The Challenge of Negative Thinking…
By Karolina from Counselor Musings
“Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
This quote hung above the board in a classroom in middle school, so I stared at it for hours every day. I remember thinking it sounded nice, but at that point I didn’t realize how our thoughts start a domino effect that can deeply change our life.
I tell my clients we have this inner soundtrack to our lives, and if we really stopped and thought about it, we’d realize how many negative words and lies we tell ourselves on a daily basis. If you had a friend that said 20 or 30 negative things to you every day, would you allow them to stay in your life? Yet we can’t get away from ourselves, so we continue to drag ourselves down day after day. We may not only feel bad about ourselves, but we make life far more difficult for ourselves then it needs to be. Thoughts greatly affect how we feel about ourselves, how we see the world, and how we interact with others. Negative and irrational thoughts tend to impede our health and the road to success.
When we think irrationally and negatively, it becomes like one of those distorted mirrors at the fair. These are the mirrors that make us look short and fat, or tall and skinny. It distorts how we see ourselves and how we see our world. If we were to react as if this was reality, we wouldn’t see the world rationally, and we would certainly be frustrated. Viewing the world through the distorted mirror is like a cognitive distortion, which is an irrational belief that we create and repeat to ourselves. These distortions decrease mood, and increase stress, anxiety, frustration, and guilt. If we cannot identify and change our distortions, we cannot be healthy individuals. At the very least, we will make life much more difficult for our self.
Changing our thinking is far easier said then done. You’re probably thinking something like this: “Ok, so now I know that I’m thinking irrationally or negatively, but what do I do? How do I start to think differently?”. Changing thinking definitely takes time, just like learning how to sign your name. Remember those first few times you tried to write your name? It looked awkward, and maybe you missed some letters. But by practicing over and over again, you finally learned to print and then sign your name. It took time, right? If you had given up after a few times of it “not working”, would you have ever gotten to the point you’re at now? Absolutely not! The same goes with changing your thinking.
Ok, so now a few suggestions:
1. Increase your awareness of the times you use various cognitive distortions or speak negatively to yourself. If you aren’t aware, you can’t make any changes.
2. Cut the words “always”, “never”, “everyone”, “no one” out of your vocabulary. Horrible, terrible, intolerable, and similar words can go too. Obviously these words are occasionally more then appropriate. But in general, they are exaggerations and send us into the cognitive distortion snowball.
3. Stop the “yeah-but…”. We all do this occasionally. We do well at something, or someone gives us a praise, and we say “yeah, but I just got lucky this time” or “yeah, but most of the time I fail miserably.” Watch the yeah buts, because it discounts your accomplishments and the positive in your life.
4. Identify the guilt beatings: We all make mistakes, we all disappoint or hurt people, and we all fall short of the “perfect” standard. When this happens, we have two choices: We can evaluate the situation, learn from our mistake, and keep moving forward, or we can beat ourselves up over the mistake (or what we may identify as a failure). When we engage in guilt beatings, instead of learning, we beat ourselves down and increase anxiety and stress in life. And, we tend to not learn for next time anyways!
5. Be careful of mislabeling! When things go wrong in life, or when we make a mistake (again, what we often define as a “failure”), we tend to mislabel our self (i.e. “I’m a failure”, “I’m a terrible friend”, “I am an incompetent person”). We put our energy into tearing our self down instead of creating a healthy and positive image. This leads to a distortion of identity and decreased self-esteem.
5. When you identify a cognitive distortion, change it to a rational belief. You will not always believe that the new rational belief is true, but say it anyways. The more you train your brain to think rationally and positively, the easier it will be to get there more naturally!
6. Refute the belief. This sort of goes along with number 5, but tell yourself why the irrational belief isn’t true! This is an example conversation you might have with yourself: “I can’t stand this person. They are always nagging and being rude and I cannot stand being around them–change to: This person is challenging for me to be around. They sometimes nag and are rude, which can be frustrating. I may not enjoy being around them, but I can tolerate it or I can choose to walk away…”.
Remember, to be healthy & successful in life, we need to have healthy, positive, and rational thoughts. Our self-talk is tied incredibly tightly to our feelings and behaviors, so if you want emotion or action to change, we need to go back and challenge our thoughts.
Hey I’m Karolina (aka Counselor Musings). I have my master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Addictions Counseling, and I’m currently a Counselor on a college campus. My thesis in my graduate program was on Wellness & Behavior change, and how this interacts with levels of depression and resiliency. Favorite topics to discuss are healthy boundaries, wellness, anxiety, depression, negative thinking/self-talk, perfectionism, and self-esteem. Other interests include traveling (you can see pictures on my blog from my January trip to Ecuador), public speaking (looking forward to an upcoming speaking trip to Greece!), spending time with friends, coffee, dance, and working on my own levels of health and wellness.
I blog over at http://counselormusings.blogspot.com where I discuss the topics I see many of my clients struggle with, give practical advice you can easily implement into your life, share the occasional recipe, and discuss my own wellness journey! Stop by and say hi. 🙂
Lisa’s Note: Thank you Karolina for sharing your knowledge! I know that in my journey to lose 100 pounds I neglected the emotional aspect of transforming my life. I was so used to being MEAN to myself, saying negative things about my body, that when I was 100 pounds lighter I still did it. I had a realization one day “Hey, Lisa, you are no longer that person. Stop being mean to yourself. Say something positive instead.” Trying to correct that behavior took a lot of hard work (I still struggle with it sometimes) but being aware of it makes all the difference.