Camille greets me with a jovial Bonjour!
As soon as I enter the organic food store, she’s always the first employee who smiles at me.
One day, as we were gabbing by the cheese counter, she discovered my life coaching services. Camille lowered her voice and confided her struggle with negative thinking:
I feel like I can never do anything right. My negative emotions control me. It’s so frustrating!
Camille crossed her arms and gazed at her feet.
It was as if her armor—which made her days more tolerable—had clanged onto the polished concrete. She felt exposed and ashamed.
But the idea that nothing was wrong with her brought some relief.
Does negative thinking ruin your day?
Thoughts like I’m not good enough, I’m dumb or No one likes me haunt the best of us.
And positive affirmations don’t seem to work.
So, what exactly keeps us from being happy? And how do we overcome negative thinking?
Why we have negative thoughts
Not all negative thoughts are bad.
Some signal possible dangers to keep you safe.
For example, a reckless driver zigzags on the road: Whoa, that’s scary!
Or you detect some mold in a jar of tomato sauce: Disgusting!
Thanks to evolution, the human mind assesses a situation and prompts us to do what’s necessary to survive. So, naturally, you dodge the reckless driver and throw away the tomato sauce.
But what about other negative thoughts?
I look awful.
Why did I do that? I’m so dumb!
How come they always treat me that way?
Our mind is still alerting us of possible dangers. Though, this time, it’s the danger of being rejected by other people, notably our friends, family, colleagues and community.
Strong social relationships offered our early human ancestors shared resources and better protection from predators. In other words, we’re wired for social connection, which is as vital as food and shelter.
So, today’s “predators” translate into:
- unsatisfying relationships
- not fitting in
- upsetting our loved ones
- loneliness, etc.
That’s why we constantly compare ourselves with others, seek approval and wonder if we’re good enough.
We all seek to avoid pain… and ultimately, death.
C’est la vie.
A prickly source of negative thoughts
Have you heard of the inner critic?
It’s an aspect of our personality that survives on beliefs we hold about ourselves (e.g. I’m unworthy). Beliefs form in childhood, but can also appear later in life.
It’s that voice in our head that says, You suck. What a klutz! You’re fat!
Sometimes, we can even confuse ourselves with the inner critic: I suck. What a klutz! I’m fat!
And the craziest part?
The inner critic’s job is… *drum roll*
To protect you.
Yes, it wants to ensure you’re accepted, loved and respected. (Social connection equals survival, remember?)
Imagine a nagging mother who wants the best for you.
She wipes chocolate off your face in front of your friends. Criticizes your love life (or lack thereof). And gives unsolicited advice: It’s for your own good!
That’s the inner critic’s slogan, too.
But 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!
Yet Mom and the inner critic have their limits.
Beliefs are only explanations we make up to understand a situation. They ease confusion or hurt: This happened because I’m unworthy. Makes sense.
It’s easy to conclude I’m a loser if your classmates teased you or your parents often mistreated you. If your relationships fail one after another, you might believe, No one loves me.
But it’s not the whole story.
Signals to heal past hurts
In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that neglecting our emotional wounds is like leaving a wailing baby to console herself.
Instead, we need to stop, pick up the baby and cradle her.
Past hurts are at the root of many negative thoughts. When these emotional wounds don’t heal, they cry for our attention:
Disastrous relationships. Unfulfilling job. Money problems. Lack of self-confidence. Low self-esteem.
What’s more, negative thinking bombards us.
Some people talk back to their inner critic. Others ignore it.
Some spend their life avoiding the pain. They buy, work, watch TV or drink. Complaining, sacrificing yourself and judging are actually ways to avoid yourself.
But the underlying malaise drones on.
Instead, summon the courage to embrace your pain.
Let yourself process the events.
Otherwise, each time you get rejected, it’ll hurt. Again and again and again.
We move on for good when we accept the past.
How to break free from negative thinking
Thoughts are just thoughts.
They become negative when we judge them so.
Then we judge ourselves (e.g. What’s wrong with me?), which makes us feel ashamed.
Sometimes, negative thoughts seem true, important or authoritative, but we can always step back instead of getting sucked in.
Reframe negative thoughts and emotions as clues that you might have unhealed emotional wounds or unmet needs.
Life involves pain. Sooner or later, we all face rejection, disappointment, failure, loss and death.
Let’s experience our pain in a new way—and even learn from it—so that we may live fulfilling lives.
Here’s a method to manage negative thinking.
1. Observe and allow “negative” thoughts and emotions
Notice whenever you feel “negative” emotions like stress, anger, fear, sadness or hurt.
Say to yourself, I’m having the feeling of anger to acknowledge the emotion.
I’m angry or I feel angry works too. But I’m having the feeling of anger distances you from the emotion a bit, lessening its impact on you.
(It’s possible to repress “positive” emotions too. But we tend to struggle more with “negative” ones.)
