“There’s a brilliant, beautiful, priceless piece of art hanging right in front of you. It’s sophisticated and meticulously detailed — a painstaking labor of passion and deep devotion. The colors, patterns, and textures are like no other — they soar and dip, they shine bright and leap right off the canvas at you. And yet you choose to focus your eyes on the tiny, dark housefly that has landed on the edge this masterpiece. Why would you choose to do such a thing?”
Cara cracked a half smile in my direction and then shifted her gaze down to the ground.
“Look,” I continued, “the point here is that there’s no possible way to be 100% certain about anything in this world. Life, like great art, is sophisticated, complex, and somewhat unpredictable. So you’re left with a choice: either appreciate it and look for the beauty it holds, or focus on the worst and dwell on it.”
“But if you expect the worst, you’re never quite as disappointed,” Cara said under her breath.
“Yeah, but who truly lives like that?” I replied. “No one, that’s who! People die slowly every day like that, without ever truly living.”
That’s the gist of a conversation I had recently with an old friend of mine (I’m sharing this with her full permission). Cara clearly verbalized that expecting negative things to happen is her default way of coping with life’s challenges. And she’s not the first person to mention this coping mechanism to me — Angel and I have literally worked with hundreds of course students and coaching clients over the years who have done something similar. So, if you can relate in any way at all, it’s time to revamp your mindset…
Believing deeply in negative thoughts and acting on them is the single greatest barrier to living a healthy, happy life. If you allow these thoughts to dwell for too long, they will succeed in robbing you of peace, joy, productivity, meaning, and ultimately your life. You will think yourself into endless disappointment, heartache, and even bouts of despair.
And make no misunderstanding about it, when you are feeling down on an average day, the battle you are going through isn’t fueled directly by the words or actions of others, and it isn’t fueled directly by what did or didn’t happen in the past either. It’s fueled primarily by your mind that gives negativity a daily voice. In a very real sense, you are what you think — you can’t change anything if you can’t change your thinking.
But are you ready for the silver lining?
You can change the way you think!
And when you change the way you think, you can gradually master a new way to be.
It’s time to break some negative thinking patterns!
Today we’re going to take a look at five super-common negative thinking patterns, along with some effective methods for breaking the patterns and taming that negative inner voice of yours. These are the very same methods we’ve successfully used with our course students and coaching clients over the past 15 years. But first, let’s examine a fundamental error in judgment negative thinkers tend to make:
People who are habitual negative thinkers are often proud to describe themselves as “realists.” Of course, anyone who holds a strong belief thinks they are being “realistic” by holding it, whether it involves alien encounters, perfectly truthful politicians, or otherwise.
The “being realistic” pronouncement is a common favorite among cynics everywhere. And in a way they are correct. But only because negative thinking causes the human mind to give up on everything — to not even try, or to give a disorganized, half-hearted effort — so the negativity itself influences the end result. Self-fulfilling predictions like this really do happen. Research even suggests that in some cases what we believe about our health can have more bearing on how long we live than our actual physical health.
So why do we as human beings do this to ourselves?
Because thinking negatively, expecting the worst, seeing the downside of positive situations, and even downright expecting failure, all convey a kind of backwards-thinking, emotional insurance policy. It happens subconsciously and it goes something like, “If I expect a catastrophe, then I won’t be quite as disappointed when it takes place.”
What makes all of this so alarming is the fact that it means negative thoughts can plague us even when life is going relatively well. For instance, the thought “This is much too good to last!” quickly wreaks havoc on a positive situation. Thus, the thinking patterns and methods discussed below have to do with how negative thinking distorts our perception of reality, oftentimes constantly over the course of our entire lives…
1. The pattern of over-generalizing the negative (and minimizing the positive).
Ask yourself: “If something negative unexpectedly happens, do I over-generalize it? Do I view it as applying to everything and being permanent rather than compartmentalizing it to one place and time?”
For example, if someone rejects you or turns you down for a date, do you spread the negativity beyond that person, time, and place by telling yourself, “I’m just not good at relationships — they never work out for me, ever”? If you fail an exam do you say to yourself, “Well I failed that exam; I’m not happy about it, but I’ll study more next time”? Or do you over-generalize it by telling yourself you’re “not smart enough” or “incapable of learning”?
Remember, negative thinking stops us from seeing and experiencing positive outcomes even when they happen often. It’s as if there’s a special mental block filtering out all the positives and only letting in data that confirms the negative biases we have. So do your very best to catch yourself starting today.
Being able to distinguish between the negativity you imagine and what is actually happening in your life is an important step towards living a happier, healthier life. (Note: Angel and I discuss this more in the Happiness & Inspiration chapters of “1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently”.)
