“Positive anything is better than negative nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard.
Negative thinking is an evaluative view of the world in which one overestimates the likelihood of failure as opposed to success. Saying “I can’t,” or “I am not good enough,” and believing you’re not going to succeed at your chosen tasks can set you back in serious and detrimental ways.
But you don’t have to be a victim of negative thoughts anymore. There are tools and resources that I’ve personally used that have helped me change my thoughts instantly. I’ve had tremendous success with them and I hope they will be useful to you too.
1. The General Structure of Negative Thoughts
For negative thinking to become an ingrained pattern, it has to be internalized by your subconscious mind; not merely as thoughts but as beliefs. When your thoughts turn into beliefs, they become the lens through which you interpret the world around you. For example, if you believe that you’re not smart enough and you’ve constructed a persuasive narrative around this belief, then you will find validation for your belief — even if you have above average intelligence. If you believe you will never lose weight or become rich or find the right partner, then you will find support for such beliefs. You might even confirm those beliefs in seemingly ridiculous things and convince yourself that you’re not cut out to be the best you can be.
Moreover, negative beliefs are self-reinforcing. When you start out with a negative belief, you tend to notice and remember the details that confirm that belief and reject the pieces that don’t fit in. This leads you to falsely infer that the original negative belief is true. This thinking trap is known as the confirmation bias fallacy; a vicious feedback loop that reinforces original assumptions. Most negative beliefs operate within this very structure and, to the untrained mind, these beliefs are the default way of seeing and relating to the world.
2. Four Main Negative Thinking Patterns
Now that we have a good grasp of the general structure of negative thinking, it’s important to identify the main belief-patterns into which negative thoughts usually fall. This will help us understand their mechanisms of operation and as such address them effectively. Let’s take up the four most common thinking traps:
- Catastrophizing: This is a mental state in which the person believes that any personal, financial, or professional initiative will inevitably come to disappointing and unbearable conclusions. This pattern of thinking is typical of people who have experienced a lot of setbacks in a relatively short period of time and are emotionally burdened by those experiences. Their thinking is distorted by their past and they unconsciously sabotage new approaches toward them and will also sabotage their own approaches toward others. This is to confirm the narrative that they had told themselves about why the past is the way it is.
- All or Nothing: Here, the person believes that things should work his/her way and work out exactly as he/she would like it to work or it won’t work at all. This approach is a cut-throat approach that helps eliminate bad matches, but unfortunately it can also eliminate good matches, and the person ends up losing on valuable learning experiences and on a potential personal or business relationships.
- Overgeneralization: This happens when you make a general assessment of yourself on the basis of one or two performances. For example, if your boss or business partner or your customers criticized you for missing a deadline, the right thing to do is realize that you made a mistake and move on. Others however start believing they are not cut out to work at such a company and they start doubting themselves and their abilities. Overgeneralization, however, is not all self-imposed. Sometimes, if a past negative experience was especially difficult for you emotionally, unsupportive peers can dramatically harm your self-esteem. For the untrained mind, you might take your failure and others’ reaction to your failure as an overall assessment not just of that performance, but of yourself in general. The problem with this thinking trap is that you end up avoiding future performances and experiences for fear of re-experiencing the emotional distress; thus missing out on many fruitful experiences.
- Over/Under-estimation: This happens when you overestimate or underestimate the likelihood of certain events taking place or not happening at all. In both mental states, you set yourself up for disappointment. For example, if you over-estimate how hard it is to get promoted or move up the financial ladder, then you will never apply for a promotion or start a small business. On the other hand, if you under-estimate what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur or the importance of conversation skills or what it takes to become athletic, then you will be frustrated with the amount of energy and commitment required to get to your goal.
3. How to Escape Negative Thinking Traps
Most people try to rid themselves of negative thoughts by attempting to eliminate them. They’re under the false impression that negative beliefs can be manually removed; sort of like plucking a hair out. However, if you’ve ever tried to “catch” your thoughts and “remove” them from your thinking or even “stop” them from recurring, then you’re aware that doing so only makes the thoughts stronger and louder. In fact, when you pursue negative thoughts, you’re let them take you to where they can take full control of your perception. But why does that happen?
Think of negative thinking as a coil spring. The harder you compress the spring, the greater its stored energy and in turn the greater its resistance against the opposing force. That’s what springs do. Negative thinking functions in a similar way. When you try to suppress your negative thoughts, you end up generating a larger counter force to your efforts, and the harder you try to stop them from recurring, the more intense they are going to get. (Try not to think of a pink elephant. Try really hard…you get the point).
4. Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT)
The first step to changing your thinking is to not resist negative thoughts. You must begin by accepting that your mind experiences these thoughts and it does so without your permission. At this point, you can’t yet control what thoughts you want to have. Once you recognize that this is how your mind works, take the stance of an observer: don’t pass judgements on your thoughts or react to them. Don’t approve or disapprove of them. You only want to watch your negative thoughts enter and leave on their own without resisting them.
It helped me to think of each negative thought as an arrow. On release, the arrow accelerates at maximum speed but this acceleration eventually decreases and the arrow falls to the ground all by itself. The same goes for negative thoughts. Let the thoughts pass through until they’re stripped of their strength.
The second step to changing your thinking is to divorce the thought from your belief system. More specifically, you must not see your negative thoughts as true reflections of who you are, but rather as automatic products of an untrained mind. Psychologists Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith recommend that you use a method called cognitive diffusion: this when you articulate the negative thoughts or beliefs as events that are separate from you. For example, if you’re sad, or overwhelmed, or anxious, you say: “I am having the thought that I am sad, overwhelmed, or anxious,” or you can say: “my mind is telling me that I am, sad, overwhelmed, or anxious” etc. By making this mind shift and dis-identifying yourself from your thoughts, you give yourself the power to do something about them. It allows you to choose how to experience the negative thought and influence how proactive you want to be.
They further recommend using Rational Coping Statements. These are statements that reflect how you plan to deal with these thoughts and feelings when they arise. For example:
“I am having the thought that I should skip working on my business goals. My mind is telling me I need to postpone making phone calls to potential customers because I usually get a lot of rejections and that’s a painful thing for me to go through. But if I am honest with myself, I know that if I don’t make these phone calls and let these thoughts control my decisions, then I have zero chances for making new contacts to help my business grow. I know that reaching enthusiastic customers is not an easy thing to do, but when I do, I feel very proud of myself and it makes calling them all worth the effort. I realize I have an option in making these phone calls and if I look honestly at my schedule, I know I can find 20 – 30 minutes to make these phone calls.”
Give this exercise a serious try. You will thank me for it.
5. Mindful Transformation Questions
I also found that these techniques work best when I combine them with what I call Mindful Transformation Questions (MTQ). I discovered this method after lapsing into my old thinking patterns. MTQ is a set of technical questions that allows you to take an objective view of your situation and help you see how effectively you’ve dealing with your thoughts. The upside of this approach is that it helps eliminate the confusion around this topic as well as compartmentalize the bad advice you’ve received from others.
- First: “How soon/quickly is my situation changing based on what I have been doing?
Note here what strategies you’ve used and to what extent have they helped you manage your thinking. Did you try to ignore negative thoughts? Did you get angry at negative thoughts? Did you call a friend to talk it out? Etc.
- Second; “what are the exact steps that I am going to follow to see the change I desire?”
Note here how you plan to execute your new strategy. What are you going to do when you’re not in the mood to address your thoughts? Are you going to use rational coping statements every time you encounter a negative thought? Are you going to do this in the morning? Evening? Etc. I found that writing negative thoughts on a word document and using coping statements right before working on my goals made a dramatic difference to my thinking.
Please keep in mind that for this method to work, you have to be honest and compassionate with yourself. You have to address your negative thinking objectively and honestly.
When I used these two techniques, they worked instantly for me. I was having trouble working on a massive writing project that I wasn’t sure I could complete. I was helpless in the face of negative thoughts. However, as soon as I discovered non-resistance, I started making instant progress. I couldn’t believe how well it worked, and the better I got at it, the faster I was able to move on and achieve my goals.