I wrote this to help myself, and hopefully, anyone else who stumbles upon it. This is not necessarily intended for those who struggle with mental disorders, although these steps may provide some relief.
Facts about negative thinking:
- The amygdala uses 2/3 of the neurons to detect negative thinking
- 60-80% of our thoughts are negative, amounting to ~35k negative thoughts a day
- 95% of our negative thoughts are repetitive
- Negative thoughts are immediately put into long-term memory, while positive experiences must be held in our short-term memory for 12 seconds in order to be stored long-term
- Negative emotions are processed more thoroughly than positive ones
1. Desire to change
If your reading this article, chances are you have a desire to take control of your thoughts. This is key because change can only occur when it’s backed by willingness and desire. No one else can give you this desire, but it can help to listen to uplifting speeches by people you respect. If you see their life and feel inspired, you may feel compelled to change yours.
2. Reclaim your power by taking 100% responsibility for your life
My brother and I heard a quote from an audiobook that said in order to change your life you must first “take 100% responsibility for your life”. Since that day, when we catch the other person making excuses for what we do/say/think, we’ll throw this quote up like a mirror in the other’s face.
Before you can change anything in your life, you first have to realize that you and only you have the ability to change it. If you make an excuse for why you think or act the way you do, you are giving up your power to an event or another person. When I first learned this, I thought it seemed harsh. But upon closer examination, I found it to be a liberating reality. Of course, events transpire that bring up emotion within you. What’s key is how you deal with the thoughts that grow out of these emotions. (More on this in step 3)
Let’s examine two people who experience the same situation- a massive earthquake in Mexico. They both witness the devastation of buildings and lives. They are both affected by this negative experience.
One person decides that this is the most important time for the country to unite. Although this is a disaster, they see it as an opportunity to come together and help their fellow man. They join a group that is removing people/animals from debris. They feel a deep sadness at the loss of life. However, they think thoughts of gratitude that they were lucky enough to survive the earthquake.
The other person is distraught at losing their belongings in the earthquake. They look around, seeing the people/animals being pulled from the debris and feel a deep sadness. They realize some families will never recover, and the country as a whole will struggle for many years as they try to rebuild what was lost. They begin to think thoughts of hopelessness and victim-thinking.
This illustrates that you have the power over how your experiences affect you. You can’t control the world, but you can control how you react and relate to it. Once you accept this, you are able to regain power over your life. You are not simply blown around by the sporadic winds of life, reacting to each event as it arises. Instead, you realize that you have the power to control how you view each life situation. And you must desire to view things differently.
In order to take power over your thoughts, you must realize that the situation does not dictate how you feel. You do.
3. Sit with your feelings
It’s important to differentiate between thoughts and feelings.
Feelings are not thoughts.
When I was young and my father passed away, it would be heartless to tell my sobbing, younger self to “think positively about the situation” and stop crying. Part of the human experience is to feel emotions. Remember, it’s okay to feel the way you do. In fact, it’s important to allow yourself some time to sit with your feelings.
Allow them to breathe. Give them space to naturally rise and fall.
Issues with feelings arise when you begin to recycle them through thoughts. It’s like a load of laundry that never ends. Right when it hits the spin cycle and the end is in sight, your thoughts go ahead and push the start button- again and again.
This is where honesty and self-reflection come in.
First, ask yourself:
Are you allowing yourself to sit with your emotions by airing them out via journaling, talking about them, or crying it out?
Then ask yourself:
Are you perpetuating this feeling beyond its natural lifespan? Are you choosing thoughts that make you relive this feeling again and again?
Is this serving a benevolent purpose in your life?
Only you can decide how long it is healthy and necessary to focus on a given thought or emotion. You can find clarity by asking yourself if that thought/feeling is still serving you. When the feelings are still building inside you, the answer may be yes. However, there is often a fine line between releasing pent-up emotion and victim-thinking, and it’s your job to recognize when this line has been crossed.
Eventually, you will realize that it’s time to allow yourself to heal by releasing the negative thoughts that keep this emotion alive. The event is in the past, and now it’s time to ground yourself in the present.
4. Ground yourself in the present, which you have the power to change
Louise Hay wisely said,
The Point of Power is in the Present Moment.”
This means that when we use our present thoughts to idealize or harp on the past, as well as fantasize about the future, we relinquish the power to change our lives now. Psychologists say that spending too much time thinking about the past gives you depression while the future gives you anxiety. This makes sense because the only moment that really exists is the present. Learning how to ground ourselves in the present moment allows us to create the life we’ve always wanted, and more importantly, actually enjoy it.
I could write a whole article just on this topic alone. But I’ll keep it brief by suggesting that you read the life-changing book, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. In order to be present, Tolle says that we need to stop judging and identifying with our thoughts. Instead, we should ask ourselves “what our next thought might be”. This monitoring interrupts the constant flow of our autopilot mind and allows us to sink further into the present moment.
