“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows.”
– Helen Keller
You’d think he’d be pleased, you really would!
Keith, a friend of mine with whom I did a little therapy early in my career, had, wonderfully (so I naively thought!), won a great sum of money.
But as we know, negative thinking has the power to turn the brightest day into the darkest night.
“How fantastic!” I’d said.
At first he’d sort of agreed, as though his positivity muscles, sclerotic through underuse, were slowly grinding into unaccustomed action.
Soon, though, he said, “Yeah, but now I have the added problem of whether to tell my friends or not. If I don’t and they find out, it’s bad. And if I do, they’ll all expect me to share some with them!”
I suggested it wasn’t really a “problem” but merely a consideration; that, all in all, he might as well be over the moon.
“Yeah, but I’m torn between paying off the mortgage and buying a Porsche.”
Resisting the urge to throttle him (or ask for money), I got thinking about the true nature of negativity.
Understanding the grip of negativity
When working with negatively biased clients, it’s important to recognize the profound impact such thoughts can have on their overall wellbeing.
Negative thinkers tend to undermine their own successes, expecting the worst even in moments of triumph. In contrast, individuals who possess resilience and a positive mindset can maintain their optimism even in the face of adversity.
Keith, a young man with intelligence, looks, and newfound wealth, illustrates the influence of negative thinking on one’s perception of reality.
He was ingenious in his ability to reframe positives or neutrals into negatives.
Clients who exhibit negative thinking tend to assume that their take on reality is reality, rather than a biased, warped version of it. There is a kind of unhelpful self-confidence in the mind of a negative client, at least as far as their sense of being right about how bad things are or will be is concerned.
Part of a therapist’s job, paradoxically, is to help clients back to healthy self-doubt – that perhaps what they knee-jerkingly assumed must be a bad thing needn’t be at all.
Those prone to negative thinking tend to over-ruminate – to spend too much time, and not in a good way, ‘in their own heads’ – which has been shown to further reinforce negative thoughts, cause a shift away from any positive thoughts, and narrow perception of context.1
It is essential to acknowledge that negative thinking can become ingrained through learned behaviour and past emotional conditioning. And sometimes the thinking is merely a reflection of the feeling. For some negative clients, once we help them to relax deeply, suddenly their thinking can alter and shift to encompass potential positives and downgrade negatives.
But as practitioners, we really need to reconcile and appreciate what a negative mindset can do, or seem to do, for the person labouring under it.
The hidden advantages of negative thinking
Oddly enough, negative thinking can offer certain perceived advantages to those who practise it.
The familiarity of negative outcomes provides a sense of security, as individuals believe that expecting the worst will shield them from disappointment.
Additionally, some people find a peculiar satisfaction in being proven right with their negative predictions rather than experiencing positive outcomes. Feeling we are right about things can make us feel more in control in life, and cleverer.
There can even be a kind of humour in cynicism. Though Keith’s negativity could be wearying, he did have a sort of sardonic wit.
If we try to drag our clients from negative positions and force them to be more ‘positive’, we risk making them cling even tighter to their negative biases. We need to tread carefully on clients’ belief systems, even when those beliefs undermine them.
While there are great benefits to stronger emotional resilience and optimism – such as better emotional wellbeing and in some cases even physical health outcomes2 – and disadvantages of cynicism and pessimism,3 ultimately we’re not trying to turn a pessimistic client into a Pollyanna-type character!
We’re not seeking to make them excessively cheerful and full of overbearing positivity, but rather to help them develop the capacity for calmer, more hopeful and reasonable thoughts with greater perspective, which can helpfully and hopefully mix in more light into the darkness.
So with all that said, what steps can we take to help our clients bring more nuance and balance to their take on life?
Tip one: Encourage less extremist thought
Excessive all-or-nothing thinking is a primary cognitive distortion. Negative thinking tends to have us viewing situations as either all good or all bad.
We can gently encourage our clients to consider the shades of grey in life and adopt a more realistic perspective.
By acknowledging the potential for both positive and negative aspects to situations, they can reduce emotional intensity and think more clearly.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore or downplay any negatives to a situation, but rather help clients widen their contextual perception:
- “What is another way of looking at this?”
- “Is this a problem, or just a consideration?”
- “What good might come from this even if overall it seems bad?”
