Have you ever noticed that when a group of people are talking, it can easily turn negative? The conversation can quickly evolve to focus on things we don’t like or what is wrong in our environment, work, or world at the time.

I’m sure you have noticed that online and television news is mainly negative in nature. What is wrong in our city, state, country, or world.

Maybe you have noticed in yourself that you focus more on the negative than the positive elements of your work or life.

There is a reason for this.

The primary job of your brain is to stay alive. As humans, we have a negative default because our brain is naturally attuned to finding and rooting out any potential environmental threat.

It’s a survival instinct.

Unfortunately, it’s an instinct that can easily create what psychologists call cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortion is an exaggerated thought that isn’t based on facts. We’ve all had them. And they can cause some serious problems in our lives and work.

I remember giving what I was sure was an awful presentation a few years ago. I ruminated on it all afternoon and then all night long. I slept terribly. The distortion had buried me in embarrassment and anxiety for nearly 24 hours. It wasn’t until the next day that someone complimented me. I had to ask the person if they were being truthful. They said yes and told me what they liked about it. I was finally released from this thought pattern as this person helped me shift my thinking and escape my distortion.

Cognitive distortions occur when we don’t see things as they truly are, and we allow our brains to turn the truth of the situation into a negative narrative. It then spirals into beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.

If we let these distortions go unchecked, it can lead to negative emotions, moods, and behaviors that cause further problems.

Here’s the good news. When you understand how your brain works and what distortions can occur, you can take steps to identify it quickly and redirect your thoughts and behaviors, leading to more positive outcomes. Here are a few of the common cognitive distortions that people experience.

  • Jumping to conclusions: Prematurely determining an outcome or reasoning.
  • Assuming the worst: Thinking the worst possible outcome occurs.
  • Black or White Thinking: All or nothing thinking. Viewing situations in binary terms.
  • Catastrophizing: Blowing things out of proportion. Making problems much worse than they are.
  • Overgeneralization: Seeing negative events as recurring patterns.
  • Comparison: Comparing one part of yourself to another person causes a negative self-evaluation.
  • Minimizing or Disqualifying: Attributing successes or accomplishments to luck.
  • Negative Mental Filter: Chronically finding the negative elements of events and situations.
  • Victimhood: Seeing oneself as a victim and others as perpetrators.
  • Mind-Reading: Thinking you know what another person is thinking or feeling.
  • Emotional Reasoning: Only using emotion to understand and evaluate a situation.

Cognitive distortions can play a significant role in our home and work relationships. Likewise, it can have a severe impact on our work performance.

As a psychologist and executive coach, I find cognitive distortions to be a major contributor to low motivation, stress, well-being, and confidence. I find it manifests in a leader’s sense of control and agency, leading to lower levels of focus, engagement, and performance.

To overcome negativity and become a more powerful thinker, it’s important to learn how to avoid distortions in our thinking. 

While there are many methods, here are a few of the most popular techniques.

Awareness: Congratulations, you have completed the first step in avoiding cognitive distortion and becoming more positive. The first step is reading this article and becoming more aware of this phenomenon. The next step is to become more aware of your negative default setting and related thinking. Take two or three moments each day to reflect on your thinking. Ask yourself if you have been more positive than negative. Then, evaluate what distortions may have occurred due to your negative thinking.

Another thing you can do is to catch your negative thinking, behavior, or language in the moment. This takes time. At the beginning, you will miss most of these opportunities. But the more you reflect on your experiences at the end of the day and the more you experience success with “in-the-moment awareness” of your negative thinking, you will become more proficient with the process.

Cognitive Reframing: Reframing is shifting your thinking or mindset to see a situation from a different or more positive perspective. Stop and ask yourself, “How can I see this situation differently?” or “How can I see this situation more positively?” You can also ask a more specific question like, “How can I turn this situation into something more positive and not give it the power to ruin my day?”

Self-Talk: How we talk to ourselves is a very common way of beating ourselves up with cognitive distortion. When we see things from a negative point of view, we can easily fall into the trap of saying negative things to ourselves, causing further negativity. Identifying your negative self-talk and then intentionally replacing the talk with more positive words is a start. Studies show that the more we do this event by forcing it and perhaps not believing it can lead to higher levels of positivity and more positive neurochemistry. This is a way you can reverse the cycle.

Gratitude: Gratitude literally rewires your brain to be happier and more healthy. Studies have found that taking time to think about the good things in our lives leads to better mood, greater well-being, reduced depression, reduced anxiety, better relationships, and high levels of work performance.

The limbic system, situated in the brain, manages emotional encounters. It comprises the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus. Research has indicated that the hippocampus and amygdala, the primary centers governing emotions, memory, and bodily functions, become engaged when experiencing gratitude. Scientists have also discovered that when this part of the brain is more active it becomes more sensitive over time. In essence, we begin to see life events from a gratitude perspective.

Our human negative default is natural. Holding this survival method in check seems to be one of the keys to a happier and more fulfilling life. When you understand how your brain works and become intentional about taking control of your thinking, you take full control of your emotions and behaviors. This can be a significant step in self-development and being your best in work and life.


Research Studies on Gratitude:

Improves relationships at home and work. (Gordon, Impett, Kogan, Oveis, & Keltner, 2012)

Improves sleep and reduces stress (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

Improves efficiency, productivity, and performance.  (Algoe, 2012).

Improves brain health. (Zahn et al., 2014).