Thinking. Is there any other word in our language that can mean so many different things to so many people?
To an intellectual, thinking is the way to discovery and knowledge.
To a worrier or someone with a lot of anxiety, thinking is an incessant force in the brain that seemingly cannot be overcome.
To an entrepreneur, thinking can lead to groundbreaking progress or crippling self-doubt.
To a child, thinking is imagination and a beautifully innocent view of our world.
To an insomniac, thinking is the enemy of sleep.
I could go on and on, but the point is that thinking is one of the constant facts of life for all human beings. We all think. We all have a different relationship with our thinking at different times.
I know that I have a very complex relationship with my own thinking. At times, my thinking has led to brilliant discoveries and entrepreneurial success. At other times, my thinking has led me to self-sabotage everything good in my life. At times, my thinking has shown me how wonderful my life is. At other times, my thinking tells me that my life will never measure up to the lives of others. I think this is true for almost everyone you’ll meet in life.
There are many, many ways that we can tame our thinking. Ways that we can make our thinking work for us more than it works against us. Mindfulness, meditation, exercise, positive psychology, therapy, prayer, acceptance, goal-setting, appreciation, altruism, service, and so many more. I’ll go into these more on another blog post, but for now I just want to focus on one way we can tame our thinking: identifying negative thoughts.
Identifying Negative Thoughts Can Set You Free
The first step in solving a problem is identifying the problem. This is true for every problem you’ll ever face and it’s true for negative thinking. The key is to step outside of yourself, even for a moment, and identify how negativity manifests in your thinking. Once you notice it, it becomes easier to notice it in your day to day life.
The easiest way to step outside yourself and watch your thoughts? Meditation. Plain and simple. But it doesn’t even have to be “official” meditation, you can just sit for 5-10 minutes. Just sit and watch your thoughts. There are many, many different ways to meditate but if you are new to it or don’t want to commit to a practice, just think of it as sitting for a little bit.
As you sit, thoughts will come and go. Try as hard as you can not to get “sucked in” by thoughts, but instead mark them as “pleasant” or “unpleasant”. I learned this exercise from the “Managing Anxiety” pack on the Headspace meditation app and it’s been incredible useful to me!
So why does this work? It works because once you identify negative thoughts, you weaken them immediately. By realizing that they exist and that they are negative, you are taking away their power over you. It’s a truly incredible thing.
Some of the negative thoughts I’ve noticed through this exercise are: comparing myself negatively to others, beating myself up for mistakes, thinking I can’t make consistent, positive change in my life, and many more.
To help you out, I’m going to list a whole bunch of negative thoughts that you can hopefully start to identify in your daily life.
Master List of Negative Thoughts
This is basically when you are thinking in absolutes. Thoughts like: I’ll never accomplish this goal. No one has the same problems as me. Every one has a better approach to life than me. Every time I fall for someone, I get heartbroken.
The Fix: Just remember that nothing is truly absolute in life. Things change, other people are going through the same thing as you, and what has usually happened is not what will always happen.
Focusing on the Negative
This one is pretty obvious. When you are only seeing bad things in most situations, you are focusing on the negative.
The Fix: Try to find moments of “micro positivity”, where you find positive things in every situation. It can be something like “Wow this situation isn’t the best, but the weather is so nice!” By training yourself to look for positive things, however small, you are training your brain to notice positive things. This will compound and grow on itself and help combat your negative focus.
This is basically predicting that the worst will always happen. “I’m going to put all my time and money into this business and it’s going to undoubtedly fail.” “I’m going to tell this girl/guy I like them and I’ll definitely get turned down.”
The Fix: The most important thing to remember with this one is that your brain has no idea what is going to happen. Your brain can be extremely convincing sometimes, but it does not have the power to predict the future. Do things in spite of your assumptions about how they’ll turn out.
This one is similar to fortune telling in that you believe you know what others are thinking. This manifests negatively when we believe that someone is thinking negative thoughts about us. Rejection, disapproval, pity, boredom. These are the kind of things we often think others are thinking about us.
