“I’m too fat.” “I’m stupid. I’m never going to pass this test.” “Nobody likes me.” “I’ll embarrass myself if I try.” “I’m a failure.” “I’m too ugly. Nobody’s ever going to like me.”
Sound familiar? Negative thoughts, like those listed above, may appear seemingly harmless, but, when they occur frequently, can form a pattern of negative thinking that has a significant impact on one’s self-esteem, mood, interactions with others, and overall ability to function.
The Connections Between Thought and Action
Research shows that there is a strong connection between how people think, feel, and behave. For example, if someone thinks he is awkward and disliked by others, he’s likely to feel self-conscious, anxious, and isolated, and, as a result, withdraw from social situations.
This can then become a pattern of self-sabotage, where one assumes others don’t want him around, isolates (and then feels better, but reinforces withdrawal as a way to manage anxious-thoughts) or presents in a negative or awkward manner (thus increasing the likelihood others will provide negative social feedback and reinforce the assumption).
Now, initially, it might appear that this negative internal monologue “just happens” and is out of one’s control or that things must be true if you are thinking them. However, with practice of the steps below, and, potentially working with a mental health professional trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (for particularly entrenched thinking patterns), you can learn to shift, change, and better control your thoughts.
Steps To Control Your Thoughts
Step 1: Increase your knowledge about common thinking-errors (i.e. cognitive distortions) people engage in. Examples include black and white thinking, personalization, jumping to inclusions, overgeneralizing, and blaming. While these ways of thinking help our brain quickly organize and deal with information, they also generally stop us from really considering the situation fully and making an informed decision about our circumstances.
Step 2: Identify and gain awareness of your own negative thoughts. It’s often helpful to create a thought journal to write down the negative thoughts you have, when they occur, any triggers or patterns to the thoughts, and how you feel and behave as a result.
Step 3: Put your negative thoughts on trial. Rather than just assuming they must be true or factual, test your thoughts by examining the surrounding evidence. What things support the thought and what things show it to be untrue or inaccurate?
Step 4: Ask yourself, would I say this to a friend or loved one? You are often your own worst critic, so considering how you would respond if another were in the same situation can dramatically shift how you perceive things.
Step 5: Replace the negative thought with one that is more realistic and well-rounded. Notice I did not say one that is positive. The goal here is to be accurate and in control of our thoughts, not to shift to the other extreme and cause unfounded positivity.
When you first start this process, it is likely to feel odd or difficult. Keep with it. Set smaller goals, such as trying to challenge one negative thought a day. With time and practice, it will become easier and start to occur more naturally. Reach out to a counselor if you need help breaking into this new mindset.
Best of luck on your journey towards healthier thinking patterns!