The Four Keys to Overcoming Negative Thinking…for Good
Do you struggle with negative thinking? Maybe you have a harsh inner critic that crushes your confidence? Perhaps you get caught in worry, stress, anxiety, depression? Or have a pessimistic view of life?
If that sounds like you, then you probably know how painful the effects can be. Negative (unhelpful) thinking patterns can have a strong and sometimes devastating impact on us. Clouding our mood, straining our relationships and draining our vitality. Creating a burden on our health, our work… really all aspects of our lives. Overcoming negative thinking – it’s not as easy as just pushing negative thoughts away and replacing them with positive ones. (If it were that simple, we would all be on cloud nine, wouldn’t we?) So, while we often know it’s happening to us, we don’t always know what to do about it.
If you’re new to my world, you may not know this – before I became a mental strength and mindfulness teacher I was in some pretty dark places with my thinking. I battled bulimia and depression throughout my teens. My mind became my own worst enemy and I ended up hating myself and even questioning whether it was worth continuing to live. What helped me turn things around, little by little, was cultivating the skills to turn mental struggles into mental strength. And so, it’s something I care about sharing with all my heart.
Learn mental strength
In this article, I’ll help you to recognise what the common negative thinking patterns are, explain why it’s happening to you, and cover the evidence-based keys to rising above it. I can tell you from my own experience that no matter where you are starting from, it is possible to turn things around, cultivate mental strength, and live a more happy, meaningful and fulfilling life. It’s not about learning how to stop negative thoughts; it’s about changing the way we relate to our thoughts. As well as training our minds to work in more empowering and helpful ways.
With The Four Keys, some persistence and practice, I believe anyone can break free of being stuck in mental struggles for good. I now spend my life teaching other people the skills and tools that turned my life around. These skills are all evidence-based and have worked for me and thousands of others. I trust these tools will work for you too.
In this article
- What is negative thinking and why is it so painful?
- The four types of negative thinking patterns
- Why do we experience negative thought patterns?
- The Four Keys are not about learning how to stop negative thoughts, but how to transmute them.
- Key 1. Recognize negative thoughts and let them go
- Key 2. Practice self-compassion
- Key 3. Take in the good
- Key 4. Steer your focus
- How long does it take to overcome negative thoughts?
Article updated February 2022
What is negative thinking and why is it so painful?
Negative thought patterns are repetitive, unhelpful thoughts. They directly cause what we could describe as ‘negative’ (unwanted or unpleasant) emotions. And can contribute to anxiety, depression, stress, fear, unworthiness, loss of confidence and more.
Some negative thoughts are conscious. That is, we are aware of them.
Other thoughts are negative unconscious thoughts. These are thoughts, words or images that often run in the background of our awareness, in our subconscious. Even though we may not be fully aware of these thought patterns, they still can have a profound impact on us. Often these thoughts stem from our internal belief systems and our old conditioning.
Negative thinking is often conversational. It’s a conversation we have with ourselves mentally, but it can also impact the way we speak out loud to others. It can also be situational. It can skew the way we anticipate situations, the way we view and experience them in the present moment and the way we interpret them afterwards.
The Weight of the Glass
A professor teaching stress management principles walks around an auditorium. In her hand, is a glass of water. She asks her students, “How heavy is the glass of water I’m holding?” The students shout out their guesses. She smiles and replies. “From my perspective, the absolute weight of this glass doesn’t matter. What does, is how long I hold it for. If I hold it for a minute or two, it feels quite light. If I hold it for an hour or so, it’s going to make my arm really start to ache. If I hold it for a whole day, my arm will be in agonizing pain, and would probably start shaking before going completely numb and I’ll drop the glass. In each case, the glass doesn’t change. The heaviness depends on how long I hold it.”
She continues “Your stresses and worries are like this glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing much happens. Think about them all day long, and you will feel completely overwhelmed by negativity and anxiety and you may even become paralysed. Incapable of doing anything else until you drop them.”
So, in this way, we can begin to understand that it’s not the negative thoughts themselves that are the biggest part of our problem. It’s how long we are carrying them.
The four big types of negative thinking patterns
Anxiety and Worry
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”. ~ Michel de Montaigne
Worry is when the mind projects into an imagined future and conjures up scenes and thoughts about what could go wrong. Here it often creates ‘what if’ scenarios and often slips into catastrophizing – that is, imagining the worst-case scenarios.
