Identifying and Reframing Negative Thoughts of Undecided College Students

By Brian M. Montalvo and Joel R. Driver

"Worry is the dark room where negatives are developed." - Anonymous


Many students have negative or self-defeating thoughts about themselves or the world of work that make it difficult for them to solve their career problems and/or make career decisions. Negative thinking is probably one of the main reasons those of us working in career development have as much business as we do. Some examples of negative thoughts are: "I'm not really interested in any field of study or occupation"; "There are so many careers out there, that I'll never be able to make a good choice"; or "I want to go into dance, but my parents want me to major in marketing" (Sampson, Peterson, Reardon, & Lenz 2000).

Krumboltz (1983) provided some examples of harmful beliefs in making a career decision that can be based on the following:

(1) Comparing oneself to one single standard: "I need to be more successful than my Dad or I'll feel like a failure."

(2) Suffering from anguish or anxiety over a perceived inability to achieve goals:

  • Goals are unrealistic: "If I can't get into the business school then I don't want to go to college."


  • Some goals are in conflict with other goals: "I'd like to be working in a job where I am paid a lot of money, but don't do a lot of work."


  • Lack of ability may be perceived or real: "I've never done that kind of work before, there is no way I'll be successful."


  • Perceived inability may be linked to feelings of personal worth: "If I don't choose the right major, I'll be a disappointment and a failure."

Many counselors and advisors have heard these phrases, or something similar, from students trying to make a career and/or major choice. Other words to listen for that exhibit negative thinking in students include: always, never, only, have to, must, need to, could, should, and can't. This type of negative self-talk can play a major role in inhibiting students from making an informed and effective decision about a major or career.


How Negative Thoughts Impact Career Decision-Making

Obtaining self-knowledge, which entails learning about interests, values, skills, and aptitudes, is the first step in a student's deciding on a college major. The next step is to choose an occupation, which would allow a student to exercise the skills obtained in the major. If a student's thoughts are clouded with negativity, it becomes difficult for them to see all of the available options, which can in turn lead to a fog of indecision.

A counselor could say to a student, "Imagine your mind as a clear glass of water. Now, picture every negative thought as a drop of dye trickling into that glass. The more negativity, the cloudier the water, until your thoughts become completely clouded and you cannot see your potential."

The darkening of one's thoughts makes it difficult to see all of one's options and can lead to indecision and subsequently an increase in anxiety. Fuqua, Seaworth, and Newman (1987) have shown that there exists a significant relationship between career indecision and anxiety. Beck (1979) states that the content of a person's thinking can affect confidence. So, if a student is having negative thoughts about career options, this can affect confidence in making a career decision.

What Can Be Done?

An important strategy in helping to reduce negative thinking and lower anxiety about making a career decision is to attack these issues directly. Instruments such as the Career Thoughts Inventory (CTI), Holland's My Vocational Situation (MVS), and Krumboltz's Career Belief Inventory (CBI) are tools for identifying negative thoughts impeding career decision-making.  (Both the CTI and CBI have companion workbooks.) For example, the CTI is a measure of dysfunctional thoughts in career problem solving and decision - making (Sampson et al. 2004). It measures three distinct scales: Decision Making Confusion, Commitment Anxiety, and External Conflict. After identifying negative problem areas, the counselor can assist the student with reframing those negative thoughts using the CTI workbook. The workbook can be assigned as homework or used collaboratively in counseling sessions.


A Practical Application


Brief Case Study

Veronica is an athlete who is undecided and says she feels dumb for not knowing what she wants to major in. You can use this analogy: Making a career choice is like running track. When you have negative thoughts about making a decision, it's like someone is placing hurdles in your path. They can slow down and even halt your progress. By reframing these thoughts we can remove these hurdles and make a choice.


So where do you begin? According to Cognitive Information Processing theory there is a four step process: (1) identifying the negative thought, (2) challenging the student about their negative cognition, (3) assisting the student with the reframing, and (4) having them act on it. Here is one example of how to help Veronica with her negative thoughts:


First become aware of the negative thought. Listen intently to comments that can become roadblocks for her decision-making.

Negative Thought: "All of my friends know what they want to major in. I feel dumb for not knowing."

Explain to her (using the analogy about track) how negative thoughts can affect decision-making.


Ask Veronica, "How do you feel this thought helps you in choosing a major?"

Explain how it can be frustrating when friends seem to know what they want to do and you're still searching. Her timetable for choosing may be different from others. It's not unusual to be undecided about choosing a field of study.



Explain how negative thoughts can act as a roadblock when making a decision. Ask Veronica if she can think of a way to change that thought into a more positive, hopeful statement to remove the mental obstacle.

Example of a Reframe: "Although I may feel frustrated because my friends know what they want to do, I can make progress towards a career decision at my own paceby learning more about myself and my options."


Career counselors need to reinforce the new positively reframed thought and listen for other negative speech, which may trigger problems with choosing a field of study. Negative thoughts are usually deeply ingrained. Reframing and ultimately altering the thought may take time. One good idea is to have Veronica write her positive reframe on a note and post it somewhere she will see it every day (bathroom mirror, refrigerator, etc.). This will continue to reinforce the positive thought.




The reframing of negative thoughts may seem a bit abstract, but in reality is a process of "uncovering or identifying maladaptive thoughts or beliefs, that are irrational, exaggerated, or inaccurate and then correcting or modifying them so that they become more adaptive, rational, realistic, or accurate" (Kinnier & Krumboltz, 1986, pp. 312-313). By identifying negative thoughts and reframing them into positives, students are in a better position to make sound decisions about their major and/or career choice.



Beck, A.T. (1979). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: Penguin Group.

Kinnier, R. T., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1986). Procedures for successful career counseling. In N.C. Gysbers (Ed.), Designing careers. 307-335. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Krumboltz, J. D. (1983). Private rules in career decision making. Special Publication Series no. 38. The National Center for Research in Vocational Education. 12-19.

Fuqua, D. R., Seaworth, T. B., & Newman, J. L. (1987). The relationship of career indecision and anxiety: A multivariate examination. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 30, 175-186.

Sampson, J. P. Jr., Peterson, G. W., Reardon, R. C., & Lenz, J. G. (2004). Career Counseling & Services: A Cognitive Information Processing Approach. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Sampson, J. P., Jr., Peterson, G. W., Reardon, R. C., & Lenz, J. G. (2000). Using readiness assessments to improve career services: A cognitive information processing approach. Career Development Quarterly, 49, 146-174.


Brian M. Montalvo, M.S., Ed.S., NCC is the assistant director of career development and career education for FloridaAtlanticUniversity's CareerDevelopmentCenter. His responsibilities include managing the career assessment and career counseling/advising programs. Brian also instructs a graduate course in career development (MHS6340) and a student learning strategies & human development course for undeclared freshmen. Brian received his Ed.S. and M.S. in counseling and human systems with a specialization in career counseling and a B.S. in psychology, all from FloridaStateUniversity. He is a National Certified Counselor (NCC). He can be reached at 561-297-3533 and/or bmontal1@fau.edu
Joel R. Driver, M.S., Ed.S., NCC is a career counselor with the University of Texas Career Exploration Center. He primarily assists students with choosing a major. Joel received his Ed.S and M.S. in counseling and human systems with a specialization in career counseling from FloridaStateUniversity. He is a National Certified Counselor (NCC). He can be reached at 512-232-0849 or j.driver@austin.utexas.edu

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