Positive Thinking

Identifying negative thoughts and common thinking errors

We all have negative thoughts now and then. But rather than give in to or be guided by them, it is possible to challenge and change the way we think for the better.
Different NHS regions provide a valuable and free information service called “First Steps”.
Don’t allow negative thoughts to go unchallenged!
In order to do this you need first of all to think about the situations that concern you and how you think and behave in those situations. It can often help to write down the unpleasant or unsettling thoughts you have at these times and try to counter them. You may find the following questions helpful:
  • What is the evidence for and against these thoughts?
  • How many times have you had these thoughts?
  • Have your worst fears ever materialised?
  • What would you say to a friend who expressed similar thoughts about themselves or their lives?
Consider and ask yourself are you making any of the following thinking errors?
Negative focus: Ignoring the positive aspects of a situation and only focusing on the negative parts. Instead of only thinking of your weaknesses try thinking of your strengths as well. Instead of only picking up on peoples’ criticisms, listen out and remember their positive comments or compliments.
“Awfulising/catastrophizing” : Thinking the worst and overestimating the chances of disaster, e.g. whatever can go wrong will go wrong, or viewing a setback as being part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. Ask yourself what is the evidence? How many times, if ever, has the worst outcome happened before? Are you ignoring all the times things have gone well?
Jumping to conclusions and personalising: making negative interpretations and assumptions even if there are no definite facts. For instance interpreting that because a friend doesn’t return your call, it means they are avoiding you. Look instead for the evidence and consider the many other possible explanations e.g. they did not get the message, they are busy and it may have slipped their mind, they have problems that are occupying their mind.
All or nothing thinking: whereby everything is black or white, bad or good. This can lead to people (including yourself), being negatively judged or condemned on the basis of a single statement or incident. Try to see and allow for a middle ground. Also try to see one statement or incident in the wider context of other statements/incidents made by or involving those people.
Living by fixed/inflexible rules: having unrealistic expectations and regularly using the words “must” ,“ought” and “can’t” very often causes unnecessary disappointment and guilt. The more rigid and inflexible the statements are the more disappointed, low or angry you are likely to feel. You can try and live according to your principles/rules, but don’t punish or be too hard on yourself if you can’t always keep to them.
Personalising: taking responsibility and blame for everything that goes wrong. Again, look for an alternative – ask yourself is it really completely your fault? Are there no other factors or people contributing to what went wrong? Would you blame a friend in the same situation as you?
Once you have identified what thinking error(s) you might be making, try to challenge them. The process could look something like this:
  • Anxious thought
    I want to go on holiday, but I’m afraid that my plane will crash.
  • Evidence for
    Aeroplanes crash from time to time.
  • Evidence against
    Flying is actually the safest form of transport. Air crashes are very rare.
  • New thinking
    If I’m afraid of flying I should be afraid of driving too, as there are more accidents on the roads than in the air. So, maybe I shouldn’t worry about flying anymore. I’m going on holiday!
In order to get a clearer picture you could try recording your negative thought in one column and the new more balanced alternative thought in a column next to it, for example:
Negative Thought
Balanced Thought
I made a mistake last week at work.
I can never do anything right.


I have some success at work, in fact my boss complimented me on a report I did last month;
I have been at this company for 5 years, I must be able to do my job otherwise I would have been sacked;
Everybody makes mistakes, sometimes it is a good way to learn.
If you find this hard, ask for advice from (or imagine the advice you would get from), two people you trust/admire.Alternatively, contact your local NHS First Steps service online.
To help counter negative thoughts, try also to keep a diary of all the things you’ve enjoyed or achieved during the week. This can help you to concentrate on the positive things in your life rather than the negative.