I’ve never once met a person that doesn’t want to "be happy." Not once. Have you? Probably not. How many people in your life say they want to live a meaningful, fulfilled life, but seem to focus on negativity? It’s not possible to be stuck in the mire of negative, pessimistic thoughts and to live a life of joy at the same time. That's because how we think dictates how we feel.
Modern-day therapists focus on changing disempowering thought in counseling modalities like Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). But, long before these strategies were placed in manuals and delivered in counseling sessions, every single Holy Book, culture and spiritual system offered strategies to capture and dissolve negative thinking. That indicates to me that for as long as humans have been around, we've been struggling with negative thoughts.
Researchers call the human tendency to focus on what’s wrong in life a “negativity bias.” Because the major role of the brain is to keep us alive and safe, humans focus intensely on the negative aspects of a situation or story. Subconsciously, we believe focusing on negativity may alert us to some sort of threat or danger, though often it's not necessary. When we become captured by scary or depressing news stories, address our personal shortcomings harshly, cover others in criticism, and languish in complaints about intimate partners, jobs and everything else around us, we're living in a negativity bias.
My mother has always said to me, "Life is about choices." She is absolutely correct. While you may not select your thoughts because so many are automatic, you can choose your response to them.
For the purpose of this blog post, I am defining "negative thinking" as thoughts that produce fear, worry, anger, hopelessness, sadness, confusion, impatience, self-righteousness, and any other distressing or unhelpful emotion. If you find that negative thinking is weighing you down, the answer is not just to “be positive.” The brain has to be challenged, engaged, at times even admonished, to make sustainable thought-life changes.
Follow the steps below if you find you’re just not able to pry yourself from the grips of negativity. These steps are based on CBT principles, my clinical experience and wisdom from the world's spiritual traditions.
This process will take time and practice, but eventually you’ll see that your default thoughts, and the feelings they create, are beginning to improve.
*These steps are not necessarily helpful for people with severe anxiety. See my article "Cultivating the Calm" here for other strategies.
1. Take Inventory
In order to change your thoughts, you first have to know what they are. So many times, we are going through the day, hour after hour, with a negative thought "tape" playing in our minds. Before you even have breakfast or brush your teeth, you may have dozens of thoughts of what's wrong with your present, past or future. What's worse, the whole day may go by and we won't even realize that we've spent hours rolling negative thoughts through our minds. Because of the rapid and random nature of thoughts, you will have to take a purposeful inventory of them. Feeling sad, anxious, or irritable is almost inevitable if you don't. So, our first step is to learn to regularly check in with ourselves on the content of our thought.
Every day around noon ask yourself, "What have I been thinking about this morning?" There will be all kinds of random thoughts that might pop to the surface. So, go one step further and ask, "What negative thoughts have I held today about myself, my loved ones, my work or this world?" Give yourself 5 minutes to do this exercise. Record your thoughts in a quick list. In tackling the thoughts, you will work with them one a time. Save your list for after work, or when you're going to have some free time.
2. Unpack it
Select one negative thought from your list and "unpack" it. Though it may be a little uncomfortable, ask yourself how this thought is serving you. Does it make you feel self-righteous? Proud? Angry? Sad? Sometimes, you'll find it brings out an emotion with which you are so familiar, it's hard to imagine it not being part of your life. Negative thoughts and the negative feeling states they create can be habit-forming.
Let's take a quick look at anger, as an example. For some, it's easier to blow up in anger than to admit they feel hurt or scared by a situation. They hide in their anger, and unknowingly look for any opportunity to think in a way that produces it, waiting for opportunities to unleash it. The same can be said about people who are familiar with any negative feeling states.
What benefits do you get from your negative feelings? Once identified, write them down as well. You might say, for instance, "Thinking my husband is lazy makes me feel like the savior of the household. In some ways, I enjoy thinking I'm better than he is." Ouch. It may be deep and not all that flattering, but go through this process anyway.
3. Be Intentional
Continue with the same thought from the original list you made. Make an intention statement. It can be something like, "I chose to work on releasing this thought so I can experience contentment," or " I chose my peace and contentment over this thought and the feelings it brings."
4. Wallow If You Wanna
Once you understand the source, use and allure of your limiting or negative thoughts, you have another choice to make. Do you want to feel the feelings it produces? Do you feel you need to analyze the thought to figure out a problem? Do you feel you just CAN'T resist it? Then wallow in it if you want - but only for fifteen minutes. That's right, set a timer or check the time on your clock. Ready? Set. Go! Worry or be in the negative thought for fifteen minutes. Once you get to the end of the time, write on a piece of paper, "I have been working on this thought (fill in the actual thought) for 15 minutes. I am finished working on this thought for now." You can proceed to the next step, or skip to number 6.
