Does negative thinking ruin your day?
Once negative thoughts start, it’s hell.
Despite your best efforts… aargh!
Positive thinking and affirmations don’t work for you.
Your negative thoughts persist and sabotage your life.
So, what is keeping you from being happy? And how do you overcome negative thinking?
Why Overcoming Negative Thinking Is A Challenge
Did you know that “negative” thoughts can be helpful?
Yeah! They signal that something’s wrong. Or potentially wrong.
A reckless driver. Whoa, that’s scary!
Spoiled tomato sauce. Disgusting!
Thanks to evolution, negative thoughts can keep us out of trouble. Naturally, you pull over your car to get out of a reckless driver’s path and throw away spoiled food to avoid food poisoning.
But what about other negative thoughts?
I look awful today.
Why did I do that? I’m so dumb!
It’s no use.
Why do they always treat me like that?
Well, same thing. Negative thoughts alert you that something’s off.
But this time, instead of looking outside of yourself, you have to go within. Negative thoughts about yourself tell you that your emotions or past hurts need to be taken care of.
Because at the root of repetitive negative thoughts are past hurts. Old wounds that are waiting to be accepted and healed.
When these wounds don’t heal, they affect your life in negative ways. Disastrous relationships. Unfulfilling job. Money problems. Lack of self-confidence. Low self-esteem.
Worst, you can’t stop thinking negative thoughts.
In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that when you neglect your emotional wounds, it’s like neglecting a wailing baby. You can’t just leave it to console itself. You gotta stop what you’re doing, pick up the baby and cradle her.
Spend some time being with your pain. Let yourself process it.
You move on for good when you truly accept the past.
In order to break down the control negative thinking has in your life, you need to understand how and why it works.
Ever heard of the inner critic or inner bully?
The inner critic is a mental construct. It survives on the beliefs that we unconsciously created about ourselves. Many of these beliefs come from childhood, but can also appear later in life.
It’s that voice in your head that says, You suck. You’re a klutz! You’re fat!
When the inner critic takes over, you might not even be aware it’s controlling your life. As a result, you can confuse yourself with it: I suck. I’m a klutz! I’m fat!
The craziest part?
The inner critic’s job is… *drum roll*
To protect you.
Yes, it wants to make sure you’re accepted, loved and respected for who you are.
Kinda like your nagging mother who wants the best for you. She wipes chocolate off your face in front of your friends. She criticizes your love life (or lack thereof). Mom gives unsolicited advice about everything. It’s for your own good!, she exclaims. That’s the inner critic’s slogan, too.
However, the inner critic… er, Mom has a mission that she takes to extremes. Her mission is to save you from getting hurt at all costs. Her weapon? Tough love:
You should’ve done better!
Good for nothing!
If you tune in to your mind, it’s not far from what goes on, right?
When you get hurt enough, you unconsciously create negative beliefs about yourself. If your classmates teased you or your parents mistreated you over and over, it’s easy to conclude, I’m not worthy. If your relationships fail one after another, you might believe, No one loves me.
Beliefs are explanations we make up to understand a situation. They can help alleviate the confusion or hurt: This happened because I’m not worthy. Makes sense.
However, by accepting negative beliefs, you gloss over your hurt completely.
What does that mean in the long run?
That the pain still exists. That is, until you accept it. Every time you get rejected, you’ll get triggered. It’ll hurt. Again and again and again.
There’s no way around your pain.
Only through it.
Some people talk back to their inner critic. Others ignore it. You can spend your life avoiding the pain. Spend frivolously, work relentlessly, consume hours of TV or wash down booze.
Complaining, criticizing and sacrificing yourself for others are in fact ways to avoid yourself. But the underlying problem is always present.
You might not even be aware that you’re hanging on to old hurts: What “hurts”? Everything’s fine! (If everything is fine, you wouldn’t be here.)
And that’s okay. It’s alright because everyone’s on their own path and learning at their own rhythm.
Now that you’re beginning to understand how negative thinking works, you can do something about it.
So, what can you do?
How to break free from negative thinking
1. Become aware of the negative thoughts.
Let’s get this straight from the get-go: negative thoughts aren’t the enemy. Don’t shoot them as soon as they jump up.
Remember what I said about negative thoughts being helpful? They’re helpful because they signal that you have emotional wounds to take care of.
If you take a giant step back, thoughts are just thoughts. They become “negative” when we attach too much meaning to them. We judge our thoughts and thus ourselves. Which makes us react and create havoc in our lives.
When you become self-aware, you stop the vicious cycle. Start right now. Pay attention to when you feel stressed, tense, upset, sad, angry or fearful. Then, STOP. Let yourself fully feel your feelings now.
Take 3 big breaths. Then, ask yourself, “What could’ve made me tense?” Was it something your partner said? Your boss’ tone of voice? Dirty dishes? Something trivial like a sound, smell or texture? It doesn’t matter if the littlest thing ticks you off. Anything that triggers you is unique to you and your past.
You might feel foolish, embarrassed or ashamed for getting worked up over something small. But it’s time to see yourself as you are. You have a right to feel and think whatever you’re feeling and thinking.
To make the process easier, get your worksheet Negative Thoughts Journal below (no email sign-up required). Print as many copies as you need. Jot down your triggers. Describe how you feel and what you think.
Don’t try to understand why you react to your triggers the way you do just yet.
2. Calm your mind.
Get some distance from it all. Go for a jog, take a bath or splash some water on your face. Breathe deeply. You want to relax, so that you can think clearer.
Have you ever tried to solve something while your brain was spinning outta control?
