How to Fight (and Win) a Battle Against Your Negative ThoughtsNone By Derrick Carpenter
I recently led a webinar for Happify on Overcoming Negative Thoughts, where I outlined four strategies for loosening the grip that negative thinking has on our minds. This article is part three of a four-part series reviewing these strategies in more detail.
In my previous articles, I discussed how negative thoughts can often be false, leading us to negative feelings that are unwarranted. Distraction can be a great first strategy to try, but when our negative thoughts are persistent, a tougher approach might be needed. Combatting our negative thoughts head-on takes a bit more practice, but proves to be a worthy opponent for even the most tenacious negative thoughts that aren’t grounded in reality.
The foundational assumption that we often make when listening to our negative thinking is that our inner critic knows what it’s talking about. The truth is, our minds feed us messages that range from mild embellishments (“My boss doesn’t like me”) to outright lies (“I’m not qualified to do anything”). This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. It just means that we’re human, and that we have to be particularly cautious when tuning in to our inner monologue.
Once we realize that the negative thought grabbing our attention might not be true, we have the power to combat it. Fighting against our own thoughts swiftly and decisively demands focus and discipline, but it’s a practice we can develop any time negative thinking gets in our way.
Prove Yourself Wrong
One of the best ways to enter combat is to imagine yourself as a prosecutor and your negative thought as a defendant in court. He’s guilty, and you know it. But he’s pleading not guilty and sticking to his story. Your task is to get the judge to hear your side. So when the negative thought shouts out, “You’re not a good mom!” you need to consult the evidence at your disposal to prove it wrong. Argue back, “I am a good mom, because…,” and fill in the rest of that sentence with the strongest piece of evidence you can find:
“I am a good mom because I make it a priority to listen to my kids and have fun with them every day.”
“I am a good mom because yesterday I taught my son a valuable lesson about fairness when he was upset.”
You get the point. Bring your best version of a tough lawyer to that courtroom and convince the judge that the negative thought doesn’t deserve his attention. After all, the judge is you. And once you convince yourself, you can get back to whatever you’d rather be focusing on.
Battle the Confirmation Bias
As I mentioned in the webinar, there’s one important and rather unfortunate catch to this courtroom metaphor: The judge has been bribed by your negative thought. What I mean by that is the judge is naturally leaning toward his side of the argument at the start. In order to win the judge over, you need compelling, emotionally charged evidence. The judge will listen to you, but you really have to win him over.
We’ve all had this experience. As soon as a negative thought enters your mind, such as “I don’t like this guy,” it’s really hard to get rid of it. This tendency—for our minds to tightly grab hold of the initial belief we have about something—is what psychologists call the confirmation bias. Even if there is good evidence right in front of us that this guy possesses some high-quality characteristics, we easily discount that evidence, or forget about it quickly. Our tendency is to confirm our original position. We’re not all fair judges when we evaluate our view of ourselves and the world.
This makes fighting back a tough job. But the good news is that each time we fight a negative thought, such as “I’m an imposter; I don't know what I'm doing at work,” with strong evidence like “I deserve to be here because…,” we chip away at the belief. The day that we no longer believe we’re an imposter is the day we release the grip of the confirmation bias. It may take time, but the freedom of an un-persecuted mind is earned through persistence.
And if you really are feeling stuck overcoming the grip of your negative thought and just can’t prove it wrong, sometimes an outside perspective helps. Seek out a trusted advisor—anyone from a friend to a counselor whose advice you really respect—and ask for their perspective. Assuming they don’t hold the same negative belief, they’ll be free of the confirmation bias that’s holding you back and might help you identify a way past it.
Reframe with a Silver Lining
Sometimes our negative thoughts are so vague and general that they’re hard to fight back with evidence. When you wake up and think, “Today is going to be terrible,” a better strategy for combatting is to reframe. Pause and recognize the inherent pessimism in that thought. The truth is, you have some control over how you tell the story of this day as it unfolds, and even if you’re going to face some challenges along the way, you have the ability to interpret what they mean to you and how you might learn from them. I often recommend that my clients imagine a specific person they admire for their approach to life (like Ellen DeGeneres, or their grandfather), and when they catch themselves thinking a negative thought that’s getting in their way but is too ambiguous to take to court, imagine how Ellen or Granddad would handle it. For example, they might say, “Today is an opportunity to really see what I’m made of.”
Getting stuck in pessimistic assumptions about what might happen is a drag. Seeing the possibility in a situation is motivating. Optimism has power—and when optimism is packaged together with the evidence we use to disprove our negative thoughts, we find ourselves with very capable boxing gloves, ready to jab back when those pesky negative thoughts take a swing at us.
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