Oh, those pesky negative thoughts. We all have them, some of us more than others. While sometimes these introspective thoughts can provide us with constructive feedback and valuable self-awareness, too much negativity can interfere with out ability to live a healthy, happy, and productive life. Fortunately, there are ways that we can start to identify these nasty unhelpful thoughts. With practice, there are ways that we can combat them and win them over for good.
Identifying negative thoughts
Even though we all know that we have negative thoughts, it is pretty surprising how many negative thoughts float through out head everyday without notice. Sometimes we just get used to the negativity, but there are other times when the negativity is so deeply ingrained that we have developed what is called a “core belief”. Core beliefs are those deep rooted, almost subconscious, beliefs that we have about ourselves and the world that we live in. Our childhood and past experiences can shape our core beliefs and it can be very difficult to change these beliefs as we grow into adults.
The good news is, core beliefs are not subconscious. They are not something that we cannot uncover and address. It can be difficult to do so, but when we are open to exploring out inner thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, we can start to really recognize and understand these deep seated beliefs and work to change them over time. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is the method of choice by most therapists for helping their clients identify and overcome these negative thoughts and irrational core beliefs. Therapy can be a great way to really delve into getting to the bottom of it all, but there are also things that you can do at home to help.
A great way to start to identify your negative thoughts is to start keeping a thought record or journal. Collecting data is a great way for you to get a true understanding of the nature and severity of the problem. This data will also be SUPER helpful if you do start seeing a therapist because it will help them understand what is going on in your head and how to better help you. To create a basic thought journal, carry around a simple notebook devoted to your thoughts and simply write down any thought that you experience that seems to carry a negative connotation or that makes you feel uncomfortable or upset. Do this for about a week and you should be able to get a good indication of what is going on.
Are they true?
Once you start to identify your thoughts, the first step is to start testing them against reality. Reality testing is an effective component of CBT that you can do at home. When you experience a negative thought, your first question to yourself should be “Is this true?”. Most of the time our negative thoughts come from a distorted and irrational core belief. While there may be some truth to them, there is usually quite a bit of fallacy in the thought itself. For example, if you fail a test, your initial automatic thought may to “I am so stupid.” To break this down, perform a reality test. Is this actually true? Sure, you may feel that you did not know the material but does this actually mean that you are truly stupid? Are there instances in your life where you were not stupid? The more that you can debunk the thought, the less power it will have in your life.
Are they helpful?
Sometimes our negative thoughts may bear some truth. This can be challenging because it takes us into a space that may not be very comfortable. At this point, we want to ask ourselves if the thought is helpful. What purpose is the thought serving in our lives? If the thought does not serve a vital and helpful purpose then it is not something that really deserves all of our attention at the moment. It can be difficult to flip a switch and turn them off, but when you can start to see the irrelevancy of your negative thoughts it can also help to decrease their power in your mind.
Explore helpful thoughts
So what do you when the thoughts aren’t helpful? Look for thoughts that are. What do you need right now? What would alleviate some of your anxiety and help make the situation more tolerable? Going back to our previous example, if you were dealing with the stress of failing a test, what kind of thoughts would be helpful? Explore thoughts that promote a growth mindset, such as, “That test was difficult but now I know how to better prepare for next time”
Re-framing negative thoughts
Along with creating additional helpful thoughts, we can also change the negative thought into a whole new thought. This is where the magic happens. Just like our core beliefs are shaped from our experiences, we can actually start to change the way that we process material and create healthier core beliefs and automatic thoughts by challenging and re-framing our negative thoughts. Re-framing a thought means to simply break it down to determine its truth and try to better relate it to the situation. This is a little different than coming up with a completely different thought, because re-framing challenges us to face the negative thought head on.
The best way to practice re-framing is to break out that thought journal that you had and go through each thought. Reading back over your thought journal after a few days, you may be surprised to notice that you don’t necessarily feel the same way. Those thoughts may seem foreign to you after you are away from the situation. This is a very good thing because it helps validate the inaccuracy and lack of truth that they bring. An analysis of your thoughts after the situation has subsided will help you get a much clearer picture of what you actually should have been thinking. This is the re-frame. Looking back on the situation, how would you have thought differently?