We are evolutionary programmed to hold onto negative thoughts more than positive ones. In part this is because we learn more from negative experiences. In terms of evolution, this is what kept us safe.
The things that keep us safe can also keep us stuck. Negative thought patterns can bring both our productivity and our well-being to a standstill. They distract our focus, deplete our energy, disrupt our workflow, and destroy our self-confidence and self-worth.
It can be tempting to try to cover negative thoughts with positive thoughts. But when we don’t truly feel the positive mindset, trying to force it makes us feel even worse. And that’s when self-judgment and self-criticism can take hold.
Here are some tips for how to work with negative thoughts and extract yourself from the negative thought loop, without resorting to false positivity and optimism.
(1) Acknowledge The Thought
Remember your ABCs: Awareness Before Change.
The first step to changing anything is awareness. You cannot extract yourself from a thought if you haven’t acknowledged that it exists. Notice the thought as it arises. If you find yourself obsessing over an issue or conversation or in some other thought loop, acknowledge it.
Negative thoughts are habits. We must switch on the light to bring awareness to the thoughts in order to break the habit.
(2) Allow the Thought
Our instinct is to try to eliminate the thought by suppressing it. This doesn’t work. Allow the thought to be there. Likely, it has a message for you. Sit with it and look at it.
We hear so much about the power of positive thinking that we are often tempted to berate ourselves for having negative thoughts. Resist the urge to judge the thought or yourself.
Thoughts are just thoughts. You’re not a bad person for having negative thoughts.
(3) Investigate the Thought
Explore the thought and what’s behind it. Fears often lie beneath negative thoughts. Can you identify those fears?
What circumstances triggered the thought? Is there a pattern to the triggers that produce this thought?
(4) Challenge the Thought
So many of our negative thoughts feel real, but they aren’t true.
Get some distance from the thought by challenging it and poking holes in it. What evidence exists for supporting this thought?
- Is it really true that the interview was so bad?
- Is it really true that one interview affects all of your future career prospects?
- Is it true that the class you took was a waste of time? Or is it possible that it served you in a way that was different from how you expected?
(5) Take Action
Negative thoughts tend to loop in our mind when we feel that we lack control over a situation. Once you’ve examined the thought and challenged it, look for a place where you can take back some control.
If you can identify the fear beneath the negative thought, what’s an action you can take that will alleviate the fear?
The action need not be big. Doing anything that helps you redirect the energy toward something purposeful and meaningful will help you get out of the spinning stories in your mind.
Bonus: Keep It Neutral
Finally, remember that there are no “positive” thoughts or “negative” thoughts. A thought is just a thought: a fleeting moment, like a cloud passing by.
Through mindful awareness, you can see the value in all of your thoughts and learn how they serve you.