In our therapy-seeker community, we get a lot of questions about negative thoughts. Where do negative thoughts come from? How can I stop thinking negative thoughts? How do I quiet negative self talk? One of the reasons our therapy-seekers give for wanting to start therapy in the first place is to find out how to manage their negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts aren’t necessarily always bad. Sometimes, they can inspire positive change. But they can do damage if they start to spiral or overwhelm us. When negative thinking is constant or expressed in negative self talk or a harsh inner critic, it can be helpful to learn how to manage those negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts can manifest in many ways, but if you think you are prone to negative thoughts, some of these might sound familiar:
Often, our negative thoughts are learned through our environment, experiences, and relationships. This isn’t about blaming anyone else, but simply noticing that we have been conditioned by the people and situations that surround us.
“The programming we received is what we saw modeled by the adults and environment around us from a young age,” said Heather Stevenson, NYC therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Much of this programming comes from our parents and families, but also from teachers, coaches, friends, the media, and other sources. Whether we saw them berating themselves, or others, or us, we experienced this critical mindset and internalized it.”
Our brains are wired to ruminate on negative thoughts and experiences rather than positive ones. From an evolutionary perspective, this way of thinking allows us to avoid danger and respond to crises quickly.
“The first thing to consider is having an understanding of how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected,” said Liz Beecroft, a LMSW and content creator based in Brooklyn. “When a triggering event happens, we tend to have an automatic thought about this event (oftentimes related to our past experiences or irrational core beliefs). This thought that we have influences the way that we then feel emotionally, which then affects our behaviors.”
Imagine someone knocks a vase off a table. You’re standing next to the table and you reach out to catch it. It happens quickly and automatically. A similar thing happens with our negative thinking patterns. When we’re caught in negative thinking patterns, in response to an event, our brain will react with a negative thought. Then these thoughts influence our bodies and our behaviors.
“When people are caught in negative thinking patterns, it’s common for the feelings associated with that thought to be negative (sadness, regret, despair, depression, anger, etc). When we begin to feel this negative emotion, our behavior subsequently leads to inaction, outbursts, crying, isolation, as well as other behaviors we wish wouldn’t occur.”
If our brains are wired this way, how can we hope to manage our negative thoughts? There’s a reason we’re talking about managing negative thoughts as opposed to stopping them completely. As our CEO, Alyssa, says in an episode of our Small Talks series, answering the question “how do I stop thoughts and improve my meditation practice,” our brains are made to think! We don’t want to stop thinking. We want to practice compassion and understanding with ourselves. Here are some tips:
It’s important to feel your feelings and think your thoughts. Acknowledge them, don’t suppress them. When a negative thought comes up, instead of thinking, Don’t think about that, make that thought go away, step back from the thought and examine it.
Say you just finished a presentation at work. At the end of the presentation, your boss asked if anyone had questions. No one spoke. Again, your boss asked if anyone had anything to say about your presentation. Silence. Your boss thanked you and moved on. If you’re prone to negative thoughts, you might begin to spiral. Why didn’t anyone have any questions? My presentation was awful. What else could I have said? There’s no way I can ask for a promotion next month. I’m going to get fired.
Instead of suppressing those thoughts or kicking yourself for thinking them, challenge them. It’s possible that no one had questions because they were processing your information. Or they were tired! What evidence do you actually have that your presentation was awful? Even if a presentation doesn’t go well, is that the only item you’ll be measured on for your promotion? Would it be helpful to send your boss a quick email and ask them how they thought your presentation went?
Instead of not thinking your thoughts, acknowledge them, take a step back, and question them. The space and time you take to examine your thought, even for a minute, can give you some clarity about your next steps and will allow you to pause and practice self compassion.
Once you start to notice when your negative thoughts come up, notice where you physically are when they do. If your negative thoughts occur most often when you’re using social media, take a break for a while. The addictive nature of social media can make this difficult, so if you find it hard to stop scrolling, set a screen timer on your phone so you can stay aware of how long you’ve been on your phone or put your phone in another room after dinner and have some physical time away from your screen. Then notice if this affects your thoughts. If you notice that you feel better, try to make a practice of spending less time on social media.
Or maybe your negative thoughts arise after spending time with a family member, coworker, or someone in your community. Again, notice what thoughts are coming up and what effect they have on your body. If you can, remove yourself from the situation with that person next time, and see what effect that has. One of my favorite quotes is, If you can’t change the people around you, change the people around you.” In other words, if you can’t force or expect the people around you to change, surround yourself with different (positive) people.
Say you message a friend and you can see that they read or saw your message but they haven’t responded. An immediate negative thought might be They hate me, they don’t want to talk to me, they’re mad at me. But a different reaction to the exact same event could be, They must be busy right now, maybe they read my message and got distracted, they might be waiting to answer when we talk later.
If something happens and you start to think negative thoughts, stop, acknowledge the thought, and see if there’s a different way to look at the situation. Just like when we talked about challenging your negative thoughts, take a step back. See if you can examine the event from the perspective of an outsider, or from a completely neutral perspective. Ask yourself how a situation could be explained in a more positive way.
Self talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head. These automatic thoughts can be positive or negative. Some of your self talk comes from logic and reason. Other self talk may arise from misconceptions that you create because of a lack of information.
Just like we can reframe our thoughts and reactions, we can start to reframe our thoughts and the way we talk to ourselves. If we get a rejection back from a job application, instead of thinking, I’m stupid, I’m underqualified, I should never have applied, I’ll never get a job, we can replace those negative scripts with positive or neutral ones.
Be gentle and encouraging with yourself. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you. Think about things you're thankful for in your life.
We could say to ourselves, Maybe an internal candidate ended up getting promoted, let me go back to my resume and see if I can make any updates. Or, This outcome might have had nothing to do with me at all. Or, I can use this energy to apply for my next dream job.
I often struggle with negative self talk and negative thoughts and I hold myself to an impossibly high standard. For me, mistakes are catastrophic and unacceptable. I think my work should be twice as good and done in half the time. My standards are often unattainable, let alone at all sustainable.
One tool that always helps me is asking myself how I would treat a friend who had the same thoughts. I would never, ever tell a friend, You got rejected? You should just give up. Or, I can’t believe you sent that with a typo. No one is going to take you seriously now. I would tell my friend, A single rejection? No big deal! You’re awesome and you can just try again. Or, Typos happen. Your one typo a year isn’t world-ending. There’s a good chance no one even noticed.
I would treat a friend and someone I love with compassion, care, kindness, and probably some humor. I should allow myself to be treated the same way.
Negative thoughts and self talk are usually automatic, so it can feel like we’ll never break free of that cycle. If you’re struggling with negative thoughts and can’t seem to manage on your own, working with a therapist can help. Above all, have patience with yourself. Managing negative thoughts is a practice that takes time, but you’ve got this.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.