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    Flipping the Script: Healing Yourself By Overcoming Negative Self-Talk

    14 Minute Read
    As a therapist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I’ve seen firsthand the significant impact that our self-talk has on our emotional health. Self-talk is our mental processor, our inner monologue that shapes our beliefs and understandings, colors our life views, and ultimately dictates our emotions and behaviors. It’s often automatic and, at times, ingrained.

    To illustrate this phenomenon to my clients, I frequently equate the powerful influence our thought patterns have to a riverbed that becomes deeper, and more grooved, over time. Through repetition, these patterns become habituated and/or automatic, or the path of least resistance. They can become so fixed that the patterns seem permanent, or even accepted as ‘just the way things are’, thereby left undisturbed. Resultantly, shifting the direction of these patterns can require considerable effort.

    Therefore, when self-talk is negative or misinformed, the outcome can be devastating. Distorted thinking can seep into every aspect of our lives, causing us to inaccurately interpret our experiences, and leading to unnecessary and inflated distress. If our thoughts are the lens through which we make sense of our lived experiences, then it’s critical for that lens to be accurate.

    Overcoming negative self-talk and reframing cognitive distortions is a continuous process. It is not a one-time activity but rather an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery. It requires dedication, patience, and self-compassion.

    In this blog, I’m excited to share my insights and knowledge about cognitive distortions, with the aim of helping you to identify them in your own life. By understanding the various forms cognitive distortions can take, you are one (very big) step into the journey of uprooting negative thinking patterns that may be holding you back.

    For those of you who may be wondering, ‘if this rings true for me, then what?’, know that this blog will also offer you practical techniques and strategies to challenge and reframe any distortions that you might find along the way. As a CBT trained therapist, I can attest to the transformative nature of these skills to empower clients in shifting their riverbeds into a new groove, no matter how deeply ingrained that groove might be. In other words, the result of this work is a more balanced, reality-based lens to accurately interpret your experiences, and self-talk that promotes your overall health and wellbeing.

    I invite you to take this walk with me, and get curious about the world of cognitive distortions and the tools necessary to regain control over your thoughts and emotions.

    What are Cognitive Distortions?

    How recognizing cognitive distortions can lead to more balanced self-talk

    The concept of cognitive distortions was first introduced by prominent psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck in the 1960’s as part of his development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In his work, Dr. Beck noticed that his patients often displayed consistent patterns of negative thinking that contributed to their emotional distress and behavioral problems. He coined the term “cognitive distortions” to describe these biased and irrational thinking habits.

    While it is true that persons without a mental health condition may also exhibit cognitive distortions, it is widely accepted that unhealthy thinking patterns are frequently found in persons with a mental health condition. This can include a singular or recurrent episode of a mental health concern, as well as a more chronic disorder. 

    Recognizing cognitive distortions is vital to one’s emotional health because of their impact, and the domino effect on our emotions, behaviors, and overall wellbeing. A mental bias can be the difference between a positive or negative outlook, an objective versus a skewed or warped view of an interaction, or an accurate versus disproportionate self-evaluation. 

    By reducing or eliminating these distortions, you can gain a more balanced perspective of yourself, others, and the world around you. This process allows you to break free from unhelpful thinking patterns that restrict you, and empowers you to live healthier and make more positive, rewarding choices in life.

    The concept of cognitive distortions was first introduced by prominent psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck in the 1960’s as part of his development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). 

    Overcoming Negative Self-Talk: Uncovering the Roots of Your Thinking Habits

    To challenge and reframe cognitive distortions, we first need to recognize and understand them. By uncovering the roots of your thinking habits, you can begin to shift them. Let’s explore some common distortions and their real-life examples:

    • All-or-Nothing Thinking: This distortion involves viewing situations in extreme, black-and-white terms without considering or allowing for shades of gray. For instance, believing, “I didn’t get an A on my exam, I’m a complete failure.”

    • Overgeneralization: With overgeneralization, we draw sweeping conclusions based on limited evidence or a single experience, and anticipate that experience to recur in other situations. For example, thinking, “I made a mistake at work. I can’t do anything right.”

    • Mental Filter: In this distortion, we selectively focus on and magnify negative details while ignoring positive aspects, thereby failing to incorporate the whole picture. An example is the actor that remembers ninety-nine lines, but negatively obsesses over the one line he forgot.  