In summary, you can end negative thinking through observation of the mind. For example, labeling your negative thoughts can facilitate this. It gets easier with time and practice. The important thing is to make the effort to control your mind now instead of letting your mind control you.
5. Abandon resistance, especially to what you cannot change
Waters flow downstream because nature is hardwired to take the path of least resistance. It should seem obvious that when we create resistance in the mind, we are then going against our natural state.
There will always be challenging times in our life that we have the choice to embrace or resist. What story are you telling yourself when you face a difficult problem? Are you the victim, blaming others or labeling a situation as “wrong” or “bad”? Although it’s natural to think this way sometimes, we need to identify this as a resistance to what is.
This is in line with what I wrote in #2 about taking responsibility for your life. When you realize that you have the power to change the lens through which you view an event, you suddenly have the ability to live in a way that is not so closely tethered to the natural ups and downs of life. The more you embrace life and surrender to uncontrollable events, the more inner peace you will find.
6. Practice self-love
Most of us practice harmful self-thoughts without realizing the full extent of the damage we are doing to ourselves. If you spent a day in awareness of your thoughts (without changing them), you will start to notice the little, cruel ways we speak to ourselves every day. What if you spoke those out loud to a friend? You would never speak so harshly to someone you loved. So the question is, why do we speak to ourselves this way?
The answer is simple: the modern plague of our society is a lack of self-love. This manifests in a vast amount of ways, from subconscious, limiting beliefs to our inability to accept compliments from friends. The historic bubonic plague was made by unfriendly bacteria in our system. Penicillin, the cure, simply stopped this bacteria from building a cell wall, thus killing off the disease. A lack of self-love can be cured in a similar fashion. Just like penicillin keeps bad cells from forming, positive affirmations will help keep negative thoughts at bay.
Affirmations are positive statements that help you overcome negative and self-sabotaging thoughts. In order to reap their benefits, you speak them to yourself daily and often in front of a mirror. For example, you can say these affirmations I got from Louise Hay:
“All is well in my world. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation, only good will come. I am safe!”
“Whatever I need to know is revealed to me at exactly the right time.”
“I am very thankful for all the love in my life. I find it everywhere.”
For more affirmations, click here.
When you first try alcohol, it tastes a little weird and you usually don’t like it. The same thing happens with affirmations. At first, you might think you’re crazy for standing in front of the mirror and saying nice things to yourself. Then you get used to it, but the words still feel untrue leaving your mouth. After a while, however, you begin to resonate with the words you speak and, therefore, emotionally charge them. According to the law of attraction, emotionally charged thoughts are the most powerful magnets in our life. They are what create our reality. It’s when you start to finally believe the beautiful things you are saying to yourself that they take effect, and your life will change in a miraculous way.
For more ways to love yourself, see Louise Hay’s article here: https://www.louisehay.com/3-habits-building-self-esteem/
7. Redirect thoughts
After reading the powerful book, Solve for Happy, I began to use one of the author’s best tricks- thought redirection.
When you see a young child playing with a dangerous glass vase, you don’t just take the vase away and yell at them. If so, they would scream and cry and you would soon regret it. Instead, you offer them a new, safe toy to play with and sneakily hide the vase. Your mind is the screaming child. It likes to grab useless, painful, negative and judgmental thoughts off the shelf, and as the parent of your mind, it’s your job to say to yourself, “Go get me a better thought” when this negativity arises.
The important thing is to avoid yelling at your child. Don’t use redirecting as an opportunity to further abuse yourself – if you’re anything like me, you do this enough! Don’t get angry or upset with yourself for thinking something hurtful. Remember the mantra,”I am not my thoughts“, then simply ask your mind to fetch you a new thought.
The idea is that the energy required to remove a thought is much more extensive than simply redirecting it. If you just took the vase away, your mind would have a fit. Just focus on something new, rather than eliminating.
8. Practice gratitude to overcome hopelessness/negativity
Hopelessness is a silent killer, and it’s one of the most challenging aspects of depression. A great way to start on the path of healing the mind from hopelessness is to focus on the positive in your life. Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s also hard to implement something without a tactical, quantifiable strategy. That’s where the 3-step gratitude plan comes in.
Each time you find yourself stooped in a negative thought cycle, force yourself to conjure up three things you are grateful for that day. Try to be specific and not overuse the same ideas. If it’s too difficult to remember this while in a negative thought spiral then make it a habit every night before you fall asleep or before your feet touch the ground in the morning. Habits are kept when they are triggered through some sort of reminder, like a ritual. You can use sleep as the trigger, brushing your teeth, or getting dressed. Design the habit to your liking and stick to it long-term.
You will start to notice its effects once you emotionally charge your thoughts of gratitude with an actual feeling of appreciation. Don’t be overly concerned about always feeling grateful; the important thing is to keep up the habit. It will get easier each day, and you’ll soon find that there’s a lot more in your life to be positive about. Afterall, gratitude is really a positive thought in disguise.
Thanks for reading!