This process may help you resolve the itch to drop into the negative thought. But hopefully, its real power will be helping you identify how much time negative thoughts eat up. Do you really want to have set a timer to worry or be negative every day?
If you'd prefer to not engage this process, skip to number 5.
5. Repair or Replace?
And we have arrived at yet another crossroads. Decision time. Do you want to repair the negative thought by adjusting it to be more rational and possibly more helpful? Or would you prefer to just replace the thought altogether? The choice is yours.
To repair a negative thought, take some of the drama out of it. Take judgment words out of it. State the facts only. In my practice, I hear people complain most often about relationships, money and politics. Let's use money thoughts as an example. Many people say "We have no money at all, we're so broke." Obviously a thought like that is going to make you feel despair, among other things. Try repairing that thought by removing drama and judgment. Say instead something like, "Currently, my financial situation is not where I'd like it to be but I have the capability to learn how to improve it."
To replace a thought, it's ok to say, "You know what, I just don't want to think about that right now," and instead think of something else - anything else in the short-term is perfectly fine. You can think about what you'll make for dinner, it really doesn't matter. I recommend repairing thoughts, but sometimes you may not be up for it - and that's ok.
6. Make Your Brain Bounce
At this point in the process, you've done enough work to take a break. Find activities for your brain. Get up and go out. Get some exercise. Call a friend. Listen to some nice music. Draw a picture. Go do some grooming (shower, nails, shave, etc.). If you're at work, try to focus completely on what you're doing. If it's your lunch break, eat well and then go sit outside for a few minutes if the weather is ok. Bounce your brain off the negative thoughts and put it into an activity that is healthy and keeps it occupied.
7. Follow the Way of Tea
I love to drink tea. Chai Rooibos is my favorite. Isn't it kind of amazing how a plain cup of hot water can turn into a warm, comforting, health-promoting elixir? I think so. When it comes to your mind and the effort to turn it into a strongly positive world, employ the principle of the tea steep. After you've worked through your thoughts and found healthy things to do with your brain, let good settle into you. Find positive people, messages and activities and let them soak in. Surround yourself with energies that exude joy, optimism, and buoyant creativity and draw them into yourself. Watch how your life, and mind, change to match their essence.
8. Give Thanks
Having a healthy mind and fruitful life requires gratitude. Always, always, always be grateful. Be grateful for those things you think are going well in your life. Be grateful for areas of challenge, pain and disappointment. What is going well is a testament to your good efforts. And what is not gives you an opportunity to grow into your wisest, strongest, most elevated self - the very best version of you.
So let's make one more list. Find 5 good things you're grateful for and 1 challenge for which you can be grateful. State how the challenge is helping you.
9. Take Inventory AGAIN
Now that you've completed steps 1 through 8, ask yourself how you're feeling. Though this process outlines how to work through only one negative thought at a time, chances are your mood has already started to lift or improve a little. If negative thinking persists, don't fret! This process takes practice but will eventually become automatic. Dedicate yourself to a daily discipline in which you shine a light on your negative thoughts and break them all the way down!
You really do deserve to congratulate yourself. Completing a process where you have to admit uncomfortable things to yourself takes strength. At the conclusion of this process, you have easily identifiable negative thoughts, insight into how they "serve" you, intention statements to release them from your life, and strategies to begin to work with and change them. That's a big deal. Job well done! Your life will thank you!
This process will initially take a full day to complete. With practice though, you will be able to go through the process in a matter of minutes - throughout the day if needed. I fully expect that with consistent practice, you will find the need to do the exercise starts to fade, as you default toward empowering, rational thought. Practicing alone is great but there are professionals available to help you as well. If you struggle with persistently worrisome or disempowering thoughts, seek the help of a therapist or psychiatrist. Visit Psychology Today to find a supportive and encouraging counselor.
Resources for You!
"Ten Days to Self-Esteem" by Dr. David Burns – a workbook to help you track your thoughts, spot their negative distortions and correct them.
The Beck Institute – Meet the "Father of Cognitive Therapy," Dr. Aaron Beck, and find resources on improving your thinking patterns.
The Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania – A wealth of resources for developing resilience, “grit,” and a meaningful, fulfilling life.