    • Disqualifying the Positive: Here a person actively disregards the good things in their life, to include rejecting positive experiences or personal attributes, despite their validity or significance, implying, “that doesn’t count.” For instance, saying to yourself, “She only complimented me because she felt sorry for me.”

    • Jumping to Conclusions: This distortion involves making assumptions without sufficient evidence. For example, assuming, “They made plans without me. They must be mad at me.”

    • Magnification and Minimization (Catastrophizing): This distortion entails magnifying negative events or characteristics and minimizing positive ones, thus concluding and fixating on the worst possible outcome of a scenario, and despite its unlikeliness. An example is experiencing a physical health symptom for a week, and assuming there is something fatally wrong. 

    • Emotional Reasoning: This is the over-reliance on emotion, and sometimes strictly, to inform reality; it is the idea of, “I feel it, therefore it is’”. For example, thinking, “I feel scared and anxious, so something bad must be about to happen.”

    • Should Statements: This distortion involves placing rigid expectations on ourselves and others. For instance, believing, “I should be able to handle this on my own.”

    • Personalization: With this distortion, personal responsibility is assumed for situations beyond our control, or that don’t involve us. For example, upon seeing a friend struggle with depression, saying, “If only I had reached out more, they wouldn’t be depressed”.

    By uncovering the roots of your thinking habits, you can begin to shift them.

    Real Life Example of Cognitive Distortions and Their Impact on Relationships


    William, who has had several long-term relationships, is enjoying a new relationship after back-to-back painful break-ups initiated by his partners. After a few months of dating, however, William’s partner has decided to stop seeing him. William immediately thinks, “This always happens to me. No one ever wants to be with me. I’m never dating again. I’m going to be alone forever.”

    At first glance, William’s self-talk might just seem like an exasperated, knee-jerk reaction. However, there are multiple, powerful cognitive distortions present in William’s self-talk, along with a resulting behavioral response. In my experience working with clients similar to William, the latter leads to mental and emotional twists that can have a detrimental impact on personal and interpersonal experiences. Let’s take a closer look.

    It’s crucial to overcome negative self-talk, and recognize the detrimental effect of cognitive distortions in order to challenge and break free from this self-sabotaging cycle.

    First, in saying, ‘this always happens to me,’ William is engaging in all-or-nothing thinking. He’s viewing his relationship history rigidly by believing he ‘always’ experiences rejection. In doing so, William excludes from consideration the periods of time in which he enjoyed a successful coupling. Additionally, the use of absolute terms like always and never – which are rarely accurate – ought to trigger a red flag as to the presence of biased and misinformed thinking. Believing this perspective can lead William to feel undue hopelessness, rejection, and low self-esteem. It can also lead William to question his own worthiness of love and intimacy. These beliefs and doubts can serve as a deterrent to dating in the future, which potentially enables William to embody core messages of rejection and low self-worth.

    Second, by assuming that ‘no one ever wants to be with me’, William is employing both the overgeneralization and mental filtering cognitive distortions. He is selectively focusing on the negative experiences and outcomes, making a broad assumption about his dating potential and projecting a future negative outcome of persisting rejection, all the while excluding contrary evidence that people have, in fact, wanted to date him. This thought reinforces the low self-evaluation triggered by his first thought. It likely deepens his sense of rejection and despair, and does not allow for any range of flexible, more accurate thinking. Past, present, and future experiences are thereby limited to a pass/fail scenario, with an unreasonable bias towards failure. Complex interpersonal dynamics that may have led to the break-ups are illogically warped and reduced into a singular reflection of his desirability. The repeated use of absolute terminology (‘no one ever’) is also noteworthy as further indication of William’s exclusionary thinking.

    “This always happens to me. No one ever wants to be with me. I’m never dating again. I’m going to be alone forever.”

    finding joy

    As a result of these two (irrational) thoughts, William decides on a behavior plan; namely, he asserts that he will never date again. William believes he has accurately interpreted his experiences and logically arrived at this conclusion. In actuality, however, his thought process is fraught with errors, and is now funneling into a resulting behavioral problem. The plan to never date again can create a cycle of self-sabotage wherein he brings upon himself the isolation and loneliness that initially pained him. Additionally, William may subconsciously experience a pervasive sense of rejection in denying the opportunity for connection with others. This cycle can allow for William to become guarded and avoidant of being vulnerable, both of which are barriers to intimacy. It can also perpetuate negative thinking. The self-imposed isolation from partnering may seem attributable to others and their actions towards him when, in reality, William has a larger role than he realizes. In this way, William is disempowering himself, and hindering personal growth that can lead to both healthier self-talk and interpersonal experiences.

