Negative Thoughts - Why Am I So Negative?
Gripping Negative Thoughts
“Why am I so negative and have these negative thoughts?”
Have you ever asked yourself that question? Many of the clients we work with have.
Negative thoughts can be gripping. People will describe feeling plagued by them.
“I can’t get them out of my head! I’ll try to think positively, but the negative thoughts just keep coming back.”
Sound like you?
If it does, you may feel like your mind is broken in some way. And it may even feel like a cosmic undertaking to change your mindset.
Maybe you’ve tried everything: Positive affirmations, challenging the thoughts, distracting yourself, anything to take your mind off of… well, your mind.
You Are Not Broken!
But here’s the deal – you are not broken for having negative thoughts. Turns out, negative thinking is something everyone experiences. In fact, our brains are wired to be negative.
The irony is that the more we fight against our negative thoughts, the more power these thoughts tend to have over us. It’s like the classic idea of me saying, “Don’t think about a white elephant.”
What does your brain naturally do? But I mean, really fight hard. Don’t think of it!
Any luck? Probably not.
We don’t need to stop having negative thoughts. Rather, we need to change our relationship with them.
Learn how to observe them and move on, rather than working ourselves up trying to stop having them.
Let me explain a little more why your brain is wired to be negative, and then offer some helpful tips to finally help you change your relationship with negative thoughts.
Go ahead and rewind the clocks back about 20,000 years ago.
You are an early human living on the plains or jungle, and you have a spear in your hand.
What is your number one goal?
We need to eat, not be eaten, and keep the species alive. And back then, survival was hard.
So when you start walking through the forest and hear some rustling in the bushes, what is your brain going to tell you?
“Look out! Probably a bear!”
Why? Because it would rather be overly cautious and keep you safe, rather than be too relaxed and get you eaten.
Your brain would be looking for danger everywhere!
“Ah, get away from that cliff!”
“You might drown, be careful!”
“The rest of the tribe hates you! They are going to kick you out if you don’t step up.”
Being negative was great for survival. So, your brain hardwired those negative thoughts processes.
Now come back to the present day.
No bears chasing us every day (At least, I hope not!), but we have the same wiring in our brains. It wants to protect you. And so it says:
“Don’t do that, you’ll just fail.”
“You’re not as good as so and so.”
“Ah, that was so stupid! What were you thinking?”
It’s doing the best it can to keep you on your toes. Of course, the end result isn’t helpful now. Survival isn’t on the line at every turn. But your brain still does its job very well.
So, what do we do?
Well, challenging these negative thoughts can be helpful for some people and in some contexts.
Sometimes it is helpful to remind yourself how irrational a thought is or disprove it wrong.
But at other times, it won’t do us much good to pick a fight with these thoughts. And really, we don’t need to. Negative thoughts are a part of life. It’s your brain doing its thing.
Here is a 4-step framework you can follow to respond to these thoughts in a more helpful way:
1. Notice and name the thought
Instead of getting scared of the thought and fighting it. We can simply notice and name the thought when it comes up. In a spirit of curiosity and playfulness, we can say something like:
“I’m noticing the familiar ‘I’m not good enough’ story again.”
“Hey there’s a thought that said ‘I am stupid.’ Thank you, mind! Appreciate you trying to help.”
Acceptance of the thought does a lot to take away it’s power over us.
Consider a barking dog. The worst thing to do is to match its energy by yelling at it to stop. That only reinforces the behavior. The way to get it to stop is to go about your day even with the dog barking loudly. It gradually loses interest.
Our thoughts are similar. The more attention we give it by fighting it, the more those neural pathways develop. When we accept the thought and then move on with our life, even with the thought still there, the more you’ll notice negative thoughts tend to gradually see themselves out of your mind.
2. Identify the Values underneath the thought
Pain is often our values trying to get our attention.
“I’m such a bad parent. What’s wrong with me?”
This thought probably came up because you value being the best parent you can be. You love your kids deeply. And that is beautiful.
“I’m always so awkward when I meet new people. I’m just gonna stay home.”
This thought probably came up because you value connection and building relationships. That is beautiful too.
When we realize that our negative thoughts show up because we are a human being that cares deeply about things, it can normalize the thoughts. We can be kind to ourselves and be grateful that there are things in life that matter to us.
3. Come back to the present moment
The worst thing about negative thoughts is not that you have them, but that you let them distract you from living your life in a way that matters to you in the present moment. When you start your mental trip out of the present moment, you can come back and remind yourself that the only opportunity to make a real difference in your life lives in the present moment.
You can’t control the outcomes, you can’t control how others perceive you, you can’t control the past of future. You can only control what you do right now.
4. Let your values guide your next step, not the negative thought
So, you’ve noticed and named the thought.
You identified the values underneath it, and now you are present.
The only thing left to do is take action.
If you let your negative thoughts define your behavior, you’ll get predictably unfulfilling results.
But what if you let your values guide you?
“My mind is telling me I am a bad parent. But I value being the best parent I can be, so I am going to keep trying.
I also value self-compassion, so I am going to give myself some grace.”
“Maybe I will look stupid at party tonight, but I really value connection. So I am going to introduce myself and be authentic. I also value courage, and this will definitely take courage. I am proud of myself for living that value.”
You can then invite all of those negative thoughts to come along for the ride while you live your values in that present moment.
And then, no matter the outcome, you can be proud of yourself for choosing to let your values guide, not those negative thoughts.
What this framework does is allow you to live more flexibly.
Negative thoughts have a tendency to box us into rigid and predictable behavior patterns.
You get the thought that you are stupid and awkward when meeting new people, and so you stay home on a Friday night.
Start Engaging in New Behaviors
This cycle keeps reinforcing unhelpful beliefs about yourself.
When we break that cycle and let our values guide, we start engaging in new behaviors.
New behaviors lead to new experiences and new experiences lead to new beliefs about ourselves.
We do not need our brain’s permission to live our life in a way that matters to us.
We can live our values regardless of what thoughts show up in our brain.
We are not our thoughts.
Our brain is hardwired to be negative so we can let go of the need to battle with every negative thought that pops into our mind.
We can simply notice these thoughts, and then let our values guide our next step.