Negative Thoughts: Friend or Foe? Here's How to Tell The DifferenceNone By Derrick Carpenter
I recently led a webinar for Happify on Overcoming Negative Thoughts, where I outlined four strategies for loosening the grip negative thinking has on our minds. This article is part one of a four-part series reviewing these strategies in more detail.
In our own triumphs and struggles to attain happiness, the nonstop commentary of self-talk running through our minds can be a real burden. Particularly when we doubt our abilities, question our worth, and worry that we’re the only person on Facebook not having the best weekend ever, our negative thoughts are often the very obstacle that stands between us and a greater sense of well-being. So how do we overcome them?
Where Negative Thoughts Come From
First, let’s be really clear about what negative thoughts are, or even thoughts in general. Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. Whenever we’re navigating the aisles of our local grocery store, our brains are not only interpreting the information that our five senses are picking up—the smell of the ripe strawberries reminds you of Mom’s shortcake recipe from your childhood—but also constantly processing our own mental world—the sudden uncertainty whether or not you locked the door when you left home or the stress about the work piling up this week, plus all your impending deadlines.
All of this mental chatter, whether it takes the form of an image, a memory, or a sentence spoken in the silence of our head, constitutes our thinking.
And when we think, we feel. Depending on how we interpret our thoughts, we experience an array of emotion. Some of our thoughts and emotions are positive, which are signals for us to keep leaning in and doing more of whatever has brought that feeling on. When the scent of strawberries brings up memories of summer desserts enjoyed in the backyard with your siblings, you feel grateful. Maybe you decide to pick up some strawberries and recreate the recipe for your family.
Other thoughts and emotions are negative and are telling us to make change. For our ancestors, fear was a signal that there was a real threat nearby and that they ought to protect ourselves if they hoped to survive. Embarrassment protected them from making repeated mistakes that might have put their social standing at risk. Anger kept them from being taken advantage of.
When you worry about an upcoming project, that worry can often serve as motivation to devote time and energy to complete the tasks in front you. But when you worry that you’re the wrong person to have been chosen for the project, that worry can freeze you up and drive procrastination, add stress, and create unhelpful self-doubt.
So how do we tell the difference between the negative thoughts that help us—and those that hurt us?
Assess the Thought
This brings us to our first strategy: Assess. When you catch a negative thought in your mind—and particularly when you feel the kick of negative emotion that comes along with it—first tune in for a moment and assess it.
The Two Questions to Ask Yourself
If that negative thought has a purpose, the best way to deal with it is to listen to it. The two questions I recommend here are simple ones: “Is it true?” and “Is it helpful?” When the negative thought sounds like, “Man, this project is so stressful and there’s so much that has to get done this week!”, ask yourself “Is it true?” In this case, the answer is probably, “Yes.” So follow up with the second question, “Is it helpful?” Is thinking about the stress of the project helping you to deal with it? That answer depends on how much emotion is accompanying the thought. If you feel a bit of anxiety recognizing that you’re not on schedule, then this negative thinking might be exactly what you need to get back on track. Negative emotions can often guide us to positive change. On the other hand, if you feel overwhelmed by the stress, it’s not helping and it’s probably better to tune the thought out.
What Happens If You're Not Sure?
Sometimes you may not know if the thought is true. When you catch yourself suddenly worrying that you left the front door unlocked, you probably don’t know for sure. But if you can tell it’s just a passing feeling and you don’t vividly remember walking away without turning the key, it probably doesn’t make sense to drop all your groceries and run straight home to check. Assess the probability and severity of your thought and find a way to manage the situation accordingly. If you’re fairly certain you did leave the door unlocked and you’ve only walked half a block, turn around and go lock it. Otherwise, let it go.
In some cases, our negative thoughts are tuning us in to emotions that can help us alleviate or improve a situation in front of us. Guilt, frustration, and sadness are all feelings that carry a message that might be helping us. The key word is might. By assessing our negative thoughts, we’re stepping back to take an objective view of how helpful our thinking really is. As you’re practicing this and asking yourself “Is it true?” and “Is it helpful?”, imagine that you are talking with a trusted friend. How would they answer?
When the thoughts aren’t true and aren’t helping, there are a number of strategies you can use to fend them off and get yourself refocused on the present moment. We’ll explore the first of these strategies in Part two of this series. Stay tuned!
Try Derrick's 4-week Happify track, Conquer Negative Thoughts
Derrick Carpenter, MAPP, coaches individuals on living engaged and inspired lives, runs experiential corporate leadership programs, and trains US Army personnel on resilience. He's researched what makes people great in psychology labs at Harvard, Yale, and UPenn, where he received his Master of Applied Positive Psychology.
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