Prior to six months ago I did not realize that I was living most of the days of my life getting bombarded by negative thoughts. I was like a planet getting hit by a plethora of asteroids varying in size from the relatively small to the humongous. I didn’t realize it because I had been living that way for so long that I didn’t notice it. I believe that whenever it first started (college? childhood? mid twenties?) it probably started slowly. Just one or two small asteroids every few weeks or so. But over time they got gradually bigger and more plentiful. And without noticing the incremental increases in negative feelings I had gotten to the point to where they were overwhelming.
My girlfriend was at her wits end with me. She loves me, but she said my negativity, general sadness and short temper was really weighing her down. She strongly suggested I seek therapy. I went kicking and screaming.
The therapy wasn’t at all what I expected. I assumed we’d be talking about my childhood and my failed relationships and other pieces of my history. But instead she told me to change my thoughts and my responses to my thoughts. I was skeptical to say the least. You can’t change your thoughts anymore than you can change your height I believed. You’re thoughts are a part of you…aren’t they?
Plus, why do I care about changing my thoughts? I don’t have a problem with my thoughts. I have a problem with my feelings. I would often feel hopeless, sad, stressed, panicked, angry, etc. Those were my problems. And this lady was talking about my thoughts and self talk. I didn’t see the point. I thought this whole therapy thing might be just another failed attempt to change the unchangeable.
But I stuck with it. And eventually it clicked. I realized that my thoughts were not necessarily me. They didn’t always feel like me. I didn’t always agree with them. They felt like they belonged to a friend with a very moody personality. And a lot of my bad feelings seemed to be caused by those renegade thoughts.
Think of your thoughts like animals. If a kitten shows up, I’m not going to feel fear. I’m going to get all gushy and wanna snuggle it. If a see a snarling wolf, I’m going to likely faint and lose control of my bladder. Some of the thoughts that appear in our brains cause a happy response. Some cause negativity. Are we doomed to live at the mercy of our emotional reactions to our thoughts? I used to believe the answer was unequivocally yes.
The thought oft training myself to not feel fear in the face of a wolf seems impossible. However, I have the power (as does everyone else) to change my vision of the wolf. I have the ability to photoshop the image of a wolf in my mind’s eye. I can do whatever I want in my mind. I can draw a funny wig on it. I can give it a word bubble that reads, “I’m a wimpy wolf.” I can even cover the original photo of the wolf completely with a white paintbrush tool and draw my own animal. At first my mental drawings were barely stick figures. But now, after months of practice I’m a much more skilled mind-artist.
Below are the steps I went through to combat the onslaught of negative thoughts that constantly whiz by my head like the bullets on the Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. They helped me. I hope they can help you too.
1. Admit that some of your unhappiness is the result of negative thoughts
In order to do this you have to believe it. Don’t believe it because I’m saying it. I don’t know your mind. Analyze your own thoughts and see if you agree with this statement. If you don’t, then the following steps won’t help you. If you do believe it, read on.
2. Isolate one of the bad thoughts.
The thoughts go in and out of our head like a car goes through a tunnel. If a negative thought appears in your mind and then leaves it could do some damage and be gone. Then you’re stuck with the damage without realizing the cause. So, write down the thought before it goes out of your mind undetected. Look at it like a detective would look at a bullet removed from a murder victim.
Isolating thoughts may seem impossible like catching flies with chopsticks. But practice and meditation (yes the stuff that crunchy hippies also do) made that process easier for me. Meditation helps you to see your thoughts as something separate from your ability to observe them and react to them. If you need help with this (and I recommend you do get help) I highly recommend the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Now for me the thoughts have slowed to a crawl and isolating them has become less like catching flies and more like picking up turtles.
3. Debate that thought.
Even if you agree with the negative thought try to pretend to be someone who doesn’t agree with it. Put yourself in the shoes of a lawyer or a scholar or whatever helps you to see the other side of it. Write down why the thought is not true. Elaborate as much as you can as to why it’s not true.
4. Determine the truth or falsehood of the thought
Look at what you wrote down and ask yourself honestly which side you believe? Did the arguments against the thought convince you that it was untrue? If not, then are their other arguments you can use? If not, then I would suggest getting help from someone (a friend, a therapist, etc.) to get their view on it. Find a way to make yourself truly believe that the negative thought is bullshit.
5. Remember that it’s false
If you’re like me, most negative thoughts you get will not only strike once. My negative thoughts strike on a fairly regular basis. But after I’ve debunked a thought I no longer need to worry about it. I look at a negative thought in much the same way that I look at a bad argument. I would never take someone seriously who says the sun revolves around the earth. We know for a fact that’s not true. So, I just ignore them and go on with my day. Whenever a negative thought hits me that I’ve already proven is untrue then I don’t let it affect me negatively, because I’ve done the work already to disarm it.
Now, just because you’ve already proven it’s a false once thought doesn’t mean you’re impervious to it’s power. It’s perfectly okay and even recommended to repeat step 4 about a bad thought as much as you need to. And don’t be ashamed of doing that. A lot of amazing ideas throughout history were not accepted the first time they were proven. It’s your journey. Take the time it requires.
6. Dismiss the recurring thoughts faster each time.
The thought, “You’ll never be successful” hits me multiple times per day. Even though I know it’s untrue, I still have to devote some time to reminding myself of that. But the more I do it, the more the process becomes automatic. It’s like learning to play a song on the guitar. Learning it takes a while. Playing it after learning it still takes some time as I have to mentally go through the chords and timing in my head. But after doing it over and over, I can pick up the guitar and play the song without devoting much mental energy to remembering how to do it. The process becomes nearly automatic. The same will be true of how you dismiss these negative thoughts.
7. Repeat steps 2-6 about every bad thought you have.
I get a huge variety of bad thoughts, but the number is not infinite. Now, I’ve noticed that the majority of the bad thoughts I get are ones I’ve gotten before. It took time to work through so many of them, but now it takes almost no time. It’s like setting up a spam folder on your email. Most of my bad thoughts automatically go there now. Occasionally I get one in my inbox, but even those are easy to deal with because I’ve done the work so many times on all the others.
If you think there’s any possibility whatsoever that you are unknowingly being bombarded with asteroid-esque thoughts, please do yourself a favor and take the steps necessary to change that. If you don’t use the technique I’ve used, please do yourself a favor and try some technique. The mind is a muscle and when it’s damaged it needs to be healed. You don’t keep walking on a broken foot. Please don’t keep living with a hurting mind.