Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Negative thinking and emotion

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Negative thinking: Your friend and foe -

Finding the positive psychology of negative thinking

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Positive psychology has become increasing popular, it is for this reason it is important not to revert to the one size fits all approach because we are all unique. Negative thinking is a natural occurrence yet it is known to carry a negative stigma. Surprisingly enough, negative thinking, also known as pessimism has been known to increase personal growth and performance (Norem and Chang, 2002). Negative thinking is a defensive mechanism to prevent us from going down the wrong path. However, at times negative thinking can become destructive to your psyche leading to depression, if those thoughts are seen as facts rather than a caution. Negative thinking should be incorporated into emotion regulation in which you filter how you feel. Depression is defined as fear of the future based on one's past; where negative thoughts from previous incidents forecast a gloomy realistic outcome. It is for this reason it is important to acknowledge negative thoughts but not to rely on them as facts. This important fact will change the way you feel (Chang, E.C, Norem, J.K ,2002). There are times when pessimism and negative thinking are indeed positive psychology, as they lead to better performance and personal growth Freud believed we subconsciously ignore negative thoughts so as not to affect our egos and emotions.[1] Even though these negative thoughts can lead to depression if not controlled they help us survive.

Defensive pessimism[edit | edit source]

Although there is substantial empirical evidence that optimism leads to better coping strategies, wellbeing and satisfaction there is also proof that pessimism can improve your lifestyle as well. Pessimism consists of numerous subgroups some more helpful than others. Such subgroups include: unrealistic pessimism, neurotic and rational pessimism, defensive pessimism and strategic pessimism.

Defensive pessimism is linked to more positive outcomes than dispositional pessimism. Defensive pessimism is a well used strategy anxious people use to obtain their goals. These individuals will set low unrealistic expectations and then reflect on all possible outcomes associated with that goal. It was found by Cantor & Norem, (1989) that defensive pessimists perform just as well as strategic optimists if not better as both strategies decreased anxiety in anxious individuals. This demonstrates that negative thinking (pessimism) does not necessarily hinder ones existence.

Although defensive pessimism allows you to tackle obstacles while decreasing anxiety, not all forms of pessimism are supportive. Unrealistic pessimism was found to hinder one’s lifestyle, preventing them from achieving goals they decide to pursue. This is when one exaggerates a scenario and imagines every possible negative outcome in that scenario. E.g scenario: If I go swimming a shark will swim next to me. Outcomes: I will die, it will attack me, I will be scared. Result: I will not go swimming.

People who listen to their negative thoughts are more likely to construct safety plans preventing disasters when they occur. For example, you decide to go on holiday and your negative thoughts convince you to apply for travel insurance. Imagine the relief felt when a disaster strikes while you're overseas but you are completely covered by insurance. As they say there is a silver lining to every cloud.

The reason why negative thinking is so effective is because it is normally unconscious thinking. The capacity principle demonstrates that unconscious thoughts have a higher capacity of consciousness. This is because consciousness only uses a subset of information and impedes the quality of choice[2] Negative thinking can be explained using the unconscious thought theory in which both conscious and unconscious thoughts impact on the choices we make. Negative thinking is normally the part the unconscious thinking occurs when one is unaware and impacts on a person's behaviour. This is normally at its most influential when one is distracted. This is known as the unconscious thought principle (Bos, Baaren, Dijksterhuis, 2008).[3]

Cognition Model of Depression[edit | edit source]

Even though negative thinking is important to achieve our goals when it becomes ruminative and cycles endlessly it may lead to serious mental illnesses like depression. Teasdale (1983) found that depressed clients easily retrieved negative memories (thoughts) but struggled to retrieve positive memories during a word association test. By using the latency of retrieval as a measure of accessibility, depression was found to increase accessibility of negative thoughts and decreased accessibility of positive memories. Negative cognitions can produce and maintain a state of depression by combining continuous unrealistic negative thinking with the chemical imbalance in depression. Beck’s (1967) cognitive models reported that negative cognitions can have a causal role in producing symptoms of depression. Before, it was thought that negative thinking was thought to be a symptom of depression however now it is known to actually a causal factor or depression.

The cognition model of depression suggests a person’s pessimism, low self esteem and negative outlook leads to depression by biasing ones thinking in a negative direction. It becomes a hard habit to break when the negative thinking process is established within the brain. This is why it’s important to break this cycle. Another possibility the cognition model states is that negative thinking produces and maintains a state of depression whilst bias thinking, meaning that both depression and cognition have a reciprocal relationship.

Beck (1967) reported depression to be associated with increased levels of negative thinking. When these thoughts were increased a deeper level in depression resulted, and decreasing negative thinking alleviated depression. They also found through positive experiences one became more confident and decreased negative cognition thus alleviating depression. Another therapy that proved to be successful is the power of distraction which also decreased depression.

