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?
They signal something’s wrong. Or possibly wrong.
A reckless driver. Whoa, that’s scary!
Spoiled tomato sauce. Disgusting!
Thanks to evolution, negative thoughts 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 something’s off.
But this time, instead of looking outside of yourself, you have to go within. Negative thoughts about yourself tell you 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 leaving a wailing baby to console herself. Instead, 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.
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: It’s for your own good!
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. 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. Some spend their life avoiding the pain. They buy, work, watch TV or drink.
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!
And that’s okay. 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.
When you become self-aware, you stop the vicious cycle. Start right now. Pay attention to when you feel stressed, angry or fearful. Then, STOP. Where and how do your feelings show up in your body?
Take 3 big breaths. Then, ask yourself, “Why do I feel stressed?” 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.
To make the process easier, get your worksheet Negative Thoughts Journal below (no email sign-up required). Jot down your triggers. Describe what you feel and 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 out of control?
When you try to figure out a solution while feeling tense or emotional, it’ll worsen the situation. Don’t 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 I feel tense and heavy in my chest.
Simply ask yourself, Why? See where it goes.
It might be easier to have a good friend ask you. Or imagine you’re chatting with her. She’s going to help you hone in on the root cause of your negative thought.
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, go further with the following questions.
Friend: Where else in your life have you felt like this?
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 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.
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 a huge action. Don’t take on or expect too much, or you risk disappointing yourself.
Start by journaling 3 life events that reinforce your 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 one optional task from your to-do list or edit that email 3x instead of 10.
Trust me, you’ll feel good. Even if it’s only for a little bit.
By acting on your positive belief everyday, 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? Take responsibility for your pain. Once you truly accept it, you can move on.
- Don’t resist. 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.
- Commit to learning. As long as you keep learning about yourself, things will pan out. 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 to let the healing happen on its own terms. Be patient and 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 and joyful, take a look at my coaching services.
Okay, take a breath with me…
First things first.
Get your worksheet Negative Thoughts Journal below (no email sign-up required). Write down your negative thoughts and triggers.
If you do only one thing, let this be it.
Self-awareness is the first step to free yourself from negative thinking.
Not positive thinking.
Not changing other people.
Peace flows when you look within and accept who you are right now.
You’ve got this.
Chin up, brave one!
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help 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: