Part One of a Two-Part Series on Challenging Your Negative Thoughts
Contrary to popular opinion, there is some value to negative thinking. It allows you to protect yourself from danger or threats. It tempers your expectations, so that you are more prepared for failure and disappointment. However, negative thinking can often take up more room in your mind than it rightfully deserves, blowing things out of proportion and misleading you. Negative thoughts can make you to feel pretty rotten about yourself and others, which we’ll talk about more in part two of this series. Over-focusing on your failures denies you the opportunity to learn and improve; it’s defeatist and reinforces the message to just give up. It does not motivate you to do better. Learning where to draw the line when negative thinking is no longer serving you and changing your perspective can help reduce stress and build self-confidence. All it takes is a little awareness and intentional effort.
Learning to challenge negative self-talk isn’t about deluding yourself into thinking you’re better than others or developing an inflated sense of self. That attitude isn’t helpful to you or anyone around you. The key is to develop a balanced perspective that will guide your feelings and consequently, your actions.
The Power Of Your Thoughts
A core principle of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and of the work I do as a psychotherapist is the understanding that our feelings are directly influenced by our thoughts, and reinforced by our behaviors and actions, not just by the situation itself. Over time, this cycle of thoughts, feelings, and actions become reinforced, like a well-trodden hiking trail. The good news is that we are capable of learning new patterns through practice and rehearsal.
Tools To Help You Challenge Your Negative Self-talk
Using Metaphors To Learn To Recognize Your Negative Thoughts
Think about the metaphor of “heartbreak”. When we hear this word, it’s instantly understood. Metaphors appeal to our senses and our imaginations, offering a more interesting way to explore our thoughts and new ways to view the world. They give us a visual anchor. When it comes to your negative thoughts, metaphors can also serve to create some distance between yourself and the thoughts. They can help you recognize when negative thoughts are happening, and to appreciate the intention and thoughtfulness required to change them.
Learning a New Instrument
To recognize and change your perspective involves practice and effort. The struggle is real. Negative thought patterns occur automatically and become habitual. It may be helpful to consider something that you have learned that is now second nature. Examples include the learning of a second language or taking up a new sport. It also can be compared to learning an instrument,or solving a math problem. If you can relate to one of these examples, apply to the approach to your thought patterns. You can learn new patterns of thinking until they become habit and infiltrate your belief system. You can become conditioned to be curious about your thoughts and put a more positive spin on your negative thought cycles.
The Helicopter View
Take a step back from the details and see the bigger picture. When we are actively involved in a situation or close to it, it’s harder to take a step back to see its true nature. Zoom out. You may be hyper-focused on a tiny flaw that isn't even noticeable to you in the bigger context of who you are or how you live your life. If you are feeling humiliated or shamed after a rejection, ask yourself, will this matter in a year?
The Loving Grandmother
Take a negative thought you are having and imagine you are looking at it from the perspective of someone loving and kind in your life. An easy figure to imagine is a nurturing grandmother type. Would the loving grandmother tell you you’re going to royally bomb the interview? Would she say, you are completely out of your mind to think you can compete with all those Harvard MBA's for that job? I think not!
Your Negative Thought Is a Bully
You may have internalized beliefs about yourself based on messages you’ve received from bullies in your life, but that is not who you are. It can be helpful to separate out these thoughts and associate them with a fictional person. You may even want to give them a funny name like Persnickety Pete or Negative Aunt Nelly. This helps create the distance so you can understand these thoughts aren’t truly about you, but they are thoughts about yourself. The negative thoughts don’t reflect who you are or even what you think, so don’t let them win. When you recognize a corrosive thought, ask yourself if it is you or the bully speaking?
Do Not Take Your Automatic Negative Thoughts At Face Value
When you find yourself feeling low, anxious, or resentful, simply ask yourself, why? What thoughts led to this feeling? Search for them. Don’t just tell yourself to “think positive” which can feel superficial and also deny you of a real feeling that you may need to feel and understand. It’s better to critically engage your mind. Think of it as a process of learning. Do you learn more in a didactic lecture, just passively listening and taking notes? Or do you learn through the process of inquiry, when you are making meaningful connections with the content, asking questions, and being called upon by your peers to share your thoughts?
Think of an example where you felt particularly sad or anxious and you didn’t know why. After identifying the thought, ask yourself some questions like:
What are my thoughts and why do they make me feel this way?
What is another perspective of this situation?
What would be a more positive way to look at this?
What is the evidence for and against these negative or sad thoughts?
Ask Yourself “How Is This Helpful?”
I fall victim to my own negative self-talk at times, but I also work hard to recognize when my negative self-talk isn’t serving me. Recently, in a challenging part of a Soul Cycle class, I found my negative self-talk flourishing, and quite honestly, sounding like an angry military drill sergeant. Already exhausted, Frank, my angry drill sergeant, told me, “you’ll never get rid of that flab on your arms!” and indeed, with this jerk in my ear I felt utterly defeated. I recognized this old familiar specter of negative self talk, so I quickly reframed the conversation to “you are working hard to make progress, just 30 more seconds!” and felt much stronger. Obviously, that drill sergeant needed to be told to take a seat!
Put Your Thought Into Action
After you challenge a negative thought, ask yourself, what can I do about it? Imagine you are shaming yourself for eating a rich, creamy, bowl of ice cream an hour before bedtime; your negative self-talk is off the charts, telling you, “I’m such a fatso with no self-control!” Instead, tell yourself, “I ate this rich dish late at night, but not all is lost. I enjoyed it thoroughly and will choose to make steamed chicken and veggie stir fry tomorrow night…. With some tofu on the side!”
Be Open To Feedback And Ask For It
As I stated earlier, challenging your negative thoughts isn’t about inflating your ego unrealistically. Examining and assessing your thoughts is the most affirming thing you can do, especially if you lean towards perfectionism and find that you constantly fall short of the impossibly high standards you set for yourself.
Ask your friends, coworkers, or your partner constructive, specific questions that allow them to reply candidly. For example, after giving a presentation at work, don’t ask your coworker “did I just totally suck up there?” They are likely to pick up that you felt bad about it and placate you, without sharing their honest feedback. Instead, ask them, “can you please share with me what were the points that I delivered well and what could be improved upon the next time?”
Stay tuned for the next post on challenging your negative thoughts about others and the world.
Kerrie Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice downtown, NYC. To connect with her, click here.