By Elaine Houston, who is a positive psychology researcher and writer.
This exercise aims to help you identify and evaluate unhelpful thoughts. In doing so, you will learn to recognize unhelpful thoughts and consider more helpful alternatives in a given situation.
Sometimes, how you think about an experience or situation is not helpful. Have you ever assumed the worst would happen or made negative predictions about how a situation would turn out? Or did you find yourself second-guessing what others think of you? These thoughts tend to be automatic and arise so quickly that you might not realize that you have them.
While it is normal to have unhelpful thoughts from time to time, they can become difficult to ignore. When this kind of thinking becomes persistent or overwhelming, it can have a negative effect on your behavior, your emotions, and even your physical well-being. These kinds of unhelpful thoughts can make you feel inadequate, anxious, embarrassed, or angry, among other negative emotions.
These thoughts might feel like the truth; however, how you view your experiences is often based on emotions and assumptions, not on facts.
Being more aware of unhelpful thinking will help you reflect on situations from a perspective that allows you to check the “truth” of your thoughts. This is a much more helpful way of thinking about and managing difficult situations. This exercise will help you identify unhelpful thoughts and consider alternatives that are more helpful so that you can uncover new ways of thinking about your experiences and problematic situations.
To begin this exercise, you will think about an unhelpful thought you frequently have or have had in the past and describe the situation in which the unhelpful thought occurred. For example, you give a speech and notice someone looking at their phone. You might think, “Look at how bored they are, I’m really bad at this!” Or perhaps a colleague makes a mistake on a work project, and you think, “You’re useless!”
These are not helpful thoughts as they do nothing to improve your situation, nor are they necessarily a true representation of the facts. Some other examples of unhelpful thoughts include, “I’m a failure,” “They’re only being nice to me because they have to,” “No one likes me,” or “I can’t do this!”
Now, think of a time when you experienced these kinds of unhelpful thoughts.
Describe the specific situation in the space below:
Before you can formulate more helpful thoughts, you must first analyze why this line of thinking was unhelpful in the situation described above. Taking a step back, think about the thoughts described above and answer the following question.
This step is about formulating a new helpful thought to replace the unhelpful thought detailed above. When you recognize an unhelpful thought for what it is, you can let that thought go and replace it with another that is more helpful. Helpful thinking means taking a perspective that results in positive, constructive feelings that help you to better deal with a challenging situation.
For instance, imagine you experience high-stress levels before delivering a presentation.
Thinking, “Oh my God, I’m losing it and will make a fool of myself,” will be likely to generate more negative stressful feelings. It will probably make it more difficult for you to deal with the challenging situation. A more helpful alternative thought would be: “It’s normal and ok to be stressed. All I can do is give it my best.” These thoughts will likely result in more positive feelings of reassurance that are more helpful for dealing with stressful situations.
To give another example, imagine you pass a friend on the street. You smile and wave, but she ignores you and looks away. Here, you might think, “Oh no, what have I done to upset her? She must be angry at me.” These thoughts are likely to result in feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. A more helpful thought would be: “Okay, she didn’t return my greeting but, when I think about it, she has no reason to be upset with me. I know I haven’t done anything to offend her, so it’s likely she just didn’t see me.” These thoughts will probably result in reassurance and help you move on and forget about the incident.
Consider the situation you described in step 1 and answer the following questions.
Now that you have considered and identified more helpful thoughts, it is time for you to reflect upon them. Take a moment to think about the alternative thoughts detailed in the previous step and ask yourself the following question:
Step 1: Identifying unhelpful thoughts
Think of a time when you experienced unhelpful thoughts and describe the specific situation in the space below:
A few weeks ago, I gave a speech at my best friend’s wedding. I worked hard to get it right, and I was proud of how it turned out. During the speech, I glanced up and noticed one of the guests was looking at his phone. He looked so bored and uninterested.
Look at how bored he is. I’m really bad at this! This is humiliating, and I wish I’d never agreed to give a speech in the first place. Everyone thinks I’m an idiot. Why did I think this was a good idea?
I felt like a complete failure, like I had let my best friend down on his wedding day. I was so embarrassed and just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible.
Step 2: Analyzing the helpfulness of thoughts
Why was this line of thinking not helpful in this situation?
These thoughts weren’t helpful in this situation because I was already very nervous about delivering the speech, and they made it even worse. Once I started thinking like this, I made more mistakes and stumbled over words even though I knew them by heart. Thinking like this did nothing to help me in this situation, and I let my emotions get the better of me.
Step 3: Identifying more helpful thoughts
I wish I had felt calmer and more confident and that I didn’t care so much if some guests didn’t like my speech.
It was just one person in the entire room, and he was probably turning his volume down during the speeches. I worked hard and was happy with my speech before that happened. I know I did a good job.
The most optimistic person I know is my brother, and he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. He would have been confident that his speech was good because it was a message coming straight from the heart.
Step 4: Reflecting on helpful thoughts
If I had thought like this, I wouldn’t have made so many additional mistakes. My speech would have gone better if I had just believed in my abilities. These thoughts would have reminded me of all the hard work I put into delivering a great speech and helped me feel more confident.
I honestly feel better about the whole thing. I have nothing to be embarrassed about, and I’m not an idiot or a failure. I gave way too much attention to this one silly incident. I was well prepared, and I did a good job. My friend and his bride loved it, and that’s all that matters.