    Finally, William catastrophizes his experience by assuming the worst case scenario, concluding, ‘I’m going to be alone forever’. His series of inner self-talk statements have led him to believe that he will never again be in a relationship, despite the unlikeliness of this perception. In accepting this statement as truth, William creates an expectation of loneliness for himself. William might even begin to feel as though he is a burden to others. He also establishes conflict within himself, having just asserted his intention to never date again, followed by the seeming expression of an unmet desire to partner.

    Through therapy and practicing healthy thinking techniques, one can develop a more balanced perspective, engage healthier interpersonal tools, and approach future relationships with openness and self-assurance.

    In believing these fallacies, William may experience several consequences. For one, it’s likely that his internal conflict and emotional experiences would be of an overwhelming and negative nature, and fall along a continuum of confusion, fear, anxiety, depression, and/or anger. Core messages of rejection and low self-worth have been repeatedly reinforced, and may take considerable effort to uproot, once recognized. In the interim, these core messages may be expressed via timid, avoidant, reactive, and/or guarded behaviors. He may be unable to express or assert himself for fear of rejection. He may avoid social settings altogether, preventing participation in activities, or missing opportunities for growth and connection. He may be quick to jump to conclusions of others’ intentions. He may also be resistant to scenarios that call for vulnerability, or open communication that might remedy misunderstandings or develop a bond. William may also be prone to feelings of abandonment, codependency, and over-thinking. He may exhibit unhealthy boundaries, or preemptively leave a relationship (or friendship) at the first sign of disinterest or distance. He may experience physical symptoms, like poor quality or inadequate sleep due to ruminating about these negative experiences. Similarly, others may perceive William as lacking confidence, fearful, over-reliant, or closed off. They may struggle to gain his trust, establish a connection or bond, or find Williams’ behaviors to be confusing or disproportionate to the situation.

    It’s crucial to overcome negative self-talk, and recognize the detrimental effect of cognitive distortions in order to challenge and break free from this self-sabotaging cycle. Through therapy and practicing healthy thinking techniques, one can develop a more balanced perspective, engage healthier interpersonal tools, and approach future relationships with openness and self-assurance.

    finding joy
    It’s crucial to overcome negative self-talk and recognize the detrimental effect of cognitive distortions in order to challenge and break free from this self-sabotaging cycle.

    Understanding The Impact of Cognitive Distortions: Unmasking Your Mind’s Filters

    As discussed, cognitive distortions can have a profound impact on various aspects of our lives. Let’s explore some of these effects:

    • Self-Esteem: Cognitive distortions can trap us in patterns of self-doubt and lower our self-worth. For instance, engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, where we perceive ourselves as either a complete success or a total failure, can lead to unrealistic standards and a constant feeling of disappointment.

    • Relationships: Our distortions can influence how we perceive and interpret interactions with others. For example, assuming that every personal criticism implies a lack of love or acceptance can strain relationships and lead to unnecessary conflicts.

    • Emotional Well-being: Cognitive distortions can contribute to increased anxiety, stress, and negative emotions. Catastrophizing a situation, magnifying its negative aspects, or jumping to conclusions without evidence can intensify feelings of fear, worry, and despair.

    Strategies to Challenge and Reframe Cognitive Distortions: Flipping the Script

    Now that we’ve identified common cognitive distortions, let’s look at practical techniques to challenge and reframe them. By implementing these strategies, you can empower yourself with more balanced self-talk:

    Cognitive Restructuring: This technique involves identifying negative automatic thoughts, challenging their validity, exploring alternative interpretations, and replacing them with balanced, realistic thoughts. Remember, thoughts aren’t facts.

    Real Life Example: You are preparing for a job interview and start having thoughts like, “I’m going to mess up and blow the interview.” You recognize this negative thought as a cognitive distortion and engage in cognitive restructuring. By questioning the validity of this belief, you remind yourself of past successful interviews, your qualifications, and the positive feedback you’ve received in past jobs and interviews. You’re then freed to explore alternative interpretations by considering that feeling nervous prior to an interview is completely normal and that you’re well prepared. You ultimately replace your initial negative thought with a more realistic and balanced one, such as, “I may feel nervous, but I’m qualified for this position and have the ability to do well in this interview.”

