This article is part of a series called
Antivirus For Your Mind.
BASIC principle is to argue with your negative thoughts. Doing
it in writing is better than doing it in your head. How do you
argue with your thoughts? Write one down and then imagine your
worst enemy said it to you, and then argue against it. Read more about the basic technique here.
When youre arguing with your statements,
it helps to have specific things to look for in your statements.
You can look for specific common mistakes in your negative thoughts
to work from a list and check your statements against
the list. This is the way a computers antivirus program
With most antivirus programs, you constantly
get updates. These are definitions of new viruses. As new viruses
are created, the antivirus people make a definition of it. Then
the antivirus program scans your computer looking for those specific
definitions basically checking the content of your computer
against its list of virus definitions.
What if we could do something similar with
our antivirus program for your mind? What if you had some virus
definitions and all you had to do was scan your thoughts
looking for them?
Cognitive scientists have made several
such lists. They are all fairly similar and cover the same ground
because the human brain only makes mistakes in certain specific,
definable ways. So your virus definition list doesnt need
to be constantly updated.
Shortly I will give you a list of the finite
number of common mistakes people make when they explain setbacks.
At the end of this chapter will be the list by itself, so you
can use it more easily. Right now well go through each
thought-mistake one at a time and explain what it is.
With this list you can search through your
own negative thoughts and see if youre making any of the
mistakes. To see clearly what youre trying to do, lets
imagine youre searching through someone elses negative
thoughts and finding mistakes in them.
Imagine you receive a letter from your
closest male friend. He is on vacation and you havent seen
him in a month. But in his letter, he clearly has had some sort
of crisis. He is despairing and upset. One of the paragraphs
of his letter goes like this:
I realized nobody really cares about me
and Ive never done a good thing in my whole life. I have
problems I cant do anything about. Nothing I do will make
Lets say you cant call him
because hes in the Australian outback or something. You
have to write him back. What would you say? Among other things,
you would want to straighten him out on a few things, wouldnt
you? First of all, you know of at least one person who really
cares about him: You. You would want to point out his exaggerations
and overstatements and tell him his point of view is only narrow
because he is upset right now. Hes not seeing the whole
picture. Hes ignoring some genuine positives in his life.
You may try to do it nicely, but you will
try very hard to point out that some of his thoughts are mistaken.
When you are cleaning out your own mind
when you feel bad, you are essentially doing the same thing.
Youre finding mistakes in your negative thinking
mistakes that make you feel worse than you really should. When
you look at a negative thought and realize it is mistaken, you
feel better instantly.
Imagine another situation. You have two
kids and a spouse. You are always telling them to lock the door
when they leave the house. Today you come home from work to find
nobody home and the house unlocked. You start to get mad, thinking
about what youre going to say when you suddenly realize
you were the last one to leave the house, and you forgot to lock
Do you realize how fast your emotions would
change? The instant you realized you were mistaken, your emotions
would change. The anger would change to embarrassment or even
The same goes with these thought-mistakes.
As soon as you recognize one of your thoughts was mistaken, your
When you write down your negative thoughts
and stare at them and cant find anything wrong with them,
check them against these thought-mistakes. Sometimes it is not
obvious what is mistaken about your negative thoughts. Thats
what this list is for.
You dont have to memorize the list.
Right now just read through the descriptions to get a good idea
of all the different ways the human brain (and its natural way
of working) makes mistakes.
8. false implications
the worst possible explanation
10. false helplessness
11. false hopelessness
15. harmful judging
emotions as evidence
22. negative bias