How to Escape the Cycle of Negative Thinking
- It can be easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged by negative thoughts.
- Trying to always think positively isn’t a realistic solution to negative thinking.
- Reframing thoughts can help control negative thought patterns and improve one’s perspective.
We all think negatively sometimes. We’re having a bad day, and it feels like the world is against us. We start to believe that things are harder for us, that life is unfair, or that other people do not have good intentions.
The more that we allow ourselves to think negatively, the more often we will have negative thoughts and the harder it will be to break the cycle. But thinking positively all the time is not the solution to conquering negative thinking. It is possible to have fewer negative thoughts and reframe them so they are more realistic. The strategies that I will suggest make it possible to be realistic, to be human, and to remain hopeful during difficult circumstances.
The key to keeping negative thinking under control so that it doesn’t turn into a negative attitude toward life is to first recognize that negative, pessimistic, or critical thoughts are a typical experience for most people. Being hard on ourselves is not the solution, nor is coming up with a positive alternative to every negative thought we have. If we’ve had a terrible day, it’s OK to say it was a rough day. When you have an argument with someone, thinking they are treating you badly or that they are being unfair may be accurate. We don’t want to treat negative thoughts as unacceptable.
However, if you notice that most of your thinking lately has been negative and that it’s becoming harder and harder to be hopeful or optimistic, it might be time to try to put your thoughts into perspective. You definitely don’t want to dampen every situation by finding the negative aspects and focusing on them. Sometimes, when we allow negative thoughts to consume us, it becomes harder to enjoy ourselves, to be kind to others, and to be grateful for our experiences. Below are some suggestions to keep negative thinking under control:
Let negative thoughts come and go.
Allow yourself to have negative thoughts. Refrain from responding by saying you shouldn’t think that way. Acknowledge the thought, and then let it go. Your thoughts don’t define you or your circumstances. Some people visualize their thoughts as balloons that float away right after they have them. We don’t have to give each thought equal weight or let it define every future situation.
Be proactive in gratitude.
No matter what kind of day you’re having, take the time to think of some things you appreciate. It might be something as small as the cup of coffee that you are drinking or the fact that it’s Friday. Practicing gratitude when you are not struggling will allow you to remember what you were grateful for if times get harder.
Avoid all-or-nothing thinking.
Absolute thinking prevents us from taking each situation as it comes. The frequent use of words like “never“ or “always“makes it hard for us to remember that things can change over time and that we don’t want to predict the future. Instead, use words such as “often” or “occasionally.”
Manage your expectations.
Often, we expect things to work out one way and they don’t. We are disappointed, and that is totally understandable. That is why we don’t want to place a lot of specific expectations on an outcome that we really can’t predict. We don’t know if relationships will work out right away. We don’t know if a job is going to be the right opportunity for us. Things can seem like they are going well and then something changes. We are less prepared for surprises when we already have a preconceived set of ideas about how something will turn out.
Allowing ourselves to feel every emotion, without pushing it away, means that even when we are disappointed, we know it will be OK. Feeling hurt, sad, or skeptical about a situation doesn’t mean that we can’t survive it. Let your thoughts exist, sit with them, and be intentional about recognizing the positive things in your life. You will start to notice that you can handle anything and that your negative thinking will be under control.
By: Carla Shuman, Ph.D.