‘Write kindness in marble; your injuries in dust.’
Q. ‘I often find myself thinking negative thoughts. What can I do to stop having them?’
Applying the keys in this book will, over time, prompt you to have fewer negative thoughts. Meanwhile, trying to control our thoughts (and feelings) is problematical, because they come to us unbidden. Rather than stopping them, let’s invite them in to meet them. And listen to what they have to say.
Then we can ask them to leave.
How do we do that?
Consider the following methods and choose the one that suits you. And apply it when needed.
Method 1. Retract each and every negative thought and statement you make.
Retract it whether or not you think it was an accurate thought to have.
For example, if you say to yourself (or say out loud to someone),
‘Gosh, I’m stupid.’
‘That person is so stupid —’
think to yourself, or say out loud, ‘I retract that.’
‘Gosh, I’m stupid – No, I retract that.’
‘That person is so stupid – Wait, I’m being judgmental again. I retract that.’
Unless you want to, don’t argue with your statement. Don’t add, ‘I’m not stupid’ If you dispute your negative comment you might invite an inner conflict. A simple retraction is neutral, which means you are more likely to develop the habit.
The idea behind this method is that after a while, you won’t bother thinking, or stating, the negative thought because you know you will be retracting it anyway.
Method 2. Aim to be accurate.
Notice your exaggerations and generalisations, and then rephrase them to be accurate. For example, instead of ‘I am such an idiot’ try ‘I made a mistake’.
When you say something like, ‘He is so stupid’, rephrase it to be accurate: ‘What he just said was stupid.’
Generalisations are exaggerations too. When you say or think expressions like:
‘Things never turn out well.’
‘I’m never lucky.’
‘It always happens to me.’
‘You never —’
‘You always — ’
rephrase them. Be accurate. Using trite and whiny expressions like these will prompt you to feel powerless, frustrated, discouraged, irritated . . . and they’ll hinder your attempts to take full responsibility for how your life unfolds. But we enjoy making those statements, and that’s fine. We can make them, but we then have to rephrase them to make them accurate.
For example, if you find yourself saying, ‘Things never turn out well’, try rephrasing the sentence to be accurate with something like: ‘Things haven’t turned out well in this instance.’ This accurate statement will help you see the situation in a healthier perspective, and you won’t be undermining your confidence.
In each case, retract what you have said and rephrase your thought as accurately as you can.
‘Why not refrain from saying the statement in the first place?’
Because you want to have those thoughts, and thoughts are hard to corral. Rather than trying to deprive yourself of having those thoughts, have them, and after having the satisfaction of saying or thinking the thought, rephrase it to be accurate.
‘What’s the point of this?’
When we habitually describe a situation accurately (and therefore, without the unnecessary negativity) we become less harsh with ourselves, and with others. We become more relaxed, and trusting of ourselves.
Method 3. Remind yourself that it’s normal to make mistakes, and you are allowed to make them.
Method 4. Combine methods 1, 2 & 3
. ‘I retract that. I am not an idiot; I made a mistake and I’m allowed to make mistakes.’
‘I retract that. He isn’t silly; what he said was silly. I say silly things sometimes. We all do.’
Method 5. Use imagery. For those of you who can think in pictures try this: If you catch yourself having a negative thought stop and stand, and then walk away while visualising the negative being left behind.
When I do this I imagine black wisps hanging suspended in the air where I had been standing. The wisps no longer have me to carry them around, so they dissipate into nothingness. Or I let a breeze blow the negative thoughts away. I then keep walking, to ensure they don’t regroup and follow me.
That seems to work, because I begin a new train of thought.
‘That sounds weird, Mark.’
Imagery is a valuable tool. Hey, if it works . . .
More imagery: if you have tried letting the thought drift away but it persists, try pasting the thought, ‘I’m worthless’ onto the side of an imagined cow, and shoo that cow away. Every time that cow blunders in (every time you have that thought) shoo it away again. If the cow won’t leave, let it blunder about while you do something else.
If a cow doesn’t suit you, try something else. Paste the thought to the side of a missile that whooshes away. If the thought comes again paste it to another missile and whoosh it away.
‘Again, that’s weird.’
Again, that’s imagery. It works for some people.
‘Think of your thoughts like pop-up ads on the internet that might be a nuisance, but you don’t have to buy what they are selling.
‘By making the comment come from a cartoonish outsider instead, it makes it easier to say “No, that isn’t true and I refuse to listen to you.”’
Method 6. Remind yourself that your negative thoughts are only one aspect of your personality, so don’t attach too much significance to them.