Yeah… you don’t want that. When you try to figure out a solution while feeling tense or emotional, it’ll worsen the situation. Resist the temptation to do anything when you’re stressed or upset. Otherwise, it’s like throwing yourself into the middle of a battlefield.
Please take your time.
3. Question your negative thoughts.
For this to work, you need to be absolutely honest with yourself. Avoid the blame game. Blaming is like poisoning yourself. It keeps the wound open. I know it hurts so much right now. But I promise that, instead of blaming, choosing to learn from the pain will free you.
Let’s say you wrote down that your trigger is, My partner asks, “What’s for dinner?” Your reactions: Why should I always be the one to figure out dinner? and you feel tense and heavy.
Simply ask yourself, Why? See where it goes.
It might be easier to have a good friend ask you. If you prefer doing this work alone, you can dialogue with yourself out loud like a crazy woman or in a journal. This helps to keep things objective.
Emotions are wishy-washy and can muddle your vision. The goal is to consider your feelings without getting lost in them. If you’re drowning in your emotions at any point, go back to Step 2.
Friend: Why do you feel tense?
You: Because I have so much to do.
Friend: Why? (No lame answers. Seriously, why?)
You: Sigh… I take on too much.
You: I feel responsible for everything.
You: If I don’t manage everything myself, I feel like a failure.
Breakthrough! Now, hone in on the root cause of the negative thought.
Friend: Where else in your life have you felt like this? (In this case, like a failure.)
You: When I got an F in high school. When my parents insist that I get married. When my relationships never work out.
Friend: Which negative beliefs could possibly motivate your reaction?
You: I’m a failure. I’m not good enough.
Friend: How does knowing this help you?
You: Seeing the same beliefs play out in my life makes me want to do something about it. I didn’t realize that I never got over my past failures. That’s blocking me, big time.
Questioning your reactions teaches you what’s hurting. What needs to be taken care of.
It’s not about doubting yourself. You’re learning about who you are. As scary as it sounds, you’re taking a good look at yourself in the mirror.
Why would you want to do that?
Because knowing yourself allows you to be in control of your life. Negative thoughts come and go, but if you know who you are, you can choose how to deal with them. You’re not at the mercy of negative thinking. Self-empowerment, yo.
Keep in mind that rummaging through your emotions and past can temporarily create more chaos. You’ve got this. As old wounds come to light, hold them gently.
Let them breathe.
4. Create a plan of action.
Becoming self-aware and accepting aspects of yourself are only part of the equation. To overcome negative thinking and see yourself in a more positive light, you need to act on it.
Ask yourself, Now that I know this about myself, do I want to change?
If you don’t want to change, that’s your right. Own the consequences of your choice.
If you want to change:
- Forgive yourself for not doing better. You did the best you could with what you had at the time.
- Replace the negative belief by a positive one. (For example, I can succeed or I’m good enough.)
- Then act on the positive belief to cement it.
It doesn’t have to be an extraordinary action. If you take on or expect too much, you risk disappointing yourself. Or wanting to give up. No use in that.
Start by journaling 3 life events that reinforce your new and positive belief. Then regularly schedule one task that you can do (or not do) to further reinforce it.
For example, to cement the belief I’m good enough, you could erase 1 optional task from your to-do list, stretch for 15 minutes before bed or stroll for 10 minutes around the block everyday.
Trust me, you’ll feel good. Even if it’s only for a little bit. Every tiny action you take on behalf of the positive you counts. It’ll reinforce your new belief and you’ll feel happier and more peaceful.
If you have trouble overcoming negative thinking
There will be setbacks when you attempt to overcome negative thinking. But don’t let them keep you from forging ahead. Use these tips to fire up your motivation.
- Ask yourself, How much longer do I want to suffer? Short-term solutions? Or long-term solutions with durable results? There’s only taking responsibility for your pain. Bite the bullet. Do the work. Once you truly accept the pain, you can move past it.
- What you resist, persists. Let go. Have you ever experienced the same kind of hurts over and over again? That déjà vu feeling isn’t there for nothing. It’s a wake-up call for you to take care of your wounds—again, so that you can finally move past it. Feel the emotions. Then let go.
- Commit to learning. As long as you keep learning about yourself, things will pan out. I promise. Knowledge is power. The more you understand how negative thinking works, the more you’re capable of doing something about it. Every stumble is a learning opportunity.
- Be patient. I know you want to feel happy now. But it’s a process. As you let go of old hurts, it can take time for things to settle down. It’s important for you to let the healing happen. Be patient with yourself. Breathe deeply. Hang out with yourself.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. You’ll feel foolish having to revisit old hurts a million times to get the lesson. Just keep going. Or rest, then keep going. Prepare to do the above steps over and over. It’ll stick before you know it.
- Check out my coaching services. If you want me to personally guide you from non-stop negative thinking to feeling good enough + happy, take a look at my coaching services.
Okay, take a breath with me…
I know it’s a lot of information, sweetie.
First things first.
Click on the image below to get your worksheet Negative Thoughts Journal (no email sign-up required). Print as many copies as you need. Write down your negative thoughts + feelings and what triggers them.
If you do only one thing, let this be it.
Self-awareness is the first step to setting yourself free from negative thinking.
Not positive affirmations.
Not changing other people.
Positive and durable results—peace of mind, happiness and freedom—emerge when you’re willing enough to look within and accept who you are at this moment.
That’s you. You’re willing to look within and accept who you are right now (even if it’s terrifying). That takes guts, perseverance and strength.
I know you can do it. You’ve got this.
Chin up, brave one!
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help people let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading on overcoming negative thinking: