How to overcome negative thinking? First, negative thinking patterns sound like this.
“I am not good enough. I keep making mistakes.”
“I burned my food today. My day is screwed!”
“What if I fail? What if something goes wrong in a big way?”
“Why did my husband buy me purple flowers instead of my favourite pink?”
“I feel so bad for forgetting her birthday this year. I have not forgotten before.”
Familiar right? You have either heard these thoughts streaming through your head, or you have heard other people around you say them.
What they all have in common are a fixation on the negative and on problems. Habitual negativity (or what is also referred to as chronic negativity) leads to a low self-esteem and self-worth, poor relationships with others and mental health challenges such as generalised anxiety disorders and depression. On the other hand, positive thinking builds resilience in people. Being able to generate positive thoughts and perspectives in the face of adversity helps one to overcome challenges and emerge stronger.
How easily can we overcome negative thinking patterns, you might ask? I have outlined the how-to in 4 simple steps below.
Stay with the article all the way to the end!
Step 1: Being AWARE when your focus of attention is on negative thinking
When we have been living with negative thinking for a long time, our brain is automatically focused on negativity. It will make negative statements, ask negative questions and invite negative ‘what-if’ scenarios. The brain habitually focuses on what is bad, what is wrong or what is going wrong. It is a very exhausting way of thinking.
Using the metaphor of a camera, we take a photograph of whatever we focus the camera lens on. If we choose to focus the lens solely on the sea in front of us, we get a picture of only the sea. If we choose to focus the lens on the mountains beyond the sea, we get a photograph of only the mountains. We choose to frame the photograph based on what captures our attention. Same goes for negative thinking – our brain has been wired to focus on the negative and what we want to do is to have the brain un-learn negative thinking and re-learn positive thinking.
Before we can break free from anything, we have to first become aware of what is binding us so that we are able to recognise and acknowledge its presence. Once we become aware that negative thinking is making its appearance in our head, we are able to choose to change the direction of our thoughts and nip it in the bud.
Being aware that your brain is thinking negatively is STEP 1 to breaking free from negative thinking because this enables you to re-direct your thoughts.
Step 2: NAME and TAME the negative thinking pattern
There are many different forms of negative thinking and the common ones that plagued many people are below. Once you become aware of your brain thinking negative thoughts, name the pattern in your head or aloud.
This is criticism directed internally towards yourself, or what is known as ‘mentally beating yourself up’. Self-criticism affects your self-esteem, confidence and mental well-being in the long-term.
With self-criticism, the negative thinking is associated with you being not good enough, falling short of some kind of standards that you have unconsciously set for yourself or comparing yourself against someone else. The inner dialogue might sound like this: “I am always making mistakes at work”, “I should have done better.”
This is criticism directed at other people, situations or things. You may be criticising others in your mind or you could be criticising them directly. Either way, this impacts your relationships. If you are criticising others directly, you are pointing out what is wrong with them which then affects their sense of self-worth and confidence. Regardless of your good intentions, they are not going to like it because their psychological needs were not met by you.
If you are criticising others quietly in our minds, we are likely to feel negatively and relate negatively to them. We tend carry this negative energy which affects how we show up in front of these people.
Anxiety and Worrying
Worrying is when the mind conjures up stories and thoughts about what could go wrong in an imaginary future. It often hypothesises ‘what if’ scenarios, expecting bad things to happen or that no good will ever happen. You might fret about your health going downhill, losing your savings in an investment, accidentally running over someone while driving on the road, losing your job or breaking up with your partner.
With anxiety and worry, the negative thinking is generated by a looping inner dialogue around “What if bad things happen? What if the worst possible thing happen?
Guilt and Regret
Guilt and regret relate to ruminating on past experiences about what “went wrong” or “what bad decisions I made”.
The mental play-back loop sounds like this: “I should have….” or “I shouldn’t have….” or “why did I do that….” or “why didn’t I do that….”
When you name the negative thought pattern, you tame the pattern. It loses control over you because you now can make a different choice about what to think.
Step 3: SHIFT negative thinking with positive questions
Great that you have stayed with this article and got to this point! We are going to talk about how you can overcome negative thinking using a very simple and powerful technique that anyone is capable of, especially you.
Remember the metaphor of the camera lens that we talked about at the start of this article? For a long while, our brain (the camera lens) was trained to focus on what we perceive to be negative. We want to shift the brain’s focus from negative thinking to positive thinking by asking ourselves more helpful questions. Asking ourselves a more helpful and positive question creates new neural pathways in our brain – so that it can now direct our thoughts on a new pathway.
When we notice our brain starting to focus on self-criticism, some of the positive questions we can ask ourselves are:
- What kind of thoughts is my mind focusing on now? (being aware that your mind might be going to a negative space)
- What have I done well today and could do even better? (instead of “where am I failing”)
- What are my wins today? (instead of “what are my screw-ups today”)
- What am I doing now that I didn’t know how to do a year ago? (instead of “I can’t learn anything new”)
Accomplishments, wins, successes do not have to always be a BIG, HAIRY, AUDACIOUS GOAL (BHAG). They can be as simple as doing something that you have committed to doing: exercising, taking your child out to the play-ground, reading a chapter of a book or simply acknowledging a co-worker for a job well done. Acknowledge your wins, small or big, every day! Before you track your losses!
Action: Get yourself a journal or download the Evernote app. Commit to writing down 3 personal wins followed by 3 losses every day. This will not allow your inner critic to dominate the dialogue going in your head by disassociating or ignoring what was good or going on well. This is how we start to train our brain to overcome negative thinking start thinking positively.
When we notice our brain starting to focus on criticising someone else, or a situation or a thing, some of the better questions we can ask ourselves are:
- What kind of thoughts is my mind focusing on now? (being aware that your mind might be going to a negative thinking space)
- What did this person do well and could even do better? (instead of “what did this person do wrong)
- What are the positives that I am choosing to focus on about this person, situation, or thing? (instead of “what is wrong with this person, situation or thing”)
- What could be the blessing for me about this person’s behaviour, situation or thing? (instead of why is this person’s behaviour unacceptable”). Whenever I encounter someone whose behaviour cheeses me off in a big way and I can feel the rage in my body, I ask myself this question. Often, the answer is just simply – the blessing in this is that it is another opportunity for me to practise responding and not reacting.
In case you are wondering, I am not proposing that we behave like an ostrich, burying our head in the sand. I am also not suggesting that we over-look someone’s bad behaviour or bad attitude and pretend that it is all OK. The ability to pause and examine the nature of your thoughts will overcome any automatic negative thinking patterns that might cause you to react in an un-resourceful way. It gives you the mental space to choose a better response.
Anxiety and worrying
When we notice our brain starting to focus on worrying and being anxious about something, some of the better questions we can ask ourselves to move away from negative thinking are:
- What would be the best-case scenario (instead of “what is the worst-case scenario”)
- How do I know the worst-case scenario will actually happen? (instead of letting the inner voice replay the worry, force your brain to show you concrete evidence that the worry is justified)
- What if the worst-case scenarios did not happen (instead of letting your brain think that these worst-case scenarios will be a reality)
- What will I do now so that the worst-case scenarios could not happen? (instead of letting your brain think that you are not in control of what could happen)
Action: Take something that you are constantly worried about, and ask yourself what will happen next if the worst-case scenario happens? Keep repeating this question until your brain is unable to imagine a further worst-case scenario. Then ask yourself – do you believe that this will actually happen? This will give your brain a reality-check about the ‘final worst-case scenario’ instead of spinning wheels and imagining possibilities.
Guilt and regret
When we notice our brain is beginning to focus on guilt and regret over mistakes, poor choices and missed opportunities, some of the better questions we can ask ourselves to move away from this type of negative thinking are:
- What kind of thoughts is my mind focusing on now? (being aware that your mind might be going to a negative thinking space)
- What did that incident teach me? What did I learn from that incident? (instead of focusing on “what did I do wrong”)
- What will I do differently in the future now that I have learnt my lesson? (instead of focusing on the past incident that is out of your control)
- What did I gain as a result of that incident? (instead of focusing on what you lost)
Once you name the negative thinking pattern, you make a choice to shift your brain’s focus to positive thoughts by asking more helpful questions.
Step 4: Overcome negative thinking by making positive thinking a HABIT
To use another analogy, creating new neural connections in our brain is like hiking through a virgin forest or jungle. When you first encounter the virgin forest, there is no pathway through it and you have to create one yourself. You do so by hacking through the vegetation to create a rough pathway. When the rough pathway is being used repeatedly, it becomes smoother and easier to walk on.
It is the same with the brain. We have to create new neural pathways for positive thoughts and we do so by repeating positive questions so that the brain is forced to move into the positive thinking track. The ability to shift our focus to positive thinking is like a muscle. We have to keep training it so that it becomes stronger and stronger. Your brain will find then find it easier and easier to generate positive thoughts and that’s how we overcome negative thinking patterns.
Another way to strengthen the neural connection is to observe what other people is saying and notice if the language they use is negative or positive. The language that we use reflect the nature of our thoughts – negative thinking shows up in negative language and vice versa.
Deepen your brain’s ability to automatically focus on positive thoughts by creating new neural connections in your brain so that it becomes a habit. We do so by brain-training our ability to notice, choose and shift our thinking patterns.
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