Sometimes worry and anxiety takes the form of imagining or expecting that bad things will happen. To us, our loved ones, career or finances. So we can end up feeling a huge amount of anxiety even if nothing bad is actually happening at that moment.
If that’s you, you may also find yourself thinking a lot of “I should, I need to, I have to” type of thoughts. Or running through the to-do list over and over again until you feel overwhelmed and stressed.
Anxiety and stress disorders can result when we hold onto stressful and worrying thoughts too tightly and for too long. Some of us can experience panic attacks. A feeling of intense anxiousness that produces feelings of dread and doom. Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, like heart palpitations, hyperventilation, insomnia and trembling. The latest data on anxiety disorders reveals they impact 40 million adults in the United States alone.
Ruminating on mistakes
Ruminating on mistakes, problems and misfortunes from the past often creates a heavy load of negativity. We may play ‘bad’ choices, ‘wrong’ actions or embarrassing moments over and over in our minds. Like that thing you wish you didn’t say at the party. Or the mistake you made five years ago that you won’t let go of.
When we’re stuck in a thought loop about what we’ve done in the past, we can’t fully embrace the present moment, nor move forward into the future with confidence and strength. This pattern can keep us stuck in cycles of feeling worthless, guilty or ashamed.
There is nothing innately wrong with reflecting on past experiences. This is how we can learn, grow and mature as people. Negativity only arises when we dwell on a situation repeatedly without any true intention to learn, solve things or move forward. Rumination ends up feeling more like just punishing ourselves. We wish things were different and we beat ourselves up about it. Like holding the weight of the glass for too long, rumination can end up causing us agonising inner pain and hold us back from being our best selves and living our best lives.
Self-criticism and never feeling good enough
We all have a voice in our heads. It talks to us all day long in the form of constant thoughts. Sometimes this voice is helpful. Alerting us to things that we can do to achieve our goals or solve problems. But often, this inner voice is our own worst enemy. Sometimes it’s a downright bully! Constantly putting us down, telling us we are not enough. That self-critical voice raises doubts, points out our flaws and questions the way we are living our lives.
Most of us would never speak to someone else the way we speak to ourselves. Our inner critic can be incredibly harsh and mean. When we make a mistake or have a setback, it often goes into overdrive. Bringing even more suffering to an already difficult time.
All this negative self-talk and self-criticism can crush our confidence, shatter our self-esteem and make us feel unworthy and unhappy. Sometimes, we can feel so debilitated by these feelings we become depressed or even suicidal.
Sometimes self-criticism can be disguised as self-improvement. While there is nothing wrong with having goals and improving our circumstances, it’s a different headspace when the motivation is that we don’t feel like we’re ‘enough’ as we are. In this state, we’re constantly pushing our body and mind to the limits – trying to ‘be someone’ in the eyes of the world. When we’re chasing achievements, trying to attain status, and recognition for these reasons, we’re actually just trying to compensate for feeling ‘not good enough’ feelings. This path leads to burnout and emptiness eventually.
The path to feeling true self-worth is through releasing those thoughts that tell you are deficient and need to prove yourself. By doing this, you can learn to feel whole and live an authentic and meaningful life right where you are.
Focus on the negative and fixating on problems
Negative thoughts often revolve around stewing on what’s going wrong in our lives. Our attention becomes fixated on, and often exaggerates, the difficult or unpleasant aspects of situations, people and events. Here our minds will often downplay or overlook what’s going well in life and put the majority of focus on what’s not.
For example, you may have a wonderful family, food to eat, a great job and a safe and cosy home. But when your car breaks down, it’s all you can think about and focus on all week long. All week you are frustrated, angry and depressed because of the car. You allow the situation with the car to dominate your thinking and negative emotions arise as a result. Forgetting about all the great things you love about your life.
When we’re so absorbed in what’s wrong, we’re unable to notice what’s right. Rather than allowing our focus to expand into what is going well at the same time, we remain only with what isn’t. Zeroing in and dwelling on unpleasant situations make us feel greater levels of stress, unhappiness, frustration, anxiety and negativity in daily life.
Why do we experience negative thought patterns?