As noted previously negative thinking is essential in our progress only when balanced. When negative thinking becomes a truth rather than possibility your emotions become compromised. Depression is essentially negative thinking which then manifests into negative effect. Excessive negative thinking can be known as pessimistic thinking, this would have an obvious upsetting, depressive affect upon ones emotion ( Ball, S.A., & Zuckerman, M, 1990).Unfortunately negative thinking can consist of unconscious thoughts and easily converts into the strongest of habits. People easily generate negative thoughts automatically and are unaware of its occurrence. So when you start noticing constant sadness and feeling of doom, perhaps it is time to find a balance to this delicate process.

Black Glasses[edit | edit source]

It is important to understand why negative thinking may impact ones emotions one answer is the black glasses theory. People with low self-esteem hardly acknowledge positive experiences; as they do not weigh as much negative experiences. At the same time they fixate on their weaknesses instead of deliberately concentrating on their strengths (Sanna, L.J ,1996). A good example is the prosecutor who’ll call your attention to every mistake or any weakness presented without pointing out any positive aspects this encourages negative thinking in way which will negatively impact your emotion and behaviour.

Another affect negative thinking can have on your emotions is anxiety. Anxiety can be defined as fear on the possible future, where negative thoughts rule and dictate what WILL occur in your future. This is why it is incredibly important to acknowledge the possibility of a negative thought but to realize it is not the truth, just a thought. Again, there is a reason for this brain process. Put simply, the more anxious one is the more likely you will take extra precautions to ensure your survival. In other words unconscious negative thoughts can improve one's decisions by exhausting more possibilities. Anxiety can assimilate a lot of stress and unhappiness in your life that is why it is important to find a balance between negative thoughts and how they affect your emotions.

My Worst Nightmare Came True[edit | edit source]

Negative thinking when it is not controlled can not only lead to emotional imbalances, such as depression and anxiety, it can lead to your demise; 

The self-fulfilling prophecy is when ones negative thinking becomes a reality and it normally correlated with ones worst fear associated with their emotions. The self-fulfilling prophecy is a psychology theory defines by Robert Merton as: when a false definition of a situation creates a new behavior which generates the initial false conception to be true. In other words because you begin acting a certain way because of your negative thoughts, the path you were trying to avoid, presents itself (Dolinski, D., Gromski, W., & Zawisza, E. ,1987).

Negative thinking effect your emotions this way due to the weighting principle in which unconscious thoughts automatically weight factors in a situation which you may not be consciously aware of. When a negative thought presents itself, you begin to reflect on it and it negatively effects your mood. This will change your behaviour which normally reinforces the likelihood of the imagined negative outcome occurring. The end result is the Self-fulling prophecy in which negative thinking about a worst case scenario reinforces your behaviour towards that direction; making they worse case scenario a reality. E.g. my husband is going to cheat on me, behaviour: act suspicious, don't trust him, outcome: husband begins to think about it, or cheats because wife doesn't trust him anyway.

Finding the Balance[edit | edit source]

As hard as it is to believe everyone experiences negative thinking. A lot of us create a facade in which we are invulnerable and burst with confidence. However, underneath our emotions are susceptible to different thoughts especially negative ones.

The Differential self-awareness theory explains how we can be privately aware and publicly aware (Affleck, G., Tennen, H., & Apter, A. ,2001).

Private self-awareness refers to a person who is looking within himself or is thinking about himself, and being aware of the hidden aspects of himself.

Negative thinking can affect us both ways depending on the situation and our identity. The prominent key is to remain sceptical without being overwhelmed by these thoughts. Visionaries like Bill Gates and other successful individuals found negative thinking to provide them with an advantage over their competitors, however in order to resolve a problem introduced with a negative thought it is important not become overwhelmed and be able to differentiate reality from possibility.

Breathe in Breathe Out[edit | edit source]

One simple but incredibly essential method to controlling your negative thinking is your breathing. Negative thinking can leave a feeling of discomfort and discontent in one self. Some familiar feelings resemble a heavy, compounding mass in the center of one’s chest. Although this sensation cannot be removed without removing reason for the negative thought it can be controlled (Kelman, H., 1945). Using this simple ritual next time you feel overwhelmed and the heavy mass in your chest. try taking a deep breath in, visualizing the area around the heavy dark mass expanding, giving it more room, and as you exhale visualize your expiration blowing around the mass. Although the emotion cannot be removed it can be controlled.

Power of Imagination[edit | edit source]

Another useful technique in impeding the negative thought process in negative thinking is visualization. Cyclic negative thoughts become we established thought process with high accessibility. A way to stop this is imagination when you think badly of yourself an exaggerated version of that thought. E.g I am stupid, imagine yourself wearing clown shoes, a stupid outfit to the point it make you laugh. Then imagine an exaggerate form of yourself being brilliant looking like superman. The last step is first imagining yourself as a stupid figure everyone laughing at you, and then stripping all that silliness away to reveal the brilliant person of yourself. This way you are not stopping the thought processes which will just intensify the thoughts but you are changing the direction of your thoughts. Another well known technique is to imagine a bright powerful sun piercing through the negative thought every time you think pessimistically. You will begin to notice how many of these thoughts you encounter each day which stripes the power of them.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Although negative thinking are unconscious thoughts that can be used to solve logical problems when they are uncontrolled, they can be detrimental to ones behaviours and emotion. That is why it is important only to acknowledge them without necessarily believing them. This exceptionally applicable method to control negative thinking is by changing the way you think [4] People do not have much control over their emotions however they have the capability to manipulate the way they think. Every time negative thought appears which would be detrimental to your emotions visualize that it is only a thought, not fact. Although thoughts are important they cannot dictate your actions if you do not let them. Understanding that they are merely possibilities instead of facts, will deeply improve your emotions and create stability in your life.

