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Recognize and Defuse the Power of Destructive Thoughts

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Destructive thoughts, such as perfectionism, fear, and blame, give way to SMaRT strategies, such as visualization, meditation, positive thinking, and a growth mindset. The goal of those strategies is not to eliminate destructive thinking—which is beyond most of us—but to finish with it as quickly as possible to dwell, instead, on our real potential for growth and change.

If your destructive thoughts involve harming yourself or others, please call:

  • 911 (or the hospital emergency room) if there is immediate danger to you or a loved one
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (beginning in July 2022, call 988)
  • National Register of Health Service Psychologists, Find a Psychologist:


What Are the Symptoms of Destructive Thoughts?

Destructive thoughts are, first of all, destructive of your peace and contentment. Your thoughts keep circling around a situation, trying to rewrite it but miring you more and more deeply into depression, anger, and self-blame. Your self-confidence is undermined, and your optimism crashes.

Destructive thinking is negative; you always expect the worst. Some people (such as victims of abuse or bullying) can wreak destruction on themselves by expecting the best: the situation will improve when the abuser apologizes, or the victim acts differently. In this case, the destructive thinking comes from a refusal to learn from experience. 

Destructive thinking is often inflexible. For example, the loss or addition of a team member sends you into a panic; you turn down promotions because you can’t deal with change (and besides, you don’t deserve them); and you refuse to hand in less than perfect work even if that means missing a deadline altogether—yet again.

STEP 1. Note the Feeling

Are you angry at someone? Disappointed in yourself? Frustrated by circumstances? 

When you note and name the feeling, you defang it of some of its power. 

Destructive Maximization: John flubbed a presentation. Afterward, he berated himself for delivering the worst presentation in the history of presentations, and he should never have thought someone like him could handle a presentation. He noted his primary feeling: anger. 

Destructive Minimization: Melissa was passed over for a promotion. She told herself that it didn’t matter, she only sought the promotion for kicks, and promotions are just a matter of luck anyway. She noted her primary feelings: disappointment and envy. 

STEP 2. Note the Pattern

The reactions of John and Melissa are not outside the norm after a stressful or disappointing experience. The difficulty arises if this is their pattern. Does John always over-react to failure? Does Melissa always deny problems and refuse to consider the feedback that might earn her the next promotion. This repetition of negative thinking is what makes for a pattern of destructive thoughts.

As a leader, your destructive thoughts may include a focus on self-interest (“what’s in it for me?”), blaming (“it’s their fault, not mine”), and micro-managing (“I’m the expert; I’m the only one who’s capable”). These thoughts interfere with the growth of your team but are also destructive to you. They trap you in a pattern of impatience, anger, frustration, overwork, and stress. Chronic anger and stress compromise your health, destroy relationships, and prevent you from seeing alternatives.

When you recognize your patterns, you are better able to turn around destructive thoughts. You may need the help of a mentor, coach, psychologist, or other objective people to help you see the pattern. 

STEP 3. Rethink Your Reaction

When you are caught in a pattern of destructive thinking, your options appear to be limited. Suppose you always get angry at your team when even minor problems occur. Gradually, team members try to avoid you, hide bad news (or even good news, because they can never be sure of your reaction), quit for less stressful environments, or deliver the minimal possible to get by, for fear they will cross some invisible line. 

Unless you recognize your contribution, your pattern, you are likely to react by claiming that you always get assigned the slackers and bunglers. Your anger, inflexibility, and fear of failure increase with each experience, and the team’s behaviors worsen—a vicious cycle.

In the examples above, John and Melissa discovered paths forward out of their own anger, disappointment, and envy:

John began to rethink his reaction. Yes, he flubbed this presentation, but he could practice. In fact, everything was going just fine until someone asked a question he didn’t know the answer to. What could he do differently next time?

Melissa began to rethink her reaction. What was she looking to gain by this promotion? Were other opportunities available? Would she be able to prepare herself better for the next opportunity?

When you rethink your own reaction of anger, you ask those same questions: What can I do differently next time? What can I do to help myself with a new way of thinking?

TIP: Mindfulness techniques like visualization, relaxation, and gratitude break the cycle of destructive thoughts by bringing you away from the situation and allowing you to view it from another angle.


STEP 4. Change Course

Changing your way of thinking—and acting on your thoughts—is seldom easy. 

  • When others annoy you: The John’s of this world may sap your energy with their over-reactions, while the Melissa’s snap your patience. To change the dynamic, limit your time with the people who annoy you; control the emotional content by being direct, professional, and concise; set boundaries and be consistent in applying them, and reward productive behaviors in the people who annoy you. The SMaRT strategies for dealing with disgruntled employees also apply to difficult people.

    In addition, you need to direct your thoughts away from that person. If you are constantly waiting for the annoying person to be annoying, your waiting will be rewarded. You and your nerves are on high alert, and your destructive thoughts ensure that you will be annoyed.

TIP: If you have problems setting boundaries, you will inevitably run into people who cross them. Destructive thinking includes the belief that you are not allowed to set boundaries or that other people should automatically be aware of what those boundaries are.

  • When every boss is a bad boss: You may genuinely have a difficult boss. Among the top complaints about a difficult boss are poor communication of expectations, playing favorites, and no concern for the professional development of others. Difficult bosses are rude, lazy, arrogant, and selfish.

    Destructive thinking identifies every boss as a bad boss. As a result, you repeatedly change jobs, challenge authority, gossip and complain, and are ultimately labeled as a difficult employee. To change the dynamic, you must stop making generalizations about bosses.

    Become clear on what you want. If your expectations are unrealistic, then no job or boss will ever satisfy you. Do not expect anyone to read your mind: if you need more resources or training, clearer expectations, or feedback on your performance, speak up.

    Because job-hopping is a habit, use the same SMaRT techniques you would use to change any other habit. Set yourself a goal of staying progressively longer at each job—aim for two years. Focus on what you can learn from each job—not only about the work but about dealing with people in productive ways.  
  • When you annoy other people: Look for signs that your destructive thoughts are causing problems in relationships at work or home. For example, your team or peers avoid you, you quickly reject any new ideas or recommendations, and you are often accused of “not listening.”

    To improve the situation, consider whether you have fallen prey to the following destructive thoughts: You expect other people to be mind-readers. Have you made your expectations and needs clear?  You expect others to always be as [fill in the blank] as you are. Are you open to the diversity of human behaviors, goals, and attitudes?

    You expect your interests, problems, and goals to always take priority because you are [fill in the blank]. Are you aware of the needs of other people? You believe you must involve yourself in everyone else’s life or work because they are always/never [fill in the blank]. Are you able to give other people room to grow and find their own solutions?

TIP: A hallmark of destructive thinking is the use of words like “always” and “never.” If you find yourself unable to change course in your thinking, try SMaRT relaxation and visualization techniques to break the cycle.

Key Takeaways

Destructive thinking (I am a failure, other people are always to blame, I will never achieve my goal) keeps you bound to one way of approaching a problem, overcoming a difficulty, or dealing with a situation. Destructive thoughts are rife with self-confirming prophesies and biases. When you begin to break through them, you open up the potential for change. You may need to speak with a coach or mental health professional to recognize and turn around your destructive thoughts. 

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