This tendency for the human mind to focus on the negative is completely normal (it’s not just you). It is caused by what is known as the brain’s ‘negativity bias.’
Say you do a presentation at work and everyone in your team has to give you feedback. If five people give great compliments on your work, but one person criticises it, which feedback do you think you’ll remember most? Which one might keep you up at night ruminating? Let’s face it, most likely the criticism. That focus on criticism is very normal, and it’s not your fault. It gets highlighted in your mind because of the negativity bias.
This bias has been hard-wired into the human brain through evolution. In early times, the world was a dangerous place. It was important for us to learn from negative experiences so that we could outwit predators and avoid threats around us. These were real and thinking about all the possible ‘go wrongs’ kept us safe.
Your brain registers negative experiences very quickly, highlighting and storing them in memory. It doesn’t really care how you’re going to feel about it later. It’s in ‘survival first’ mode.
Today, we don’t live in a world where there are constant dangers like there were thousands of years ago. But our brains still operate the same way. We overinflate and hold on to negative things even when our lives don’t depend on it. The problem with the negativity bias for us these days is that over the long term we can develop a growing tendency to be pessimistic, stressed and negative. The good news is, we don’t have to resign ourselves to this. We can train our minds to adopt more empowering and uplifting thinking patterns.
The four keys are not about learning how to stop negative thoughts, but how to transmute them.
People are often at a loss with how to stop negative thoughts from occurring. And this is part of the problem. They often try many different ineffective ways to get rid of their negative thoughts. This includes trying to push them away, distract themselves from them, ‘numbing,’ or ‘drowning their sorrows.’ Only to later find themselves still stuck, and even sinking deeper in negativity. Research shows that while struggling or arguing with, trying to drown out or push away negative thoughts may give short term relief; it only amplifies them over the long term. And actually, makes things worse. Hence the saying, what we resist persists.
What is absolutely critical, and something a lot of people miss is that you can’t just replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. If we could do that, everyone would be okay. Overcoming negativity is about changing the way that we relate to our thoughts, as well as being able to steer our focus in more helpful ways.
It’s also important to note that you should not view The Four Keys I’m going to share with you as a ‘quick fix.’ Although you may get some immediate relief by using these tools, overcoming negative thinking for good is going to take a little practice and persistence on your part. But it’s well worth the investment of your time and effort. As you shed negative thinking, you’ll feel better, unlock more of your potential and live a happier, healthier and more meaningful life.
Once you understand what causes negative thinking and learn to apply the four following mental skills, you can start to shift from mental struggle to mental strength and transform the quality of your life from the inside out.
Key One: Recognise Negative Thoughts and let them go (Mindfulness)
The first key to overcoming negative thinking is to practice being the observer of our thoughts rather than being ‘hooked’ by them. Once we learn to recognise and ‘unhook’ from negative thoughts as they arise, we become free from any impact they may have had on us.
How do we get stuck in negative thinking? About cognitive fusion
What do I mean by getting ‘hooked’ by thoughts? A strong attachment (getting hooked to) our thoughts is known as ‘cognitive fusion.’ When we are fused with our thoughts, we tend to get stuck in them. We tend to take thoughts very, very seriously. We believe them. We buy into them. And we will often play them out.
For example, imagine you wake up one day, and when you look out the window, you see it’s raining. At that moment a thought may come into your head that says, “what a dreadful day.” Now is it true that the day is dreadful? No, of course not! It’s simply raining. However, if you believe that thought, then guess what you will probably have? That’s right, you will probably have a dreadful day! If you get fused to a thought like that, it will probably generate negative feelings like grumpiness, bitterness or resentment.
So, we don’t need to know how to stop negative thoughts. The problem is not that we have negative thoughts. The problem comes when we get hooked by our thoughts and believe our thoughts are true.
Getting unstuck. The process of cognitive defusion
The process of unhooking from, or ‘stepping back from’ thoughts is called ‘cognitive defusion.’ When we are no longer stuck in thoughts, they lose their power to pull us into unpleasant emotions, make us reactive or hold us back in any way.
Cognitive defusion allows us to see thoughts as simply that – thoughts. Merely snippets of sound and language. Mental events moving through the mind all the time. Just like the weather passes through the sky. Not ‘the truth’ or ‘the way things are’ Just a bunch of words going through the mind.