Now, describe the physical sensations of the emotion. Where and how does it show up in your body? I can feel my throat heating up.
We often get caught up in our mind and lose our calm when we feel strong “negative” emotions. This distorts our perception and cripples our decision-making abilities.
So, bringing our attention down to our body grounds us.
Take a few deep breaths and allow these physical sensations to just be.
Next, notice what event and thought triggered the “negative” emotion. Do any images come to mind?
- Event: I just came home from a long day. My partner asked me, What’s for dinner?
- Thought: Why should I always be the one to figure out dinner?
- Emotion: I’m having the feeling of anger.
- Physical sensation: I feel my throat heating up.
- Image: I’m having the image of breaking down and not being able to take care of my family.
Avoid blaming or judging. Breathe deeply.
The goal is to allow your thoughts and emotions to be there. Because controlling, avoiding or getting rid of them worsens them in the long run.
Eventually, observing and allowing your thoughts reduces their power.
2. Question your story
Now that your “negative” thinking has subsided a bit, you can explore the stories that animate them.
Dr. Russ Harris says that we “select a few dramatic memories, edit them together with some related judgments and opinions and turn in into a powerful documentary entitled This Is Who I Am!….[But] we forget that it’s a just a heavily edited video.”
Our mind tells us stories of who we are, how our lives should be and what other people think of us. It ruminates on the past and future.
I’m not good enough.
Nobody likes me.
I’ll never get what I want.
So, questioning your stories dismantles them, helping you see your true self.
One way is to repeatedly ask yourself, Why?
If you prefer, do this activity with a friend or imagine you’re chatting with her.
A: Why do you feel angry?
B: Because I have so much to do.
A: Why? (No lame answers. Seriously, why?)
B: Sigh… I take on too much.
B: I feel responsible for everything.
B: If I don’t manage everything myself, I feel like a failure.
Voilà, a classic—“The ‘I’m a Failure!’ Story”.
If you’d like, Dr. Harris suggests further exploring your story with these questions.
Does this thought/story help me…
- be the person I want to be?
- build the sort of relationships that I’d like?
- connect with what I truly value?
- make the most of my life as it is in the moment?
- take effective action to change my life for the better?
If the story motivates you, great!
But in any case, allow the story. The mind will keep telling stories, but now you can let them come and go.
Now, you can choose how to act, instead of being at their mercy.
3. Create a plan of action
I used to recommend replacing negative beliefs with positive affirmations like I’m good enough. Then following up with positive actions.
But now I realize that proving our worthiness binds us in a vicious cycle. Because no matter how many good deeds, our mind will never be satisfied.
The result? Wasting time and energy fighting with our thoughts.
Instead, accept your whole self, which brings more peace and joy.
Contemplate your life:
- What’s most important to me?
- If I had only 6 months to live, what would I do?
- What do I stand for?
- How can I be the change I want to see in the world?
- What kind of relationships do I want?
Dr. Harris recommends living a life based on our values, instead of goals. We can’t check off values like adventure or wisdom on a to-do list.
Values guide us, motivate us despite hardships and give us a sense of fulfillment.
So, we won’t use goals to measure our worth anymore.
But we can set goals to help us live meaningful lives based on our values. (I offer a 60-minute coaching session to help you set realistic goals.)
For example, if my value is compassion, my goal could be, I’ll take a 15-minute walk around the block after every 2 hours of work.
Specify the action step, instead of vague statements like I’ll take breaks. When and where will you do it?
Finally, act on it.
It’s the only way to create durable and positive changes.
Setbacks happen when you’re making peace with yourself. But don’t let them keep you from forging ahead.
Fuel your motivation with these tips.
- Practice. You’ll feel foolish revisiting old negative thoughts a million times. Just keep going. Or rest, then keep going.
- Reframe. If you can’t afford a vacation right now, dig up the core value: family. Then, do something relaxing with your family.
- Visualize. Imagine yourself saying and doing what’s best to reach your goal.
- Break down your goals. Does your goal intimidate you? Break it down to baby steps (e.g. start by cooking 1 healthy meal per week instead of 7).
- Gather resources. If your goal is to volunteer, perhaps you need to gather a list of volunteer opportunities in your town.
- Learn a skill. Get your finances in order by first learning how to make a personal budget.
- Enjoy! You’ve come a long way. Appreciate the satisfation of living by your values.
Okay, take a breath with me…
Remember Camille from the beginning of this article?
She no longer feels like a prisoner to her negative thinking.
Whenever I visit the organic food store, Camille’s eyes still light up. But she stands taller and strides assuredly.
Last time, she eagerly told me she went on a solo mountain hike, something she had been afraid to do.
We all can overcome negative thinking.
Forget about positive thinking or changing other people.
By embracing our negative thoughts, questioning our stories and living by our values, we can enjoy meaningful lives.
You’ve got this.
Chin up, brave one!
This article was originally published in October 2017 and updated in November 2019.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women 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: