How Negative Thinking Develops

Our upbringing may be at the core of a tendency to experience negative thoughts more frequently than others. Parenting styles vary widely. Some parents explain all the possible dangers of a situation in an attempt to keep their child safe. This may work, but as a side effect, the child can grow up with anxiety, expecting the worst in any situation and developing an overall negative view of the world.

Another factor is excessive criticism from parents, which can lead to the adoption of a negative mental framework. It may be that you’ve grown up with a long list of “shoulds” and “musts,” so relaxation is difficult. When life becomes a series of chores it is hard to break out and adopt a new outlook.

Common negative thinking traps:

  • Shoulds and musts. Telling yourself not to do something actually makes it more likely that you will do it. The “command” voice belongs to your parents and teachers. Remember you are now in charge.
  • All-or-nothing thinking. One failure does not mean you will always fail, or that life’s out to get you. Avoid overgeneralizing with words like “always” and “never.”
  • Personalization. You may feel responsible, but take a step back and often you’ll realize that you weren’t the cause of the negative event. Think calmly about how the situation arose, sticking to the facts.

Moving Forward

Altering your outlook toward positive thinking can be life-changing but also takes some effort. However, the benefits are enormous — greater creativity, patience, calm and problem-solving skills. Your relationships are likely to improve too, because disputes will be resolved more easily if both parties feel there is a good chance of a solution and believe the outcome will be worthwhile.


K.S. LaBar & LeDoux, J.E. Emotional Learning Circuits in Animals and Humans. Handbook of Affective Sciences. Ed. R.J. Davidson, K. Scherer, & H.H. Goldsmith New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 52-65.