2. The pattern of ignoring the obvious gray areas between life’s extremes.
Life simply isn’t black or white — 100% of this or 100% of that — all or nothing. Thinking in extremes like this is a fast way to daily misery, because it basically views any situation that’s less than perfect as being extremely bad. For example:
- Rather than the rainstorm slowing down my commute back home from the office, instead “it wasted my whole evening and ruined the night!”
- Rather than just accepting the nervousness of meeting a new group of people, “I know these people are not going to like me!”
Since 99% of all situations in life are less than perfect, “all or nothing” thinking tends to make us focus on the negatives — the drama, the failures, and the worst-case scenarios. Sure catastrophes occur on occasion, but contrary to what you may see on the evening news, most of life occurs in a gray area between the extremes of bliss and total devastation.
3. The pattern of looking for negative signs from others.
Our negativity leads us to quickly jump to negative conclusions about the unknown, which can be especially harmful in our relationships. We are provoked to interpret something another person does as being negative, even when we have been given absolutely no indication of what the other person is thinking. For instance, “She hasn’t called so she must not want to talk to me,” or, “He only said that to be nice, but he doesn’t really mean it.” When we jump to conclusions like this, we only cause ourselves and others unnecessary pain, stress, and frustration.
So if someone says one thing, don’t assume they mean something else. If they say nothing at all, don’t assume their silence has some concealed negative connotation. Assigning meaning to a situation before you have the whole story makes you more likely to believe that the uncertainty you feel (based on lack of knowing) is a negative sign.
On the flip-side, holding off on assigning meaning to an incomplete story helps the mind overcome it’s negative thinking patterns. When you think more positively, or simply more clearly about the facts, you’ll be able to evaluate all the possible reasons you can think of, not just the negative ones. In other words, you’ll be doing more of: “I don’t know why she hasn’t called yet, but maybe… she’s actually extremely busy at work today.”
4. The pattern of allowing the same things to trigger negativity, over and over again.
To change your thinking patterns, it helps to have a crystal-clear understanding of what you’re often thinking about and why. When a familiar negative thought arises in your mind, instead of ignoring it, pay closer attention and then record it for later evaluation. For example, if you’re sitting at your desk and you catch yourself ruminating about something negative, pause and write it down immediately. Get that raw thought out of your head and down on paper — just a short sentence or two that honestly depicts the specific thought that’s presently troubling you:
“I’m not good enough for the job I’m applying for because I don’t have enough experience.”
Then, identify what triggered the thought. Again, be brief and specific:
“I’m new to the industry, and therefore I’m feeling out of my comfort zone on most days.”
At the very least, this process of evaluating your negative thoughts and their underlying triggers helps bring a healthy, objective awareness to the sources of your negative thought patterns, which ultimately allows you to shift your mindset and take the next positive step forward.
5. The pattern of never feeling “good enough.”
All journeys of positive change begin with a goal and the determination needed to achieve it. However, what do you think happens when you are too determined, or too obsessed, with a goal? You begin to nurture another belief: who you are right now is not good enough.
A few months ago, one of our new course students had become overly obsessive in her efforts to meditate. As her interest in meditation grew, she began to increasingly say to herself, “I am not good enough,” and, “I have to be better at this.” She began to notice various imperfections within herself that needed to be “fixed.”
In a nutshell, her over-the-top efforts to meditate for extensive periods of time had opened the doors to lots of unexpected self-criticism and stress. Thankfully, with a little coaching from Angel and me, she eventually realized her obsession toward meditation had made her forget one of the basic objectives of meditation — acceptance.
So the bottom line is this: you have to accept yourself as you are, and then commit to personal growth. If you think you are absolutely “perfect” already, you will not make any positive efforts to grow. But, constantly criticizing yourself is just as counterproductive as doing nothing, because you will never be able to build new positive changes into your life when you’re obsessively focused on your flaws.
The key is to remind yourself that you already are good enough; you just need more practice. Change your mantra from, “I have to be better,” to, “I will do my absolute best today.” The second mantra is far more effective, because it actually prompts you to take positive action at any given moment while simultaneously accepting the reality that every effort may not be perfect.
Being able to distinguish between healthy striving and a pattern of self-abuse on your journey is a critically important step towards living a happier and more successful life.
Now, it’s your turn…
There’s a quote I’ve always loved that’s often credited to Ignatius: “Pray as if God will take care of all; act as if all is up to you.” That’s such a strong way to live! To me, it’s about using your faith to fuel positive thinking and positive action on the daily. I sincerely strive for this in my own life, and I sincerely wish this for YOU.
The five points covered above are solid starting points for unraveling your negative thinking patterns. The goal is to gradually get your thoughts based more in reality, detached from needless drama and confusion, and focused on the next positive step forward. Challenge yourself to START, today!
But before you go, please leave Angel and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
Which one of the points above resonated the most today?
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