Negative thinking can either benefit your emotions or impede them depending on the way you react to them and how much you weight them. Numerous factors will determine this such as: its weighting, your current self-esteem, the brain process involved and your current situation. The weighting depends on whether the thought is brought upon on a subconscious level which is normally the case; however people who have a depressive nature will normally encourage this type of thinking at a conscious level. Things brings upon a whole other set of criteria as conscious thoughts are processed and weigh differently to unconscious thoughts (Canter, N, & Norem, J.k., 1989).

It has been established that negative thinking is a defence mechanism which guides us towards the right decisions we wish to make, by providing us with more possibilities and more realistic future. This however stops’ being helpful when one refuses to differentiate reality from possibility. [5] Many different techniques are available to support a healthy balance between negative thinking and emotions one of which is to become privately aware of your thinking. Unconscious thoughts normally slide through undetected when we are distracted or stressed. That is why it is important to remain focused and try catch” yourself in the action (Teasdale. J.D & Russell. M.L., 1983). Another main technique is to focus on your breathing to bring you back to the present from the future thinking. You will begin to realize all is not so bad.

Finally, low self-esteem is a main contributor to negative thinking becoming a disability rather than a skill. Therefore improving one’s self esteem will not only be beneficial to one’s mental health and social life but it will also impede the easily established habit of hurtful negative thinking.

Perhaps the best saying to remember when caught in the negative process is: Just because I’m thinking it doesn’t mean it’s true.

References[edit | edit source]

Affleck, G., Tennen, H., & Apter, A. (2001). Optimism, pessimism, and daily life with chronic illness. In E.C. Chan (Ed.), Optimism and pessimism: Implication for theory, research, and practice (pp.147/168). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ball, S.A., & Zuckerman, M, (1990). Sensation seeking Eysenck’s personality dimensions, and reinforcement sensitivity in concept formation. Personality and Individual Differences, 11, 343-353.

Baumeister, R. and B. Bushman. (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont California : Thomson Wadsworth.

Canter, N, & Norem, J.k. (1989). Defensive pessimism and stress and coping. Social Cognition, 7, 92-112.

Chang, E.C, Norem, J.K (2002). The positive Psychology of Negative Thinking. Journal of clinical psychology, 58 (9), 993-1001.

Dolinski, D., Gromski, W., & Zawisza, E. (1987). Unrealistic pessimism. Journal of Social psychology, 127, 511-516.

Erber, R. & M. Erber. (2000). The Self-Regulation of Moods: Second Thoughts on the Importance of Happiness in Everyday Life. Psychological Inquiry, 11(3), 142-148.Gross, J. (1998). The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299

Fennel, M.J, Teasdale, J.D, Jones, S, Camle, A (1987). Distraction in Neurotic and endogenours depression: An investigation of negative thinking in major depressive disorders. Psychology of medicine,17,441-452.

Kelman ,H. (1945). Neurotic pessimism. Psychoanalytic Review, 32, 419-448.

Prentice-Dunn, S., & Rogers, R. (1980, July). Effects of deindividuating situational cues and aggressive models on subjective deindividuation and aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(1), 104-113.

Sanna, L.J (1996). Defensive pessimism and optimism: The bittersweet influence of mood on performance and prefectural and counterfactual thinking. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 635-665.

Sullivan & Erber (1998) Therapy associated with depression.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(1), 104-113.

Teasdale, J.D (1983). Negative thinking in depression: Cause, Effect, or reciprocal relationship. Advanced Behaviour Res. Therapy 5, 3-25.

Teasdale. J.D & Russell. M.L. (1983). Differential effects of induced mood on recall positive, negative and neutral words. Br.J. Social Psychology Clinic 20,39-48.

Wicklund, R. A., & Duval, S. Opinion change and performance facilitation as result of objective self-awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1971, 7, 319-342.


External links[edit | edit source]

  1. Wicklund, R. A., & Duval, S. Opinion change and performance facilitation as result of objective self-awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1971, 7, 319-342.
  2. Prentice-Dunn, S., & Rogers, R. (1980, July). Effects of deindividuating situational cues and aggressive models on subjective deindividuation and aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(1), 104-113. Retrieved May 16, 2009,
  3. Baumeister, R. and B. Bushman. (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont California : Thomson Wadsworth.
  4. Erber, R. & M. Erber. (2000). The Self-Regulation of Moods: Second Thoughts on the Importance of Happiness in Everyday Life. Psychological Inquiry, 11(3), 142-148.
  5. Gross, J. (1998). The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299.