The Fix: This one is something that I’ve dealt with a lot in my life. What has helped me is trying to remember that each person has a circle around them. The only circle I can be concerned about is my own. It doesn’t matter what other people are thinking because it’s in their circle. Besides the fact that we are often wrong when we “read minds”, it also simply doesn’t matter. We can’t control other people’s thinking, all we can do is try to not let it affect us.
Thinking with Feelings
As someone who is quite emotional, this is something I am very prone to. If it feels like this phase or this rut is never going to end, I often believe that feeling. But the phase or the rut always end and I always feel better. If I feel like I will never get a job or never have a successful romance, I can easily fall victim to believing that feeling. But those feelings are basically always false. Having them infiltrate my thinking is an unholy waste of time, energy and mental bandwidth.
The Fix: It’s important to question negative thoughts and find out whether they are simply a by-product of negative feelings. Just because you feel something does NOT mean that it’s true. Talk to others or find a therapist to get an outside perspective (you’ll be amazed at how distorted our thinking can be), journal so that you can track events, feelings, and thoughts to find patterns, or meditate to get a handle on the relationship between thinking and feeling.
This is when your thoughts are overly influenced by guilt. You think you should, have to, or must do something because you feel some misplaced guilt. Oftentimes this guilt is manufactured in your brain and isn’t something you should actually feel guilty for. This isn’t to insinuate that all guilt is bad. Guilt can be a healthy mechanism, but when you let it overly influence your thoughts you aren’t coming from a healthy place.
The Fix: It’s important to monitor your guilt and make sure that it’s warranted. If you sleep all day on a Tuesday, it is probably healthy to feel guilty. But don’t let overpowered guilt force you into feeling badly for sleeping in on the weekend or eating a small dessert.
Labelling is basically assigning a fixed description or name to something. This works, for example, when we label certain decisions as good or bad. Where labelling becomes negative is when we label people, especially ourselves. When we say things like: “I’m lazy” or “I’m never going to change” or “I’m just not likable”, we are labelling ourselves with a fixed description that implies we cannot change. It basically leads us to a place where we believe we are one way and that we can’t change. That is never a good place to be.
The Fix: The most important fix here is to simply notice when you are applying black and white labels to yourself . Keep track of the negative labels that you most often use. Once you have a better understanding of how you are negative labelling, you will more easily notice it and try to correct your thinking. Once you notice it, try to think of the color gray. You want to think in gray areas rather than black and white. For example, if you’re at a party and feeling shy and nervous, try to say “I’m acting shy right now” rather than “I’m shy”. This means you can change. You aren’t shy, you’re just acting shy.
Blame (The Worst One)
In my opinion, and most people’s opinion, this is the worst negative thought you can have. Blame is when you blame other people or the situation for your problems. This is victim mentality and it’s absolutely toxic to your life. Being a victim implies that you can’t change. It leaves you in a morass of self-pity and inaction. You have to take responsibility for your own actions. Sure, bad things will befall you for no reason, but it’s up to you to react to them in a healthy way. Your life is the responsibility of no one but yourself.
The Fix: The fix for this one will require a little soul searching. If you notice that you are often blaming others or adopting the victim mentality in any way, you really should undergo this exercise. You are going to separate a page into 4 columns. In the first column, you’re going to write the name of every person or entity that you are angry with. Your parents, your ex, your old company, etc. In the second column, you’re going to write why you’re angry and how they wronged you. In the third column, you are going to write what aspect of life this person/entity affected. The options are: self-esteem, pride, ambition, security, personal relationships, sex life, or financial. Then, and this is the best part, in the 4th column you are going to write your part in this relationship. What did you do to provoke this person to treat you like this. If it was completely unprovoked (which it rarely, rarely, rarely is) than write about how your reaction toward it has affected your life. By doing this, you shift your thinking and begin to realize how your actions affect your relationships. You will definitely find that you have extreme responsibility in almost all of your resentments and grudges against others.
So in conclusion, if you are having any of these negative thought patterns, you are going to want to start identifying them and working on them. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Some of the best tools are journalling and meditation.
I took a lot of inspiration for this post from Daniel G. Amen’s “Change Your Brain, Change Your Body”