    Mindfulness and Thought Labeling: Cultivate mindfulness and self awareness by observing your thoughts without judgment. Practice labeling cognitive distortions as they come up. In recognizing the distortions, they gradually loosen their grip on your thinking. Simply noticing the negative thought without judgment can be a great place to start if reframing or replacing negative thoughts seems too difficult right now.

    Real Life Example: You walk in late to a meeting where everyone is already seated and have the thought creep in: “Everyone is staring at me and judging me.” Instead of getting caught up in this negative thought, practice mindfulness by observing it without judgment. Label the cognitive distortion as mind-reading. Recognize that you cannot actually know what others are truly thinking. Consider, too, that most people are likely engrossed in their own inner worlds and thoughts. By labeling and observing this thought, you can create some distance from it and allow it to pass without attaching too much significance to it.

    Reframing Techniques: With reframing, you can challenge cognitive distortions by using the following techniques:

    •  Looking for Evidence: Look for the evidence that contradicts the distortion. Challenge your initial perspective and consider alternative interpretations.
    • Alternative Viewpoints: Step into the shoes of others involved in the situation. Consider their motivations, feelings, and possible explanations.
    • Self-Compassion and Self-Kindness: Cultivate a compassionate and understanding attitude towards yourself. Speak to yourself with the same kindness you would extend to a dear friend.

     Real Life Example: Your friend cancels your plans last minute without an explanation, triggering feelings of rejection and thoughts of “Nobody wants to spend time with me.” You challenge this distortion by looking for evidence. Recall recent instances where friends reached out to spend time with you. Feel gratitude for those connections. Implement the alternative viewpoints technique by imagining yourself in your friend’s shoes. Consider possible reasons for the cancellation, such as unexpected emergencies or personal issues. Through reframing, you shift your perspective and replace your initial negative thought with self-compassion and self-kindness: “My friend’s cancellation doesn’t mean I’m unlikable. Sometimes plans fall through despite our best efforts. It’s not a reflection of me. It’s important to be understanding and kind to myself.” Try to schedule a replacement activity, connect with someone you care about, or engage in some self-care to bolster this healthy belief.

    Thought-Stopping Technique: When you notice a cognitive distortion recurring, mentally or physically interrupt the pattern. Use a specific cue or action, such as picturing a stop sign or saying “stop” out loud, to break the chain of negative thoughts. Redirect your attention to something positive or engage in an activity that brings you joy.

    Real Life Example: When you catch yourself criticizing your body or appearance, employ the thought-stopping technique by saying “stop” out loud. Redirect your attention to your positive qualities that don’t necessarily involve your physical appearance. For example, are you kind to others? Do you have a curious or inquisitive nature? What parts of your personality do you find special or like about yourself? Additionally, engage in activities and movements that allow you to feel confident and joyful, such as practicing yoga, dancing, and appreciating your body for all that it does for you. As a result of practicing this technique, over time you feel more self-assured and accepting and appreciative of your body.

    Use a specific cue or action, such as picturing a stop sign or saying “stop” out loud.

    finding joy

    Embrace the process of change to heal and reframe negative self-talk

    Overcoming negative self-talk and reframing cognitive distortions is a continuous process. It is not a one-time activity but rather an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery. It requires dedication, patience, and self-compassion. Anticipate ups and downs along the way. Approach each challenge as an opportunity for learning and personal development. Seek acceptance of this process. So often we demand perfection of ourselves, setting impossible standards that keep us feeling defeated and less-than. Keep in mind that any win, no matter how small, is proof of growth and change – and that is something to recognize and celebrate!

    By challenging and reframing negative self-talk, you can transform your thinking and cultivate more balanced attitudes and perspectives. As your process towards a healthier mindset evolves, watch it positively influence your emotions, behaviors, relationships, and overall well-being. My wish for you is that you will be kind to yourself while embracing the journey of gradually retraining your thoughts towards a more positive and balanced mindset. You are capable, strong, and resilient. You can do this.

    Take the first step today and begin the incredible journey of becoming your own compassionate and supportive inner guide.

    Amy Schell

    Amy Schell is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) at Clarity Therapy. She is a CBT- and DBT-trained clinician specializing in mood disorders, trauma, and sex therapy. Amy creates a warm, individually tailored therapy experience with emphasis placed on harnessing client strengths to support self-discovery and growth while healing wounds and self-defeating patterns.
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