How to change negative thinking

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

A very common mechanism that fuels anxiety and depression.

closeup of sad man with tear coming down his cheek

Anxiety, depression and other emotional health problems have their roots in the patient’s early childhood history. Many people suffering from these issues report at first, “I had a wonderful childhood, I was very happy,” but then in therapy reveal that their childhood was actually troubled and their relationship with their parents was conflicted, that although their parents were loving and well-intentioned, they may have made some unfortunate but serious mistakes.

In considering how to change negative thinking, we need to understand that a common problematic mechanism with such people is that they have an unhealthy "Negative default setting" in their thought patterns. 

What is a default setting? 

When a person is experiencing a moment in his life when nothing really positive or negative is going on such as when he is sitting on the couch for 20 minutes with nothing to do, or walking five blocks to mail a letter, his default setting is what his thoughts about himself fall back to in those moments. I'm not doing anything good or bad right now. What am I? What is my value? What is my purpose? A person with a negative default setting who experienced a troubled childhood often thinks, “I am not accomplishing anything worthwhile right now therefore I am not worthy. I need to accomplish great things in order to earn my right to exist and I'm not doing that right now, therefore I'm in a bad state.” Such people who were criticized or verbally mistreated by their parents or whose parents had marital conflict tend to feel badly about themselves. They develop a negative default setting thinking “I'm not worthy just the way I am. I don't have value just for being myself. Only when I do great and special things do I have value.” You'd be surprised how common such thought patterns are in people suffering from emotional health issues. It generates many problems. First of all it causes the patient to generally have a very low baseline pleasure level. Every person needs a certain amount of pleasure every day in order to function properly. An emotionally healthy person while walking down the street to mail a letter thinks “I am a decent and worthwhile person. I have value just being who I am even though I am not accomplishing anything in particular at the moment.” These thoughts provide him with a strong baseline of pleasure and satisfaction that helps him get through his day and protects him from mental illness. However a person with a negative unhealthy default setting constantly feels bad about himself. These are unpleasant feelings and they constantly plague him, leaving him desperate for everyday pleasure and happiness. This can lead to addiction as he seeks the strong pleasure high to overcome his bad feelings. It leads to depression as he feels helpless and hopeless to ever overcome his constant bad feelings, and it leads to anxiety as he is very anxious that he is never going to make the grade and be worthwhile and valuable. It also leads to interpersonal conflict and many other mental health problems.

For a fascinating discussion of one of the pitfalls of low self-esteem, click here.

How to change negative thinking in psychotherapy? 

girl looking disappointed

First you need to understand your full childhood history. Low self-esteem, negative self-talk and an unhealthy default setting is a very normal, natural, common reaction to being mistreated as a child. Children are extremely fragile and sensitive and any emotional mishandling by their parents has a deep effect on their emotional make up and thought patterns. Your whole mind is literally a product of how your parents interacted with you as a child. Understanding where your whole problem comes from is immensely relieving and empowering as you realize that you're not defective after all. Then you need to go through your childhood and think, “How did I feel in all those moments? What emotions were generated in me when I was mistreated?” All those feelings were probably repressed and you need to release them and gain conscious awareness of them. Then you need to mourn and grieve these unfortunate events, “Why did they have to treat me this way? Why did they have to create such a negative and unhealthy thought patterns in my mind?” You must develop an attitude of compassion, kindness, pity and sadness towards yourself and the child you once were.

Such an attitude will help you to truly see how harmful and unproductive negative thought patterns are and how you deserve better. Having compassion for yourself will give you the resolve to change your unhealthy thought habits.

How to change negative thinking: By challenging all those negative thoughts with the light of reason.

Does it make sense that I am really so unworthy? Is it logical that a normal average person like me should feel so badly about himself? Aren't I at least halfway decent person like everyone else? Don't I deserve to feel reasonably good about myself? You should journal several good things that you do each day in personal growth and kindness to your fellow. At the end of the month you should review all of those many worthwhile accomplishments and use that feeling of satisfaction to challenge your negative thoughts. It is amazing how well this works over time! Then you need to work on learning to take pleasure in the everyday, mundane, average, simple activities of the self. You need to realize that it is a tremendous accomplishment for you to simply spend five minutes walking down the street enjoying the nice weather. You need to appreciate just sitting on the couch. You need to develop a taste for the pleasures of the mundane. This will begin to restore your pleasure level up to where it should be, relieving your emotional illness.

man looking introspective

Never underestimate the power and effectiveness of this great work about how to change negative thinking! I've seen it heal many people.

For more information at length, see my blog post, “How does psychotherapy work” as well as “How to treat perfectionism in young people”

Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, or download one of my informative free reports.

If you are working on how to change negative thinking, and would like guidance or treatment from an empathetic therapist in lower Manhattan,

you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

For more information on childhood emotional neglect, click here.