Whenever something goes wrong, I start to drown in negative thoughts. Even if the issue is small, it becomes a horrible failure in my mind. How can I stop this spiral?
Signed: Negative Thoughts
Dear: Negative Thoughts
The phrase “We are our own worst enemy” comes to mind as I read your question. I think this is true for all of us, at one point or another. Maybe our personality type just naturally leans more towards a glass-half-empty perspective. Or perhaps we were raised hearing a lot of criticism (which people sometimes give out of love as they try to be encouraging but it doesn’t get delivered or absorbed that way). Perhaps we have had a challenging time in our life where our self esteem took a beating and we have gotten stuck seeing ourself in that negative light. Or maybe we are struggling with issues like high functioning depression. Regardless of the reason, there are ways to break our patterns of cognitive negativity.
Let me start with a reminder that just because we think it, it doesn’t make it true. Everyone’s brain plays tricks on them (for a wide variety of reasons). Our thoughts get distorted and exaggerated and are just sometimes completely false. We have to learn to push-back on the ideas as they are forming, to see how true they really are. When we do this push-back process sooner rather than later, our brain is willing to filter out the BS and let go of it much easier than it can after the ideas have been repeating on a loop 100 times.
Self awareness is the key. We need to be regularly connected to our sense of self in order to notice the thoughts that are forming and in order to be able to challenge them before they become habitualized. We have to learn to have a running inner dialogue that seems like our own therapy session. This takes time to do and requires a little training at first. But soon the process of self assessment and self acceptance will become the healthier habit that your brain latches onto.
I also want to mention that “Mary-Poppins” thinking does not curb the negative spirals, over the long term. We cannot just switch gears and think happy thoughts in order to make ourselves feel better. We can’t lie to our brain, long-term. It knows what thoughts SEEM to carry more weight (the ones that are repeating, even in the background) and that’s what takes root. We need to tackle those negative thoughts head on, and decide whether they have any value, before we allow them to be absorbed.
Here are just 3 simple ways to do this:
Notice the language of your thoughts. If you think in terms of words like “always” and “never” and “total” and “absolute” and “everyone” and “no-one”, you can know right away that the thought is NOT accurate (at least, not completely). All-or-nothing thinking is a distorted cognitive process. This is your window for a push-back technique.
Challenge yourself and ask your brain, is it REALLY 100% of the time that I am or I do X, or people think Y about me? I guarantee it is not. So, find the percentage that is NOT terrible, and focus your thoughts on that instead. What went well? What was a success? This will shift your perspective to a more accurate recall of any given situation.
If you struggle to be able to find what you did right in a situation, ask yourself if things could have been worse? Again, I guarantee they likely could have been. So briefly focus on how it could have been an even bigger mess, and ask yourself what you did to prevent that from happening. This will allow you to notice your strengths and capabilities. And it reminds you that you were in control during the situation, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at first.
If you know it could have been worse, but you get stuck at being able to concretely understand what you did to prevent that, ask someone else what they noticed that you did well. Be sure to let them know you are just wanting positive feedback (you have the negative part already perfected). We can only get an accurate overall understanding of any given scenario if we consider both perspectives (positives and negatives) together. So train your brain to remember that positive side and give it the time it deserves.
Try a scaling tool to assess your situation. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad was the overall outcome (not each tiny micro-moment). Look at the big picture and assess what you did to get the moment on the scale and not at a 0 (even if that is just that you showed up or tried); and then take note of what went wrong, so you can problem solve for how to make the necessary changes for the next time.
There will be times when the results feel bleak and we realize we made mistakes. But that’s NOT a negative outcome. It’s a growth moment, as long as we don’t get stuck in the negative self-recrimination. If we can notice the opportunity for learning, it will lead us back to feeling empowered and in control again.
You might be noticing a recurring theme with these techniques. They are all about BALANCE. If our thoughts are out of balance, they are inaccurate. And our emotional responses will follow along the same pathway. But if we use the push-back techniques (and there are many of them – if these examples don’t work for you, try others), our self-talk shifts and we don’t get stuck in the loops of self criticism that are founded on partial truths or exaggerated negativity.
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