Is There Value in Negative Thoughts?
Xiomara A.Sosa, Clinical Mental Health-Forensic Counselor Scholar Practioner
The whole idea of negative thoughts (actually negative interpretations or expectancies contained in automatic thoughts) derives from work with depressed patients in whom extreme negative thoughts are highly dysfunctional: “I flunked the exam and that means I am a failure. . . I’ll never make it in this world. . . I might as well commit suicide.”
Above: Dr. Aaron Beck converses with
workshop trainees at Beck Institute.
The question about any given automatic thought is not entirely whether it is irrational (Albert Ellis’s term) or invalid but whether it is dysfunctional, maladaptive, counter-productive, or unhelpful (various adjectives that have been used). Depressed patients may have dozens or hundreds of negative thoughts throughout a day, some of which are true (“I don’t want to get out of bed”) and some of which, upon evaluating their validity, are found to be untrue, or largely untrue (“No one cares about me”). Most of their negative thoughts, regardless of their degree of validity, are unhelpful.
In contrast, when people are not suffering from a psychiatric disorder and are functioning well, negative thoughts can be useful. I have found over the years that my negative self-critical thoughts have helped me to compensate for mistakes I have made, prompting me not to make the same mistakes again. Many of our negative predictions, if we do not have an anxiety disorder, can help keep us safe. Negative thoughts associated with mild anger can propel us into constructive action. So, the essence of any type of cognition, behavior, affect, or physiological response is whether it is constructive, destructive, or neutral. (Most negative thoughts are probably fleeting and not terribly relevant to an individual’s well-being.)
Of course, there are repetitive thoughts, as in obsessions, ruminations, and some types of worry. It seems that these problems might be best addressed by some type of acceptance/meditation approach, whereas automatic thoughts might be evaluated through a more empirical/logical approach. In no event do we “challenge” negative thoughts, or any other thoughts for that matter.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy