Ways to Overcome Negative Thoughts
Are you a “glass half full”, “glass half empty” or “stop talking about the glass and fill it already” kind of person? Are people born with a positive outlook or negative view of life? Can you change your gut reactions if you want to?
According to research, our brains detect negativity more easily because historically, we’ve needed to identify threats to survive. As Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D. puts it in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, “ the brain’s negativity bias is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
Growing up, I had a friend who looked up to her mom. Like many daughters, she went to her for advice and thought her mom had all the answers. Then one day she repeated something her mom had told her and was her friends made fun of her.
And not just a little fun, but a big group of girls laughing at her and asking her how she could be so stupid as to believe that was true. This experience changed my friend’s outlook on life and trust in others overnight.
She no longer believed what people said – if she couldn’t believe her mom how could she believe anyone else? She protected herself by looking for ulterior motives behind every kind word, offer of help or compliment. She trained herself to think negative thoughts so she would never be humiliated that way again.
I was surprised at how easily she went from a fun, trusting person to one who clung to negative thoughts like her life depended on them. She began to berate me for being so positive – expecting the best and accepting people at face value, sometimes to be duped and disappointed.
She LOVED to point out when I was wrong and her negative expectations were right!
So if our brains have a negativity bias and our desire to be accepted can make us cling to suspicion and negatively like my friend did, are we doomed to think predominantly negative thoughts?
No. It is possible to train yourself to pivot from negativity and focus on the good. Here are 3 things to do when negative thoughts are stuck in your head.
1. Recognize when you are using Negative Thoughts to play it Safe
People often use negative thoughts to protect themselves from ridicule, disappointment or effort. By thinking thoughts like “It won’t work anyway” or “Who do I think I am to think I could do that”, we give ourselves permission to play it safe.
When you catch your negative thought patterns talking yourself out of taking action, take a step back. Remind yourself that the most successful people have also failed the most. Ask yourself if you really want whatever it is you are considering but are simply afraid to try and fail or be judged by others.
If it’s something you want, make a list of why you want it. The list of positives will change your focus and help you move forward with less fear.
2. Use black and white thinking to shed light on the Real Issue
While some people will simply tell you to “think positive!” it isn’t always that easy. When you are stuck in a negative thought cycle or truly afraid of a negative outcome positive thoughts often ring untrue.
A person who is afraid of public speaking won’t become calm and confident from a quick affirmation, but that doesn’t mean they are doomed either.
When you find yourself worrying about negative outcomes, grab a pen and paper and take it to the extreme! Get creative and write down the absolute WORST thing that could happen. Then go the other direction and think of the BEST thing that could happen.
Finally, think of some middle ground outcomes. By creating a variety of potential outcomes to consider, you will become less emotional and be able to think more clearly and realize that the worst-case scenario is probably not the most likely outcome.
3. Become an observer of your Thoughts
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to see and solve other people’s problems than your own? You recognize that your friend is getting all worked up over nothing or that losing sleep over a meeting isn’t going to improve how the meeting turns out.
But when it is your brain on the negative thought express train to disaster, it’s a whole lot harder to see and to stop. Harder, but not impossible.
When you decide that you want to be more positive and begin to be more conscious of what you are thinking, you can make great strides to change. Be aware of negative feelings and thoughts and observe and question them as if you are watching a friend.
Where did this thought or belief come from? Why are you worried about a negative outcome? What is the worst that could happen? How likely is it that your negative thought will come true?
As you step back and analyze things as an observer, your focus will shift, the emotion will change and you will be able to more mindfully choose how you want to look at the situation.
While we can’t change everything that happens to us, we do have the power to focus on the negative or the positive. As we regularly choose one or the other, it becomes a habit of thought and easier over time.
Focusing on positive thoughts will make you happier, more optimistic and help you experience more joy in your life. Who doesn’t want that?