Challenging negative thoughts to feel more at ease

Negative thoughts frame your experience. Challenging your thoughts can change that. By learning to observe, analyze, relativize, and reframe your thoughts. You can start thinking more positively.

Challenging negative thoughts to feel more at ease

Your inner voice can feel like your enemy. Predicting disaster, making depressing statements, or labeling everything negatively. It can drag you down and make you anxious.

But you can transform these thinking patterns, by challenge these negative thoughts.

Your negative narrative - in tandem with your beliefs - filter your view of the world and yourself. They aren't a set truth - only through your own experience they appear true. If you think people don’t like you, you'll likely perceive hostility. Even if it isn't there. By changing your thinking patterns, you can create a different way of experiencing the world.

Of course it's not as easy as "just thinking positively" from now on. It takes an conscious effort of observing, analyzing, putting in to perspective and reframing the thoughts.

1. Types of negative thinking to challenge

Your negative thoughts are about you and what happens before, during & after social events. They enforce negative biases embedded in your beliefs. To transform your thought patterns, we first must understand our mental fallacies. There are common patterns in us that can be classified. Let's take a look 7 most common negative thinking patterns:

  1. Predicting the future
  2. Mind reading
  3. Taking things personally
  4. Overgeneralizing
  5. What-ifs
  6. Focusing on the negative
  7. Labelling

1.1 Predicting the future

This is when you assume what people think and how you will react. But this hasn’t happened yet. Thinking this way makes you unnecessarily anxious in advance. But also create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you will start blushing - you actually induce it.

Examples:

  • “People will judge me as a failure”
  • “I will turn red and stammer a lot.”
  • "I'll totally blank out when they ask me something."

1.2 Mind reading

When you assume to know what everybody thinks. You imagine people judging you. But fact is, you don’t know what others think! They probably are busy thinking about themselves. Mostly likely they don't even pay attention. They can even just like you!

Examples:

  • ”They think I’m boring”
  • “See, nobody likes me”
  • “You just made it weird”

1.3 Taking things personally

If a situation turns silent, or awkward, you immediately blame yourself. But there can be many causes. Including the social clumsiness of others. It is everybody’s responsibility to keep a social dynamic smooth.

Examples:

  • “Did I say anything wrong”
  • “I have embarrassed everybody!”
  • "They don't like me for not saying anything."

1.4 Overgeneralizing

Because something didn’t go well once, doesn’t mean you can’t try again and learn. Anecdotal evidence does not mean general truth. Besides, as you develop, so can the results.

Examples:

  • “I can’t talk in groups”
  • “Talking to a girl is just not possible for me”
  • “I can never talk on stage!"

1.5 What if statements

When you make ‘logical’ predictions of the future, but nothing has happened yet. This is making yourself anxious with predictions.

Examples:

  • “What if I say something wrong?”
  • “What if I get outcast again?
  • “What if people will laugh at me?

1.6 Focusing on the negative

You focus on the negative moments in a conversation. Not even noticing the 90% of the conversation that was positive. This focus warps your experience and memory.

Examples:

  • “Why did he look so weird at me?”
  • “They didn't give me a chance to talk.”
  • “Why did everybody stop talking?”

1.7 Labeling

Your negative beliefs about yourself get translated in labels. You present these labels to yourself as set truths. But again - this is just a way you unconsciously choose to look at yourself.

Examples:

2. Challenging your negative thoughts

So how do we challenge these narratives? Well we now can kind of recognize the generic patterns, but now you must understand how they work specifically in your situation.

You'll need a notebook, or a note taking app on your phone, so you can write down notes. If you got that, use these steps to challenge and transform your thought patterns.

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Taking notes
  3. Defining the situation
  4. Define the feeling
  5. Type of thought
  6. Challenge your thought
  7. Rewrite as a constructive thought

2.1 Self-awareness

First of all you'll have to be aware of your thoughts. A bit weird - but part of your consciousness observe your thoughts. As a negative thought occurs, be alert, take a mental step back, and see it for what it is. A unconscious response.

2.2 Taking notes

If you catch yourself in a negative thinking pattern. Write it down (or remember it for now). Especially if a specific thought occurs more often, you can more easily catch your mind in the act. Just write down what your thought was.