‘Thoughts about yourself that are dark, brooding and negative are a part of you, not the whole. Don’t allow these to define who you are; it’s an untruth to yourself if you do. Every person is a contradiction and a mixture of light, shade and dark and we each spend a lifetime balancing these aspects of ourselves.’
From the Wikihow site.
Method 7. Honour the part within you that doesn’t believe you are bad.
I once explained to a friend why I considered myself to be a failure. To my horror I (mistakenly) thought my friend was about to agree with me, and I quickly interrupted her. It was at that moment I realised that if I didn’t want my friend to agree I was a failure, it meant that something within me also refused to accept the notion. I was surprised and pleased. I didn’t know what that part was, but I decided to honour it and protect it. I made the decision to never again call myself a failure. I can say I have failed at something, but I will not call myself a failure.
To this day I have honoured that vow.
So, if like me you are fortunate to find a part of you that sticks up for you, support it. Honour it. It needs your support.
Method 8. Look for your deeper concerns.
A previous key suggested that when we experience an unsettling emotion we search for our deeper concerns:
‘Why do I feel anxious about being unproductive?
‘What precisely is it about dogs that I fear?’
We can apply the same procedure to our unwanted thoughts.
‘Why do I often imagine arguing with my boss? What is my deeper concern?’
‘Where do my racist thoughts come from? What is it that I fear? Or resent?’
Discovering your deeper concerns will diminish their hold on you.
Method 9. Admonish yourself constructively.
In the next section we find it’s okay to be angry with other people, and with ourselves, provided we express our anger in a healthy, constructive manner.
Remind yourself of that. Remind yourself that you have every right to be angry, but you are obliged to find a healthy way to express it. That means: no self-blame, no self-insults. Then you will fulfil the urge to be self-critical without actually being self-critical. You can learn from the incident without beating yourself up.
So, if you want to be angry with yourself, go for it. But express it in a healthy way. For example: ‘Gosh, I’m irritated with myself. I feel so dismayed with what I did.’ Then focus on what can be done to rectify the problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again. (More on that in the next section.)
‘When you have a negative thought say to your brain: ‘Poor brain, you’re frustrated,’ or ‘Goodbye, Thought.’
(From Dr Harris in his book, ‘The Happiness Trap’.) This suggestion was in the earlier chapter about dealing with emotional beliefs. It’s here as well because it’s good for dealing with all negative thoughts. Here’s a reminder:
In the same way you say goodbye to your disabling beliefs, say goodbye to your thoughts:
‘Here’s that thought about me being bad. Hello thought. Goodbye.’
‘Here comes the “I’m the victim” story. Hello story. Goodbye.’
‘Hi thought, see you later.’
A suggestion from Amanda McClintock: ‘. . . one of the best things I found was this one lesson, this one week, and I can’t even remember what it was called, but it was fantastic. Basically, I had to pick a thought that . . . would go through my head all the time. And that one thought for me was “I’m not worth it. No one wants me here, I’m just not worth being here.” During the next week I had to . . . every time that thought would come into my head, I had to sing it. Like, say it in a silly voice, put it in an accent. I had to draw it on a piece of paper and put decorations all around it so it looked like a “Happy Birthday” banner up. I had to sing the words “I’m not worth it” to “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. It made the thought sound ridiculous. It made it sound like the most ridiculous thing on the face of the earth, so it makes you laugh. . . . “Why would I even think that? It’s just not true.” Putting it in that ridiculous sense made it seem so much less of an issue.’
From the SBS television program, ‘Insight’, with presenter Jenny Brockie. 29th March, 2011.
‘I would just play devil’s advocate with my own thoughts. “That’s rubbish, that’s ridiculous.” Sometimes I would say things out loud to myself or just do something to interrupt that thought pattern so I could then move on and that fear would dissipate.’
Kate Warner, from the same Insight program.
‘Force yourself to concentrate on something else until the urge passes.’
‘When a person becomes unusually depressed about an event in her life, it’s often because of three mental distortions: (1) she feels that the situation is permanent; (2) she feels that it is critical, meaning that it’s more significant than it really is, and (3) that it is all -consuming, that it will invade and pervade other areas of her life. When any or all of these beliefs are present and elevated, it will dramatically increase her anxiety and despondency.
Conversely, when we think of a problem as temporary, isolated, and insignificant, it doesn’t concern us at all. By artificially inflating or deflating these factors in the mind of another, you can instantly alter their attitude toward any situation, be it positive or negative.’
David J. Lieberman, in his book, ‘Never Be Lied To Again.’