“Don’t believe everything you think.” This short, simple phrase is the key to managing negative thoughts. Why manage negative thoughts? Negative thinking supports negative emotions, and the two together lead to feelings of stress, powerlessness, and the need for escape. In short, negative thinking can lead to relapse.
Our training materials at St. Joseph Institute include a short article by psychologist Bruce Campbell that explains how our thoughts affect our moods and actions. Campbell describes two different styles for interpreting experience: pessimistic/hopeless or optimistic/hopeful.
The pessimistic style sees specific events as examples of permanent, far-reaching negative forces. Thoughts in this style often begin with “I always…!” or “I never…!” (and often end in exclamation points!).
The optimistic style sees a specific event as just that—something specific, limited, and temporary. Thoughts in this second style might begin, “Today, I…” or “This time, I…”
Say you make a mistake at work. You might feel a mixture of several emotions: shame, anger, anxiety, hopelessness. You can fuel these emotions with pessimistic, hopeless thoughts like “I’m such an idiot!” “I’ll never get better!” or “This always happens to me!” Or, you can think, “I made a mistake today.”
Campbell suggests that we practice recognizing and evaluating negative thoughts by keeping a thought record. Note the event, the emotions it raised, and your initial thoughts about it. Ultimately, you want to correct your thought pattern to one that is based in reality and hopefulness. In the example above, you might conclude, “I’ve been making more mistakes than usual lately. It could be because I’ve been so tired. But I’m learning from each of these mistakes, and I know that I can improve. I’ll start by going to bed earlier.”
When we’re in the midst of a powerful emotional reaction, such calm, rational thinking can feel impossible. That’s okay. In this case, allow yourself to feel your emotions. Sit with them, observe them, seek to understand them, let them flow. If negative thoughts fill your head and make you feel worse, that’s okay. Just let it all play out for awhile, knowing that when you’re ready, you’ll approach the situation more rationally.
When you’re ready, use Campbell’s questions to help correct your negative thoughts.
- Do I know of situations in which this thought is not completely true all the time?
- If my good friend had this thought, what would I tell him or her?
- When I felt this way in the past, what did I think that helped me feel better?
- Five years from now, am I likely to see this situation differently?
- Am I blaming myself for something not under my control?
In the end, remember that thoughts are powerful. They create your reality. Anita Moorjani, author of Dying to be Me, asks her audience in a lecture to look around the room and notice everything red. Then, she asks everyone to close their eyes. “Now,” she says. “How many things can you recall that are blue?”
Her point is simple: What we focus on is what we will see, often to the exclusion of everything else. If we go out into the world looking for everything that might harm us, we will see only danger. If we look for examples of kindness, we will see kindness.
Make a commitment to yourself and to your recovery: don’t believe everything you think. Nurture positive, hopeful thoughts, and allow the rest to fall away.