2.3 Defining the situation

Next, define what the situation caused the thought to appear. Was there a specific location, person or emotion that induced the thought? Were you talking to people, or was it nothing unique at all? You probably already have an idea what triggers you - but writing it down really helps nail down the pattern.

2.4 Define the feeling

Also jot down how the thought made you feel. But also if the feeling came before the thought or after. Take a little step back, disassociate from it, and analyze your feeling. This can be more than one feeling. Besides it is very common to have very conflicting feelings at the same time as well.

2.5 Type of thought

Next you want to understand what kind of thought it was. Take a look at the above definitions again. Was it 'predicting the future', or 'overgeneralizing'. Or did you 'focus on the negative'? Observe and tag.

2.6 Challenge your thought

Now the most important part - challenging your thought. You are going to be very critical of this isolated thought. Question it's validity. Try to take a bit of emotional distance and answer these questions:

  • Is there proof that contradicts this thought?
  • What triggered this thought in my head?
  • Is it a relevant response?
  • What would a friend say if she heard my thoughts?
  • How will I feel about this in 5 hours? 5 days? 5 months?
  • What does thinking this way bring me for up and downsides?
  • Is there another way to look at this situation?

This will put your thinking in perspective and question its validity.

2.7 Rewrite as a constructive thought

Finally you define what would've been a better thought in this case. Think about a redefinition that would empower you instead of draw you down. Write down a thought that creates positivity and opportunity.

  • "People don't like me" --> "People don't know me yet, but I can leave a positive impact"
  • "Why did he look weird at me?" --> "He looked at me, he might find me interesting."

3. Example of challenging a negative thought:

So let's go through the process of challenging a negative thought. We'll go through the 7 steps as mentioned.

Step 1. You experience a negative thought. You take a small mental step back and observe it.

Step 2. You write down your thought: "I'm just the quiet guy."

Step 3. You define the situation. You were left out, because your friend talked to some new people on the streets. But you didn't really partake. So you write down: Situation: not being able to be part of conversation.

Step 4. You analyze your feeling. You felt lonely, a bit betrayed, a need to partake in the conversation but an even bigger fear of looking like a fool. So you write that down: loneliness, betrayed, a want for socializing, a fear of socializing. A complex mix of feelings.

Step 5. You find out what kind of thought you had. In this case you write down: Labeling

Step 6. Now you look very critically at your thought and answer some questions:

  • Is there proof that contradicts this thought?
    • I've talked to people in other situations, so I'm not always quiet.
  • What triggered this thought in my head?
    • An inability to partake in a random conversation.
  • Is it a relevant response?
    • No didn't really add to the situation.
  • What would a friend say if she heard my thoughts?
    • That I'm talking nonsense, they've heard me tell interesting things.
  • How will I feel about this in 5 hours? 5 days? 5 months?
    • In 5 hours I will still cringe a bit. In 5 days I probably don't care that much anymore. In 5 months, I've probably forgotten.
  • What does thinking this way bring me for up and downsides?
    • It doesn't really help me - it only reinforces an image I have of myself
  • Is there another way to look at this situation?
    • I'm sometimes quiet with people, but if I get to know them I'm more at ease and talk easily. So I'm not a quiet guy in general.

Step 7. Now rewrite your negative thought in a constructive manner. Instead of I'm just the quiet guy, you write down: I like to listen first and then say something considerate

3.1 Worksheet

To help you out with structuring this exercise I've made a worksheet for you. Feel free to copy, download, adjust, print and use!


If you go through this process the first 100 times, you'll do it on paper. But as you practice, it will start to go automatically. You'll learn to recognize negative patterns, analyze and classify them, and reconstruct them in a more positive way. You will learn to cultivate a little pause between thought and reaction, where you can choose to react differently. Slowly but surely you'll replace negative thoughts with more positive ones.

This technique alone won't solve your anxiety - but it goes a long way in molding your brain towards a positive mindset.

[This is part of a blog series on social anxiety. Where we delve into what causes your anxiety,  what prevents you from solving it, challenging negative thoughts, embracing positive mindsets, letting go of self-focus and how to overcome your anxiety by exposing yourself step by step.]