of what the fears are - and then, we apply the tools (BAD FOG), in order to discover howwe might move past these fears.

Hearing a diagnosis that is frightening (being told you are "crazy"):
  • If you don't like what you hear, if the diagnosis scares you, you don't have to go back. (Bargaining)
Being hospitalized:
  • Find a kind of therapy where you feel safer than an office, perhaps at home, online, or in a group (Diminishment)
Falling apart and not being able to fulfill daily responsibilities:
  • If you fell apart and couldn't keep up with daily things, what would you do then? You would need to get rid of daily responsibilities. How? You could go on medical leave, invest in day-care, etc. (Following the thought)
Being told to take medication:
  • What is the very worst thing that could result from being told to take medication--needing to say "no"? Being labelled as sick? Notice that you were advised to take medication, not forced to take medication. This technique will uncover the assumptions inside of fears and neutralize them. (Guessing the worst)
Having to talk about the past:
  • What technique would you use? Try one out!
Never getting better:
  • Here, we have actually uncovered a new and different cognitive distortion. Put this on a list of its own; it needs to be worked on separately.
By the time you have completed your list, you will have a solid understanding of how to diffuse your own fears, and if not, you will have identified other negative thoughts that are distortions of their own, which are contributing to the immediate problem. Just like in a board game, when it is frustrating to go back to "start," it is very hard to stumble into things that make your problem become larger in your mind, not smaller. Take a deep breath and remember that every negative thought re-framed is a step towards healing.

Technique #3: Making Steps

When all else fails, this technique will succeed. It is the most direct way to move yourself to a positive action. Indeed, if you come through the first four stages of addressing negative thought (recognize, name, challenge, re-frame) and you are emboldened by that process, you can use this technique to get you quickly to your goal.

It works like this: assume that you are going to address the challenge, regardless of lingering fears. Remember that anywhere along the way you can stop, back up, and try another technique.

Break the challenge or problem into steps. They must be precise and narrowly defined. The important thing is to convert the one big thing--in this case, getting therapy--into many smaller steps that are easy to do.

Your first job in this technique will always consist of breaking the problem into those smaller steps. In the case of our current example, your list might look like this:

Getting Therapy
  • Do internet or library research on what therapy is.
  • Do internet or library research on how to start the process.
  • Make a list of questions to ask my insurance company or government agency.
  • Call (or visit) and get those questions answered.
  • Write out your requirements and restrictions (how far I will travel, cost, type, gender, age, etc.)
  • Use your requirements and information from your insurance/government agency to search for five possibilities.
  • Call one per day until all have been called in order to ask for an evaluation session or an intake appointment.
  • Schedule appointments.
Then, do every item on the list. It's that simple. Space them out according to your emotional capacity and what is reasonable and timely. A list such as this one might take three days for the first item, two for the second, but then one per day for the next three. A schedule will encourage you to stay on task but will also keep you from becoming overwhelmed by too many steps at once.

A good list will end with the last thing you could possibly do before you finish addressing the initial problem or challenge. Now, you are ready for the final step.

Step #6: Create Positive Action Using Acceptance.
In the case of our current example, the final step--the positive action--is to go to the appointments. The assumption is that, after having re-framed your negative thought and broken down the problem into something soluable, you will be empowered (and therefore able), to take action.

Remember Jane from part one? Lets go back to her story. She has re-framed her negative thought ("the report is completely ruined") into a neutral one: the report needs corrections in one section out of five, and her employer is confident in her ability to do the work. How does Jane create positive action?

Her task is simple: address the corrections needed for section five. She used a combination of the What If It Were Someone Elseand Making Stepstechniques in order to organize an approach. These led to the final step of scheduling a time in her work-day to begin re-writing. Now, she needs to accept that she is prepared to address the challenge, and do so. Jane needs to do the re-write that her boss has requested.

Acceptance is an important component of positive action. Notice what Jane needs to accept. She only needs to accept that she is prepared to address the challenge.

This is much simpler than accepting that she is good at what she does, for example. To accept that would be a major shift in her core beliefs, it would take quite awhile, and it's not even necessary here. Acceptingthat you are prepared is different from accepting that you are ready. Readiness usually invokes ability, and accepting that you are able to do something takes more work and hours than accepting preparedness.

In our other example, the acceptance piece is very similar. The positive action is to go to a therapy session. The acceptance piece is again rooted in preparedness. You have preparedyourself by addressing your fears through increased knowledge, and now there is nothing left but to go.

Acceptance is an often-misunderstood mindfulness concept. Acceptance does not equal positivity or negativity; acceptance is only acknowledging things as they are. It is easy to accept that 2 + 2 = 4, but when we are dealing with negative thoughts, it is a real challenge to accept that we have gotten to a point where we are, in fact, reasonably prepared to take positive action against the problem at hand. Hopefully, by using the concepts laid out in this series, you have a better understanding of your own tendencies concerning negative thoughts, and you now have a process you can apply in order to address them.

Like any new skill, this process takes practice. As you work with it, notice how you adjust it to suit your own cognitive style. You will soon find that many steps become automatic, and that you are beginning to have less general anxiety around common problems and challenges you encounter. Eventually, all the good work you are doing in re-framing your negative thoughts, and uncovering solutions for your real-world challenges will have a significant impact on creating new, and healthier, core beliefs.

You are re-building your brain, one positive action at a time.


Policy Enforcement
I found this to be a very useful article and timely as I am currently looking for a job and have so many fears and distortions. Thank you for sending this article to me.
These are excellent self-help tools. They are also a free introduction to CBT, so folks can get an idea what it is all about and decide if they will use this as a tool to help themselves. I have shared it with a few fellow sufferers, and most have continued on the journey. Thanks for putting in the work for others!


Thank you @joeylittle for taking the time and work in sharing this information for all of us here. It has really helped me tremendously over the past four days. This is the same information my T has been trying to cram in my head for months. I just needed more detail to understand and you did just that. Now I get it! Thanks again!!