The Art of Self-Examination

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

End Negative Thinking

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

You're in a rut and can't stop thinking about the job you're not going to get, the relationship that's not going to work out, the vacation that's going to be a disaster.

We all go through difficult times, but often our negative thoughts can drag us into needless depression or anxiety. Cognitive therapy -- the fastest-growing form of therapy in America -- offers writing and thinking exercises designed to help people recognize when their thoughts are out of control.

If you feel sad, depressed, anxious, or angry for more than two weeks running, then it's time to take a good look at your thinking process, advises Judith Beck, director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

"The goal isn't to refute your thoughts, but to enter a mode of Socratic questioning," she says. In short, it's to find out if there's any evidence to back up your most dire assumptions.

So if you're upset by a certain encounter, Beck suggests, take a few minutes to write down your worst thoughts. Then gently ask yourself the six Socratic questions, and talk about your answers with a trusted friend.

Example: You are about to ask your boss for a raise. You pass her on your way to the coffee machine and say hello, but she looks right past you, as if you don't exist. And now you worry that your job is on the line.

1) What is the evidence?

On careful reflection, you realize that your last performance review was above average and your boss complimented your last project. There is nothing to indicate that you've done something wrong.

2) Is there an alternative explanation?

Your boss may have been distracted by the speech she has to give at an upcoming sales conference.

3) What are the worst, best, and most realistic outcomes?

If the worst case were true, you might have to look for a new job. In the best scenario, your boss might tell you that you're her best worker and give you more responsibility and pay. And the most realistic outcome may be this: Your boss explains that she can't give you a raise until after this year's sales figures have been analyzed and she knows her budget.

4) What are the advantages and disadvantages of believing your automatic thoughts and taking them seriously?

You have a ready excuse if you don't get a raise: My boss doesn't like me. On the other hand, you could be talking yourself out of a good job that you enjoy.

5) What can I do?

You might sit down with your boss and ask what you can do to improve or take on more responsibility.

6) What would I tell my best friend, if he or she were in a similar situation?

Most of us look for rational explanations when we advise our friends. You might tell a friend, "You're smart and talented and you'll get ahead. But in the meantime, why not take a course in marketing? It will make you a more valuable employee."

Valerie Andrews has written for Intuition, HealthScout and many other publications. She lives in Greenbrae, Calif.

Originally published May 22, 2000.

Medically updated Oct. 10, 2002.

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