Challenging Your Negative Thoughts
Make Way for the Positive
There are plenty of positive thinking exercise recommended to those who want to improve how they think about themselves and their environment. But no matter how hard you try to think positively, first you have to do something with those negative thoughts. The first significant step is to recognize the negative thoughts you have and acknowledge them as such. Then you can challenge them in order to keep them from overriding other thoughts.
What Makes Negative Thoughts Important?
Negative thoughts are important because we often take them for our normal thoughts. In other words, we normalize negative thinking so much that we barely notice we’re doing it and we usually don’t even think those thoughts have a destructive effect on our lives. I bet you’re having a negative thought about this article right now!
If you think about it, you’re likely to realize that you have more negative thoughts than you care to admit. All of these negative thoughts can help you understand the difficulties you might have in your life.
How Can You Isolate Negative Thoughts?
You should first acknowledge that even the smallest negative thought can have power. The following are a few negative statements we often understand as just statements even though they are definitely negative:
"I have no luck."
"Since I’ve planned a picnic it will rain now for sure."
"It’s not if I’ll make a mistake on this project, it’s when."
"I shouldn’t be spending this much money."
"Don’t think like that."
This is just a small sample of how we think negatively and don’t even notice. Any positive thinking exercise to follow should involve eliminating negative thoughts, no matter how big or small, so that they can be replaced with positive thoughts that are realistic.
You start small by learning to recognize these negative thoughts, both big and small, at first. Don’t try to stop them or correct them. Just tune in to your thoughts so that you become aware of the negative ones running through your head.
Acknowledging those negative thoughts in your head is half the battle. They often have become a habit so recognizing that you’re thinking them is the first (and significant) step in changing your thoughts. You can even record the negative thoughts you’re having, both big and little. Writing down those thoughts will help you to recognize the recurring ones and you’ll have concrete areas to focus on as you work through positive thinking exercises.
At first using positive thinking exercises to catch and eventually eliminate your negative thoughts may not sound like a useful way to counter negative thinking but they can be powerful in helping you to understand how your brain works. And only once you understand how your brain “talks” to you can you re-route those thoughts (or conversations?) in a positive manner.
Looking for the Evidence Can Help You Stop Negative Thoughts
It will take some time and practice for you to train yourself to stop your negative thoughts. As those negative thoughts are really just a habit, the first step is to catch yourself when you’re thinking negatively. When you notice it happening, you can compare that thought to the evidence of its truth as a way of seeing that it’s not actually true.
Challenging Your Negative Thoughts Step By Step
Step 1: Decide to work on a broad category of negative thought. For example you might find that you have frequent negative thoughts about your body, or about your intellect. You can even choose a negative thought that you have frequently like “I’m going to mess this up.” Whatever you choose to do, do not try to work on all of your negative thoughts at the same time. For one thing, it takes time to train yourself to get rid of them so start slow and work through the issues or specific negative thoughts gradually.
Step 2: Got your broad category? Start to think about all of your thoughts that fit into that category. If you’re working on negative body image, some of your regular downers might be something like “I’ll never lose this weight” or “This dress makes me look fat”. Create a table and make a list of all of these negative body image thoughts on one side.
Step 3: Now its time to present the evidence supporting your thoughts. On the blank side of the table, add all of the evidence backing up your negative thoughts about your body. Usually there is little or none and you can add that as evidence, too. For example, for the thought “This dress makes me look fat”, you would add that no one actually ever told you that and how there is no reason for you to assume someone would say that about you. Or you can counter that negative thought about your body by writing down something like “I would never think about someone like that so why do I expect other people think that about me?”
Can you see how presenting yourself with evidence (or the lack thereof) is countering your negative thoughts? Writing out the evidence in your table makes you examine your own life to see if what you’ve been telling yourself is true. Yes someone might have said something like this once or twice in your life but not every time you wear a dress (for example). You’ll find that those negative thoughts are not based on solid evidence but rather a feeling you have about yourself that you are less than others. This exercise provides evidence that your negative thoughts are indeed false. Writing out the facts will help you realize this.
Repeat this exercise for every negative thought you have. You might need to repeat it several times for a particularly stubborn set of negative thoughts since your emotional self might have a hard time taking your evidence at face value the first time. Eventually, however, you’ll be able to stop the negative thoughts from starting and your habitual negative thoughts will become more rational thoughts free from passing judgement.
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