By using such Socratic questions we can help clients both see their all-or-nothing thinking and also start to challenge it for themselves.
The next tip can be seen as a subset of all-or-nothing thinking.
Tip two: Avoid overgeneralizing the negative
Keith was the kind of guy who, if he wasn’t perfect at something, would just angrily give it up. If one thing in life was a challenge, his whole life was crap!
- “I failed my maths test – my whole life is a failure!”
- “There are some challenges to suddenly coming into financial wealth, therefore the whole experience is bad!”
- “The journey back from my vacation was difficult, so the whole damn trip was awful!”
We see this kind of thinking a lot in negative clients, whether they verbalize it or not. I will often simply talk to the client about it as “a pattern I see in many clients” and let them recognize it as applying to any of their own thinking. Once a client starts to see the pattern of what they do, they can start to stand aside from it, see its limitations, and challenge it.
So clients often tend to overextend negative experiences to other areas of their lives, viewing them as permanent and pervasive. The more we can respectfully help clients recognize the specific and temporary nature of setbacks and failures, allowing them to maintain a more balanced view, the more they can start to do this for themselves.
And there’s a flip side to this, too. As well as helping our negatively biased clients to avoid overextending negatives, we can also help them recognize and therefore start to control their tendency to dismiss – or even miss entirely – the positive.
Tip three: Don’t dismiss the positive
Keith got so caught up in what he saw as the negatives to suddenly having bucketloads of cash (I admit I struggled to feel empathy, as I was in dire financial straits at the time!) that he didn’t seem to be able to see any positives in his sudden wealth!
Back then I think I ratherer irritably told him that he should count himself lucky, but his negative ideology was too strong for such a direct contradiction.
Had I been less involved and more professional (seeing friends as clients isn’t always advisable, and I was a newbie back then), I might have calmly asked him if there were any positives and how the challenges might be overcome.
More generally, with negative clients we can help them to avoid minimizing the potential positives. I sometimes reframe this as “respecting the good” and giving it “room to breathe”.
Negative thinking obstructs the ability to recognize and appreciate positive experiences. Encourage clients to avoid magnifying setbacks while minimizing successes. By reframing setbacks as temporary and specific, clients can cultivate motivation and happiness.
We can also help our clients minimize their assumptions by learning to hold ‘meaning vacuums’.
Tip four: Enough with the mindreading!
- “They must think I’m a fool/loser/jerk!”
- “I know she hates me!”
- “When people look at me they see a fat ugly slob!”
There’s a certain kind of negativity that comes with pessimism and low self-esteem.
Negative thinkers often interpret ambiguous situations with negative assumptions, which then become certainties. This, of course, leads to unnecessary anxiety and stress. We can encourage clients to resist assigning negative meanings to uncertain circumstances and consider a range of plausible explanations, including positive ones.
I will often talk to my clients about starting to hold a ‘meaning vacuum’ in our minds until more evidence emerges. This may be a completely new idea for some clients.
For example, if I don’t hold a meaning vacuum in my mind when someone doesn’t text me back or look happy to see me at work, then I may seek to prematurely fill that meaning vacuum with my own negative imaginings. “They haven’t got back to me yet because they no longer like me!” or “I haven’t heard about that job because they thought I was awful!”
Being able to relax with “I don’t know yet” is a profound emotional skill.
We can describe this to our clients and help them generate an array of possible explanations for an ambiguous situation, good and bad. In this way they can loosen up their thinking a bit and sometimes even ‘switch off’ any need to explain through imagination – simply relax without knowing for a while. A wonderful skill to develop.
We also need to look at our negatively biased client’s relationship to their sense of control.
Tip five: Who is responsible here?
Negative thinkers might tend to internalize blame for negative outcomes, even when it is unwarranted. Or they may feel that all negative outcomes are due to other people, therefore rendering them with little sense of empowerment and influence in their own life – a kind of learned helplessness.
We can talk to our clients about how negative thinking tends to warp people’s realistic sense of what they can and cannot control and what is reasonable for them to be responsible for.
I might ask Socratic questions such as:
- “What percentage of blame can be attributed to me if I find that my co-worker is in a lousy mood and I don’t know why?”
- “If my teenage son refuses to study for a test, what percentage of that is down to me and what percentage to him?”