Once we see thoughts as mental events, we don’t take them so seriously. We don’t automatically believe or obey them. If we find them valuable or helpful, we might pay attention to them or act on them. If we don’t, we just let them go. We begin to shift our whole relationship with thoughts. Holding them lightly means we are not so thrown around or affected by them.
Let’s go back to the example of the rain. Imagine you’re lying in bed again, and you look out and you see that it’s raining. Once again, the thought arises “what a dreadful day”. Instead of buying into that thought, you simply observe it. You watch the thought “what a dreadful day” arise and fall away. And since you don’t attach to it, take it seriously or believe it, it generates no negativity and passes by easily. You’re left free to lay there relaxed and at peace, enjoying the pitter-patter of the rain on the roof.
As you can see, the ability to recognise unhelpful thinking and step back from it is incredibly liberating! It can change the quality of your whole day and indeed your whole life. It has mine.
The ‘name it to tame it’ technique for instant cognitive defusion
‘Name it to tame it’ is a very powerful, simple, tried and tested technique. It was developed by author and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel to help us untangle from thoughts without struggling with them.
Here’s how you do it. When an unhelpful thought pattern arises, (or an associated negative emotion) we simply mentally ‘label’ the thought pattern and then we let it go.
For instance, as unhelpful thoughts pass by, you might say to yourself “ahhh negative thoughts arising” or you can even shorten it by just saying “thinking.” In this way, you unhook yourself from believing the thought and take a step back from it. It’s almost like saying to the thought “I see you! I see what you’re up to!”
You can even bring in a little bit of humour and have fun with this. Mentally, noting something like “ahhh radio doom and gloom is playing again” or “dark clouds of thought alert!”
So, after we mentally note, we let it go. By ‘let it go’ I mean to stop giving it your full attention. Instead, shift your mind back to what is happening in the present moment and give that your focus. Tune into your sense perceptions, what you can feel, see, or smell.
As soon as we name the mental pattern, and shift the focus back to the present moment, we’ve initiated cognitive defusion! If you like to geek out on neuroscience, the act of naming thoughts kicks in the smartest part of the brain, the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is reflective and helps you zoom out with greater perspective.
The way you name it matters
One important thing to note with ‘name it to tame it’. Make sure that when you mentally note you’re using a soothing, kind and even playful tone of voice. This helps you to soothe your nervous system and invite compassion and resilience into that moment instead of aggression or struggle. We’re not going to battle with the mind here. We are gently training it into new neural pathways of peace and ease. At a biological level, when you ‘name it to tame it’ in a soothing voice you even get a squirt of soothing neurotransmitters in the brain! This brings feelings of calm, ease and comfort.
“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” ~ James Thurber
Just beneath the waves of our thoughts, emotions and conditioning, there is a deep ocean of awareness in each one of us. A source of calm, wisdom, compassion and incredible inner strength. It is always available to us as a place of refuge. Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating that awareness.
Through mindfulness, we build our capacity to stay grounded in that greater awareness, instead of being so caught up in, and tossed around by, the surface waves of thoughts and emotion.
Regular mindfulness meditation is the best way to build the muscle of mindfulness. There’s a free meditation audio you can try for yourself below. Meditation has been shown to decrease stress, depression and anxiety. People who practice meditation report higher overall levels of satisfaction with life than others. In fact, Harvard researcher and psychologist Matt Killingsworth found what makes people most happy is being fully present in the moment. He says the more our minds wander, the more unhappy we become. There is so much power in this simple practice. On top of regular meditation practice, you can also use the following simple practice to bring it with you into your daily life.
The three-breath pause: a mindfulness practice for daily life.
One simple yet very powerful way to bring mindfulness into your daily life is through using the three breath pause technique.
The three-breath pause can help you find your calm centre and inner strength in any moment in life.
A good analogy for the power of this practice can be found in bullfighting. It is believed that in the midst of the bullfight, the bull can find his own particular area of safety in the arena…his querencia. Once there, he can reclaim his wits and find his strength and power. He may only be there for a few seconds – but those seconds make all the difference.
As long as the matador can keep the bull busy, reactive and stressed continuously, that matador stays in control. But when the bull finds querencia, when he finds his centre, he gathers his strength and focus. From the matador’s perspective, at this point, the bull is truly dangerous, as he has taken his power back. The matador is no longer in control.
