Breaking Away From Negative Thoughts
Learning to tap into the positive and manage the negative
Most of us spend a lot of time inside our own mind – worrying about the future, replaying events in the past, and generally focusing on the parts of life that leave us dissatisfied. Not surprisingly, those thoughts have a big influence over our happiness and comfort.
Negative or unwanted thoughts can keep you from enjoying experiences, distract you from focusing on what's important, and drain your energy. They can also make you feel anxious and depressed. Knowing how to manage negative thoughts effectively can be the difference between feeling happy and feeling unhappy.
Negative thinking is any form of thinking that sounds rational and accurate in your mind, but only makes you feel bad about yourself or your circumstances – like thinking, "I always fail tests" before taking a test. But with dedicated practice, you can replace unhelpful thinking patterns with thoughts that actually help you. Here are some suggestions:
Recognize thought distortions. Our minds have clever and persistent ways of convincing us of something that isn't really true. These inaccurate thoughts reinforce negative thinking. But if you can recognize them, you can learn to challenge them. Here are four common thought distortions:
- Black and white thinking: Seeing everything as one way or another, without any in between.
- Personalizing: Assuming you are to blame for anything that goes wrong, like thinking someone did not smile at you because you did something to upset her. (It's more likely that person is having a hard day and her mood had nothing to do with you.)
- Filter thinking: Choosing to see only the negative side of a situation.
- Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst possible outcome is going to happen.
Challenge negative thoughts. Whenever you have a thought distortion, stop and evaluate whether it is accurate. Think about how you would respond if a friend spoke about herself that way. You would probably offer a good rebuttal to her negative view! Apply the same logic to your own thoughts. Ask yourself if you are assuming the worst will happen or blaming yourself for something that has not gone the way you wanted. And then think about other possible outcomes or reasons that something turned out differently than you hoped.
Give yourself a break from negative thoughts. It is possible to learn how to separate from negative thoughts. One way to do this is to allow yourself a certain amount of time (maybe five minutes) with the thought. Then take a break from focusing on it and move on with your day. Practicing this will give you greater control over your mindset.
Take a break from judgment. Judging ourselves and others usually happens unconsciously, and we all do it. But constantly comparing ourselves to other people or comparing our lives to some ideal just breeds dissatisfaction.
When you are able to let go of judgment (not easy, but possible), you may find that you feel more at ease. Some ways to take a break from judgmental thoughts include recognizing your own reaction, observing it, and then letting it go. Another helpful technique is to "positive judge." That means when you notice you are negatively judging a person, yourself, or a situation, look for a positive quality too.
Practice gratitude. Research shows that feeling grateful has a big impact on your level of positivity and happiness. Even when you are experiencing a challenging time in your life, you can usually find things (even small ones) to be grateful for. It doesn't have to be an exhaustive list, but noticing the things that are going well and making you feel happy will keep you in touch with them. Keeping a gratitude journal and writing a few things in it every day is one easy and effective way to do this.
Focus on your strengths. It's human nature to dwell on the negative and overlook the positive. But the more you can practice focusing on your strengths and not dwelling on mistakes you've made, the easier it will be to feel positive about yourself and the direction your life is taking. Practice self-love whenever you can. If you find yourself thinking harsh thoughts about your personality or actions, take a moment to stop and think about something you like about yourself.
Seek out professional support if you are unable to manage your thoughts or find they are interfering with your ability to meet your daily responsibilities or enjoy life. Counseling and therapy can help you weather life changes, reduce emotional suffering and experience self-growth.