Do you tell yourself, “I’m just a negative person”? If so, and if you believe this, your words can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, you aren’t a victim (unless you choose to be) – there is an alternative.
The truth is that with practice your negative thought habits can be changed for the better. It does take work, but it’s worth it. Learning to look at yourself, the world, and the future in more constructive ways can benefit virtually all aspects of your life.
Once you’ve identified some of the ways in which your mind can cause you grief (see Ten Ways Your Mind Can Make You Miserable), try some of the following suggestions (from Dr. Burns’ “The Feeling Good Handbook”) to eradicate these misery-making thought patterns you’ve developed.
- Determine the distortion: Make a list of your troubling thoughts, then check the list of cognitive distortions and note what categories your thoughts fall into.
- Review the evidence: Rather than taking it for granted that each of your negative thoughts is true, review the reasons that this may not in fact be the case. For instance, if you believe that you are always late for appointments, list examples when you were on time or even early.
- Be your own best friend: Let go of berating yourself and instead speak to yourself as you would to a close friend in a similar situation.
- Check it out: Conduct an experiment to evaluate the truthfulness of your troubling thought. For example, if you feel that you “absolutely cannot stand” sitting in traffic one more day, go ahead and make your usual morning commute anyway. You may feel uncomfortable, and eventually you may even make a lifestyle change that no longer necessitates your commute (lucky you!), but in the meanwhile you’ve shown yourself that you can in fact “stand it”.
- Accept the mixed bag: Rather than viewing an issue in a black-and-white manner and terming it either “terrible” or “fantastic”, consider the various facets of the situation. Look at what lessons you can take away from the experience and what elements you would repeat, when given the chance.
- Conduct a survey: Consult with other people about your thoughts and beliefs, to get a reality check. Maybe you’re having feelings that others would have in a similar situation. For instance, perhaps your jitters before an important job interview is an experience your friends have been through, too.
- Notice your terminology: Become aware of the labels you tend to put on yourself and investigate their truthfulness. If you call yourself an “idiot”, try to define this term. Are you really an idiot?
- Choose your words carefully: Instead of using alarmist language such as “This is going to be a hellish day”, you can try, “Today may be challenging, but I can handle it”.
- Reframe: Rather than taking total responsibility for a problem, step back and look at the big picture. Consider the numerous elements involved in the circumstance — someone else being in a bad mood, technical difficulties, bad weather, miscommunication, etc. Redirect your focus to finding solutions rather than beating yourself up.
- Cost-benefit analysis: List the pros and cons of an emotion (becoming enraged while waiting in line at the grocery store), a thought (“I’ll never be able to get this right”), or a behavior (drinking too much when you’re anxious). There’s always a reason behind the things we do, so you’ll probably come up with at least one pro. However, you’ll probably find that the cons outweigh the pros.
As you experiment with these techniques, try to be patient and compassionate with yourself. You’re becoming aware of and confronting what may be long-standing patterns, so they won’t disappear in a day. However, with practice you’ll eventually notice a significant and meaningful shift in your attitudes and actions.