This is a great metaphor for how we can find our centre through the practice of the mindful three breath pause. In the arena of our daily life, we can often find ourselves stuck in our mental struggles, consumed by busyness and stress. Thrown around by reactivity. This can affect every aspect of our lives. Our relationships and health can suffer, our mood plummets, and we don’t perform as well at work.
In the same way, a bull takes back his power by pausing to gather himself and tap into his inner strength, so can we.
Give it a try
Whenever you feel reactive, overwhelmed or just need some more calm in the midst of all the crazy, you too can find your centre and proceed with greater awareness and clarity of mind. All it takes is to pause and centre yourself with three, deep, slow mindful breaths. Even if you’re right in the middle of the ‘ring’ of stress and reactivity.
As you take the three breaths, let your full attention rest on the feeling of the breath coming in and out of your body. Pay close attention to every sensation, and let any other thoughts fall away for these moments.
Key Two: Practice self-compassion
Imagine if we met for the first time. And I started our conversation by saying, “I don’t know why you’re even trying to overcome negative thinking. You’ll never change. You look like someone who doesn’t follow through with anything.”
No doubt if I spoke to you that way it wouldn’t feel very nice. It’s pretty demoralising. And not just that, but you most likely would not want to listen to me anymore because it doesn’t feel helpful or healthy to be spoken to that way!
Of course, I would never talk to you that way in reality. But how often do we talk to ourselves like that? This inner critic actually forms the core for much of our inner struggles and stress. Now here’s the thing, this kind of negative self-talk is not a sign of any deficiency on your part or anything strange about you, it’s a sign of having a normal human mind.
The human mind is a survival machine
For our caveman ancestors, life was very difficult and dangerous. In order to survive, you had to stay in the tribe. If you got kicked out it wouldn’t be long before a predator or starvation got hold of you. And so, fitting in with the group, having the approval of the rest of the tribe was essential to our survival.
So how does the mind function to keep you in the tribe? It’s constantly questioning – am I fitting in? Am I special enough? Am I good enough? Am I doing anything that could get me rejected? It also compares us to everyone else in the tribe constantly to see how we are measuring up. Driven by an impulse to make sure we get approval, the inner critic comes in and demands us to be better ‘like the prettier, smarter, more successful or stronger ones.“ It pushes us, bullies us, criticises us. It tells us we’re not enough. All in an attempt to keep us safe.
Ancient brains in a modern world
The problem is, now we don’t live in tribes, and through technology and media we are now comparing ourselves to a huge number of people all over the world. Images that depict impossible standards of airbrushed and hyped up perfection. These days we are being bombarded with these kinds of images through the media and advertising. When we’re constantly scrolling and surfing, we see images of people who seem more attractive, more happy, more fun, more successful than us. It’s easy to feel like we aren’t measuring up, not enough, not worthy. And then we can often tip into anxiety or depression. In fact, the rise in social media has been shown to be one of the probable reasons for a huge surge in depression around the world. Presently 1 in 5 people in the United States are diagnosed with depression.
From self-criticism to self-compassion
The most powerful skill to unwind the inner critic and cultivate inner peace is the skill of self-compassion. Self-compassion involves training our inner critic to be more like a kind and supportive inner coach. Now, usually, when people first hear about self-compassion they have hesitations. Why? Many people believe that if they don’t crack the whip with harsh self-talk, they won’t be motivated to make changes and reach goals. However, research shows just the opposite. Self-limiting and self-critical thoughts sap our motivation and initiative. Whereas self-compassion and kindness increase them. When we learn to be kinder to ourselves we also become more resilient to challenges and stress. We’re more productive and able to overcome bad habits and addiction. And have more fulfilling relationships with others.
How to ease the voice of the inner critic and develop self-compassion
Start by practising self-talk that sounds warm, friendly and kind. The way we speak to ourselves can often be incredibly harsh. Especially if something has gone wrong or we made a mistake. Let your inner voice take on the tone of a supportive friend or coach.
