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Mental Schemas #16: Negativity

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a series on schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The negativity schema is an ongoing, oppressive feeling that everything sucks, or that life is very likely to suck soon, or that life has always sucked and is not likely to change. To put it another way, a person with this schema tends to exaggerate or dwell on negatives and minimize or ignore positives, leading to a feeling that everything is in a pattern of going badly.  Not surprisingly, such a person tends to spend a lot of time worrying, complaining, not knowing what to do, or guarding against impending disaster.

In terms of broken ideas (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair,”) negativity can shows up as disqualifying the positive (“he just said he liked it because he didn’t want to get into an argument”), mental filter (“nobody ever helps when my workload gets out of hand!”), magnification/minimization (“that spilled cup of coffee has ruined my day”), or other kinds of destructive thinking.

People with this schema may try to avoid feelings and experiences, for instance by hiding away at home alone and watching TV for hours every night; or they may surrender to the schema, constantly complaining and expecting the worst; or they might try to overcompensate, for instance by trying to control everyone around them to prevent bad things from happening or by pretending nothing bad ever happens and that everything’s always fine–or the schema might come out in a combination of these ways.

Where negativity schemas come from
How does a person get saddled with the idea that life is terrible, or that terrible things are always just around the corner? Often this attitude is passed on by a parent who has the same problems, one who worried constantly or made a point of always highlighting the darkest and worst aspects of life. Alternatively, people with this schema may have had a childhood in which they were always discouraged and their accomplishments or good fortune were never recognized or considered important. Or a person may have experienced much more than normal tragedy and sadness while growing up such that it began to feel like pain and suffering are the main patterns of existence.

Overcoming a negativity schema
Getting past a negativity schema isn’t easy: after all, there will always be new tragedies and bad outcomes to point to. Coming to a different point of view requires effort over time to recognize negative thinking patterns and change them. One important change that nurtures a more positive outlook is putting time and attention into recognizing and feeling gratitude for good things that happen, large and small. Another is catching ourselves in the act of amplifying negative feelings and experiences when we use self-talk like “I know this is going to go badly” or “This is awful! What a disaster!” and stating things more rationally.

Of course some things will go wrong: part of undoing a negativity schema is being OK with this, understanding that tragedy is a part of life and that it never means that everything good in life is gone.

In terms of action, a person can fight a negativity schema by spending time with people who have a more positive outlook (and letting them bring the mood up rather than bringing their mood down!), holding back from complaints and dire predictions, and participating in activities in which it’s easy to see the good, like volunteering or playing with children without trying to direct the way play goes.

In some cases we can make great strides against negativity on our own, but when any mental pattern feels too big to handle alone, a good cognitive therapist can be enormously helpful.

Photo by Christopher JL

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