Negative thinking and how to overcome it

Negative thinking refers to patterns of thinking negatively about who we are, what we do and the life we lead. Some negative thinking is normal and, as we shall see, helpful, but when it dominates, when the thoughts come thick and fast, it can often indicate an underlying mental health condition. This blog will offer you some ideas, perspectives and approaches to thinking about and overcoming ‘negative thinking’.

Negative thinking and the role of conversation

From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we immerse ourselves in conversation. From passing exchanges to in-depth discussions, we use conversation to:

  • capture how life is for us
  • build relationships
  • plan our days
  • problem-solve
  • agree whose turn it is to take the bins out, do the shopping etc.
  • …it’s a long list

The two types of conversations we have are those we have with ourselves and those we have with others. If they are critical, angry or toxic, they can be a significant source of negative thinking. To overcome negative thinking, therefore, we need to establish if our conversations are their source.

Activity: For the conversations, you have with yourself, known as your self-talk, write down examples of the words, phrases and language you often use. Carry out a similar exercise for your conversations with others, especially those you spend most of your time engaging with.

What did you discover? Are your conversations positive or negative? If they are negative, they will be fuelling negative thinking, which means taking some time to acknowledge that your conversations need to change.

Making sense of negative thinking

Fact: excessive negative thinking exists for a reason. The trick is to discover what the reason is. While understandable, making intrusive, upsetting or angry thoughts the sole focus of our attention is missing the point. Instead, we need to make sense of why we have such thoughts in the first place.

The first thing to know is that negative thoughts emerge from negative emotional states such as severe stress, anxiety, depression and trauma. The second thing to know is that we experience negative emotional states when we fail to thrive and survive in life. Therefore, if we want to make sense of (and overcome) negative thinking, we need to know why we are not thriving and surviving. Negative thinking is a smoke alarm: you need to put the fire out.

Activity: using a 0-10 scale where 0=very positive and 10=very negative, choose a number that reflects how you feel about the areas below. As a general rule, any area scored seven or above is likely to be a significant stressor for you and a driver of negative thinking.

  • Yourself – self-esteem, self-worth
  • Home and family life
  • Relationships
  • Career/work/professional development
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Financial security
  • Lifestyle
  • Social and cultural life
  • Environmental factors

What did you discover? Are there critical areas of your life that need some attention? If there are, commit to doing something about them, and you will improve your thinking.

Patterns of negative thought

Negative thinking is a form of pattern, one that can become quickly established when we fail to thrive and survive in life. And the longer our difficulties impact our ability to flourish in life remain, the more entrenched this form of pattern becomes. However, the good news about negative patterns is that they can be interrupted, weakened, and ultimately replaced by positive thought patterns.

I have already mentioned two ways – changing conversations and tackling problem areas – but there are many others. One very effective way is to build up a detailed picture of our negative thinking because once we have this, it is much easier to build up and establish positive patterns of thinking.

Activity: answer the questions below to build up a detailed picture of your negative thinking.

  • When, where and with whom were you when your negative thinking started?
  • What stressors or changes were occurring in your life around the start of your negative thinking?
  • How often does your negative thinking occur, and how long does it last?
  • What significant persons are present or absent when your negative thinking occurs?
  • Where does the negative thinking occur?
  • What are the steps involved in the generation of your negative thinking? Put another way, can you identify the stages where you go from not doing it to doing it?
  • When does your negative thinking NOT occur?
  • What do you think other people know about your negative thinking, e.g. friends, family or colleagues?
  • What are your beliefs about your negative thinking? For example, I can never change it? It’s my fault that I have it?

This exercise can be very revealing. How was it for you?

The role of acceptance

Scientific and psychological evidence tells us that we couldn’t eradicate negative thinking even if we wanted to because it is one of the human race’s many survival strategies. The world of our ancestors was a dangerous place, and it made sense to think about threats and dangers to they could be anticipated and prepared for. So, if your goal is to stop all negative thoughts, I would encourage you to think again. Evolution is against you! However, this fact need not demoralise you. Once we accept that negative thinking is normal and, in evolutionary terms, ‘positive’ because it directs our attention to possible threats, we stop spending valuable time and energy trying to banish it.

Instead, acceptance means we can turn our attention to the actual problem: achieving a workable balance of positive, negative and what is sometimes called neutral thinking. In Meaning, I suggest that the most critical step in achieving this outcome is accepting the need to achieve positive emotional states through knowing how to thrive and survive. However, the other ideas and activities throughout this blog can help you, too.

Challenging negative thinking

Sometimes negative thoughts can be so persuasive that we believe them unquestionably. As a coach and therapist, I must demonstrate to my clients that negative thoughts do not define who they are, what they do, and the life they lead. And the way I do this is through the power of challenge.

The thing with negative thoughts is that they like spending as much time in your imagination as possible, and the way they get to outstay their welcome is by persuading you that the evidence for their claims exists. These claims and their evidence are what needs challenging. While some negative thoughts will be true (see above), effective challenging reduces those which are manifestly false.

Activity: start by writing down examples of your negative thought. Once you have a range of them, try the following challenging activities:

  • Look for evidence that proves the negative thoughts are true. If you can’t find any, be kind to yourself and put the thought into your brain’s rubbish tip
  • Reflect on your past – if all negative thoughts were true, identify when they changed your life for the worse
  • Write down opposing, positive thoughts and look for evidence that they are true
  • Talk to people you trust and ask them to help you challenge your negative thoughts. If they disagree with them, then either they are telling the truth, or they are lying. If you trust them, is it likely they are lying?
  • Practice mindfulness. Negative thoughts will attempt to draw you in, like a fisherperson using bait to hook a fish. Mindfulness can help you observe negative thoughts without being caught, like a clever fish that sees the bait and swims past.

What did you discover? Did you find it easier to deal with negative thoughts?

Transformation!

When we understand how to thrive and survive through committing to our personal and professional transformation, we gain evidence that negative thinking does not change this outcome. For example, a recent client of mine, who experienced negative thinking about their chances of progressing in their career, nevertheless gained a promotion at work. For the first time, they had irrefutable proof that their negative thoughts were not the accurate predictions they had always believed. This epiphany fundamentally changed their relationship with their negative thoughts. Whenever they had any, they recalled their promotion at work.

My client’s journey of personal and professional transformation started with the Making Sense activity above. Realising that their professional pessimism was generating their depression and resultant negative thinking, they worked in coaching to build their confidence, which resulted in them interviewing successfully for a more senior role.

Activity: taking a priority area of your life, commit to transforming it. You could work with a therapist, coach or mentor to support your transformation. Or you could commit to a self-help or development programme. 

Getting support to overcome negative thinking

My business, Conversations With Impact, is dedicated to improving your mental health and wellbeing. My IMPACT Model offers you a powerful and effective approach to giving you control back of your thoughts so you can be more and do more in life.

Contact me for your free IMPACT consultation. I will give you as much time as you need to feel confident I am the right person for you. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge, and insight than you had before.