If you catch yourself sounding unfriendly, see if you can take a pause and change the tone. Say kind and encouraging things to yourself like, “Good on you for giving that a go honey,” or, “That was a very kind/honest/good thing you did mate,” or, “Hey, it’s okay, you did your best.” If you don’t find terms of endearment like ‘honey’ or ‘mate’ useful then of course just drop them and find your own way with this.
When you’re having a hard time, try talking to yourself the way you would speak to a loved one who is hurting. Say soothing words to yourself. Like, “It’s ok, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. You’re human,” or, “Take it easy darling,” or, “Oh this is a tricky moment. May I be kind to myself in this tough time.”
Do the things that nourish you
Part of self-compassion is being a caretaker of your own needs. Another way to practice self-compassion is through your actions. Try focusing on doing more things that nourish you, feed your soul and genuinely make you happy rather than doing things to ‘make it in the eyes of the world’ or to get ‘likes’, approval or status in the eyes of others.
It could be helpful to make a list of the things that recharge the batteries, relax and rejuvenate you. The things that light you up, bring you joy and feed the soul. Some examples of nourishing things are:
- being in nature
- slowing down
- surfing, yoga, biking or another sport you love
- going for a walk
- having a cup of tea in the sun
- gardening, painting or other hobbies
- spending time with a pet or loved one
- meditation or contemplation time
- reading a book
What can you do today, this week, this month to nourish yourself? Instead of always pushing yourself, can you make time to care for yourself and enjoy yourself? Yes, you deserve it.
Key Three: Take in the good
We can retrain the brain’s tendency towards negative thoughts (negativity bias). How we do that is through a process developed by neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson called ‘taking in the good.’ But why do we need to put a focus on retraining the brain? Let’s first look at some of the science around the negativity bias, so you can understand how strong it can be:
- Human minds remember and react more to negative stimuli than positive ones.
- Our minds are like ‘teflon’ for good experiences, they slide right out! In other words, we don’t pay attention to them or remember them well. But when it comes to bad experiences, our minds are like velcro – they stick! We tend to over-focus on bad experiences. We can overlook the great things about our partner, our bodies, our lives, our jobs and we focus mostly on what’s wrong.
- This can lead to skewed perception where all that is bad in our lives is highlighted and all that is good is dimmed. We grow a sense of dissatisfaction, negativity, pessimism, sadness and grumpiness.
By the process of taking in the good, we can cultivate the ability to pay attention to the pleasant aspects of our lives. This can help us arrive at a sense of balance when our brain’s negativity bias has us so intent on searching for problems.
Taking In the Good techinique
1. Deliberately seek out and pay attention to good experiences each day
This is not about ‘positive thinking per se, it’s about noticing your direct experiences as you go about the day. Like pausing to appreciate the beauty in your garden or savouring the taste of your tea. It might mean really appreciating the warmth of your blankets at night or the sound of the rain. What are some good aspects in your life that you don’t usually notice? What is beautiful that you can appreciate and enjoy and savour as you go about your day?
2. Once you have opened up to noticing the good, stay with it and savour it
To set down new neural pathways to balance the negativity bias, stay with each good experience for at least 5 seconds, preferably 20 if possible. Again, this is not about positive thinking. This is about placing your focus on your direct experience. So that you can really enjoy it. Open up to the body sensations, feelings and all that is happening in the moment. Drink in the good experience letting it fill your body and mind.
3. Lastly, bring your intention to deliberately absorbing the experience
Have a sense of really appreciating the experience with a sense of gratitude. And setting the intention to take the good feelings with you into your memory and your being. Rick Hanson calls this letting it sink into you. You can also visualise this part if it helps. For instance, placing a beautiful picture of the memory inside an imaginary locket. Or imagining the experience lighting up your heart like a warm glow. Or perhaps seeing the sweetness of the feeling pour into you the way honey runs into a jar.
Every time you do this, it will be like doing a rep in the gym to make your mind more positive. And over time those little differences will add up, gradually gearing the mind to be naturally more happy, grateful and mentally strong.
Key Four: Take your focus back
Steering our focus takes us from noticing and letting go of our thoughts, to being an active participant in changing our focus. This is particularly helpful with very “sticky” thoughts that are not so easy to let go of in the previous steps. When you notice a big roadblock within yourself or you’re experiencing heavy thoughts that feel difficult to work with, try this method.