- “If I give a speech and some people don’t seem so interested, how much of that was my responsibility and how much was theirs?”
Doing this kind of exercise with a client can help them towards more nuanced interpretations. It doesn’t necessarily let them off the hook or imply no responsibility on their part, and nor does it put it all down to others behaving badly. What it does do is help them widen the context.
Next up, we can see whether our clients are over-‘musterbating’.
Tip six: Help the client soften rigid self-imposed rules
One client, Susie, was an extreme perfectionist. She had exacting rules for herself, strong opinions of how others and life itself should be, and little room for humour or tolerance, either for herself or others.
You’ll have noticed, perhaps, that some negative thinkers seem to force rigid rules on life. Rather than mindfully accepting with curiosity the differences between people and the (perceived) imperfections in life, others, and themselves, they seek to apply an almost tyrannical grip.
Chronic ‘musterbaters’ will often think along the lines of:
- “People must be as I believe they should!”
- “I must appear perfect at all times!”
- “People mustn’t find this funny!”
By simply asking people questions and setting exercises, we can help them soften harsh, brittle, rigid rules so they become less outwardly and inwardly lacerating and unforgiving.
We can help our clients toward greater self-tolerance by asking questions such as:
- “Can a person who is generally good and decent ever do one thing that is not so good? Under what circumstances might this happen?”
- “Can a super-bright person make a mistake?”
- “To what extent can we control or influence the behaviour and values of other people?”
Again, we are looking to loosen up rigid rule-making when it hurts the client (and those in their lives).
With Susie I used a lot of humour, particularly reframing through humour as well as Socratic questioning. She began to soften toward herself and others over time, and to develop or rediscover humour and, yes, humanity.
So negative thinkers often create unrealistic expectations and rules for how life should unfold. We can guide clients to examine their expectations and consider whether they may be too narrow or inflexible. We can encourage them to embrace a more open-minded approach.
And last, but certainly not least – this final tip has been scientifically shown to scoop clients out of a negative spiral quickly – we can make use of the infinite potential of the imagination.
Tip seven: Harness the imagination
Keith had made up stories in his head (and unquestioningly believed them) about how his newfound money would make everything worse for him. We can help our clients stop making up and automatically believing such negative stories.
Imagination can be a powerful tool, but negative thinkers often use it to create worst-case scenarios.
We can rather encourage our clients to harness the positive potential of their imagination by visualizing positive outcomes instead. Or at least dealing positively with any negative scenarios!
There was some interesting recent research on this. It was found that engaging in mental imagery can effectively divert individuals from negative thought spirals.4
Compared to using specific words as a distraction, participants who employed mental imagery not only reported a greater sense of improvement but also demonstrated greater improvements in objective, physiologic indicators of emotional arousal such as galvanic skin response and heart variability.
It seems that images possess a unique ability to divert our attention away from persistent negative thoughts. The researchers speculate that this phenomenon might be attributed to the immersive nature of mental images, which require more effort to create.
The researchers found that using positive mental imagery was the most distracting technique for the participants when it came to interrupting depressing and negative ruminations.
And we can supercharge mental imagery by teaching our clients self-hypnosis.
Hypnosis: supercharged mental imagery
We can use the power of hypnosis – mental imagery done with precision and skill – to help our clients stand aside from their negative spirals and watch them lose power and subside.
In fact, if the research study holds water, it may be that hypnosis, mental imagery, is the best way to interrupt a negative thinking spiral.
We might ask our client to get a sense of negative rumination and then start to ‘step out of it’ by strongly imagining some worry being resolved, or dealing with a difficulty in the best possible way, or simply replacing the worry with a sense of being in a beautiful, calm, or peaceful place, and so on.
So these are a few strategies for helping clients master the style of their rumination.
I last saw Keith a few years ago. He had matured into a more balanced and nuanced person and told me:
“You know, Mark, I wish I’d appreciated that cash windfall more at the time!”
I withstood the urge to talk about looking gift horses in the mouth, and simply nodded and smiled.
How to Treat Depression Fast
Over more than 20 years, Mark has applied his particular approach to psychotherapy to the problem of depression. And although every depression case is unique, there are certain commonalities that, when addressed, can lift depression rapidly. You can learn more about his online course here.
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