You can steer your focus in two ways. The first is to ask a ‘helpful question for unhelpful thoughts.’ Secondly, you can ask yourself a question to ‘choose a more empowering focus.’ The questions below have mostly been drawn from ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). You can use one or some of these questions to support you to unhook from unhelpful thinking and shift your focus. Ask them, and then answer them mentally to yourself. Usually you would just pick one of these at any given time but you can also do a ‘one-two-punch’ of one question from each category. Perhaps print these out so you have them somewhere handy. Once you know them well enough by heart that you can draw on them from memory when you need them.
Helpful questions for unhelpful thoughts
- Is this thought in any way useful or helpful?
- Is it true? (Can I absolutely know that it’s true)
- Is this just an old story that my mind is playing out of habit?
- Does this thought help me take effective action in any way?
- Is this thought helpful or is my mind just babbling on?
Then you can (mentally) ask these questions below to create a new focus and new possibilities. These questions will help you focus on constructive thoughts and actions and help you effectively face your day-to-day challenges and move towards living a more meaningful life.
Again, you may only use one of these at a time but you could always try more than one too.
Choose a more empowering focus
- What is the truth? My deepest truth?
- What do I really want to feel or create in this situation? How can I move towards that?
- How can I make the best of this situation?
- Who would I be without this thought?
- What new story or thought can I focus on now?
- How can I see this in a different or new way?
- What can I be grateful for in this present moment?
With these powerful questions, you can change the focus of your mind from being stuck in negativity to being focused on what is nourishing, uplifting and empowering. They will also help you take constructive action and move towards living a more meaningful life.
These questions help you appreciate what’s going well and puts problems in perspective. When times get tough they can help you stay calm and clear-headed. You’re more able to deal with things in a practical, efficient way.
It can take courage and humility to question our thoughts and let go of certain stories in the mind, but our willingness to do so will be equal to our feelings of happiness, inner strength and peace of mind.
How long does it take to overcome negative thoughts?
My honest answer is, I don’t know. Because it depends on so many different things. It depends on how much time you give to practising these Four Keys. How often you can practice them in your daily life. How much you are able to embody them.
Just like you can’t expect to turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger just by going to the gym a couple of times, you can’t expect to suddenly gain perfect mental strength just by applying these tools a couple of times. To become fitter and stronger the main thing is to work out consistently and keep at it. So it’s more about having the faith and persistence to keep practicing these skills over time. As well as being patient with yourself and the process until you become mentally stronger.
Every time you use these skills is one more step away from being stuck in negative thinking and one move towards being mentally strong. Every step is a little win and a moment to give yourself a pat on the back.
From my own experience, mindfulness is the most crucial aspect of the change from struggle to strength. And since you’ve read all the way here to the end, I know it’s probably really important to you to make that change.
I also know this has probably been a lot to take in, so to get you started, here is my recommended four-step plan to begin the path to change.
Four steps to start
- Begin to meditate for at least 15 minutes or more each day. Stick with it for at least 30 days to feel the effect.
- Set an alarm 2 times per day to stop and take in something good around you.
- Print out the helpful questions and empowering focus questions and put them somewhere prominent or make them your phone home screen or computer home screen until you can remember them easily.
- Make a pact to be a bit kinder to yourself. Print out my helpful reminder, and stick it on your bathroom mirror or anywhere prominent.
Get these starter tools in a printable PDF (no opt-in required)
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We are not all the same and we do not all have the same life circumstances. So, although these tools are powerful and potentially life-changing, they are not a panacea for everything and may not work the same for everyone. Negative thinking can come from a variety of sources including trauma, systematic oppression, and genuinely problematic life circumstances that need to change. Sometimes using these tools will not be the best solution or won’t be a complete solution on their own. Talking to a qualified therapist, taking action to change your circumstances, or standing up for your rights, values and needs may also need to be a part of a holistic solution for you to feel your best self again.
My hope is that these tools are a support for you in the tough times, a source of joy and contentment in daily life and that they help unlock your potential and passion so you can share your gifts with the world.
Free meditation audio
Here is a meditation you can use for overcoming negative thinking that incorporates all of the keys above.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post you may also find the post on How to Use Mindfulness to Overcome Negative Emotions helpful or The Mindful Way Through Loss and Heartbreak. A 4-Step Process and Free Meditation.
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