“There’s a brilliant, beautiful, priceless piece of art hanging right in front of you. It’s sophisticated and meticulously detailed—a painstaking labor of passion and deep devotion. The colors, patterns and textures are like no other—they soar and dip, they shine bright and leap right off the canvas at you. And yet, you choose to fixate your eyes on the tiny, dark housefly that has landed on the edge this masterpiece. Why would you choose to do such a thing?”
She cracked a half smile in my direction and then shifted her gaze down to the ground.
“Look,” I said, “the point here is that there’s no possible way to be 100% certain about anything in this world. Life, like great art, is sophisticated, complex and unpredictable. So you’re left with a choice: either appreciate it and look for the beauty it holds, or focus on the worst and dwell on it.”
But if you expect the worst, you’re never quite as disappointed,” she said under her breath.
“Yeah, but who truly lives like that?” I replied. “No one, that’s who! People die slowly every day like that, without ever truly living.”
That’s the gist of a conversation I had recently with an attendee of our Think Better, Live Better conference (I’m sharing this with her full permission). She literally started the conversation by telling me that expecting negative things to happen is her default way of coping with life’s challenges. If you can relate in any way at all, it’s time to revamp your mindset.
Believing in negative thoughts and acting on them is the single greatest barrier to living a healthy, productive life. If you allow these thoughts to dwell for too long, they will succeed in robbing you of peace, joy, productivity, meaning, and ultimately your life. You will think yourself into endless disappointment, heartache, and even bouts of depression.
And make no misunderstanding about it, when you are feeling down on a consistent basis, the battle you are going through isn’t fueled by the words or actions of others, and it isn’t fueled by what did or didn’t happen in the past either. It’s fueled entirely by your mind that gives negativity a voice. In a very real sense, you are what you think—you can’t change anything if you can’t change your thinking.
But, are you ready for the silver lining?
YOU CAN change the way you think!
And when you change the way you think, you can gradually master a new way to be.
Quieting the Negative Inner Voices
Today we’re going to take a look at a few effective methods for quieting that negative inner voice of yours—these are the very same methods we’ve successfully used with hundreds of new course students and coaching clients over the years. But first, let’s examine a super-common error in judgment negative thinkers tend to make:
People who are habitual negative thinkers are often proud to describe themselves as “realists.” Of course, anyone who holds a strong belief thinks they are being “realistic” by holding it, whether it involves alien encounters, perfectly truthful politicians, or otherwise.
The “being realistic” pronouncement is a favorite among cynics everywhere. And in a way they are correct. But only because negative thinking causes the human mind to give up on everything—to not even try, or to give a disorganized, half-hearted effort—so the negativity itself influences the end result. Self-fulfilling predictions like this really do happen. Research even suggests that in some cases what we believe about our health can have more bearing on how long we live than our actual physical health.
So, why do we as human beings do this to ourselves?
Because thinking negatively, expecting “the worst,” seeing the downside of positive situations, and even downright expecting failure, all convey a kind of backwards-thinking, emotional insurance policy. It happens subconsciously and it goes something like, “If I expect a catastrophe, then I won’t be quite as disappointed when it takes place.”
What makes all of this so alarming is the fact that it means negative thoughts can plague us even when life is going relatively well. For instance, the thought “This is much too good to last!” quickly wreaks havoc on a positive situation. Thus, the methods discussed below have to do with how negative thinking distorts our perception.
Ready to get started?
It’s time to…
1. Watch your tendency to over-generalize the negative (and minimize the positive).
Ask yourself: “If something negative unexpectedly happens, do I over-generalize it? Do I view it as applying to everything and being permanent rather than compartmentalizing it to one place and time?”
For example, if someone rejects you or turns you down for a date, do you spread the negativity beyond that person, time and place by telling yourself, “I’m just not good at relationships; they never work out for me, ever”? If you fail an exam do you say to yourself, “Well, I failed that exam; I’m not happy about it, but I’ll study more next time”? Or do you over-generalize it by telling yourself you’re “not smart enough” or “incapable of learning”?
Remember, negative thinking stops us from seeing and experiencing positive outcomes, even when they happen often. It’s as if there’s a special mental block filtering out all the positives and only letting in data that confirms the negative biases we have. So, do your very best to catch yourself today.
Being able to distinguish between the negativity you imagine and what is actually happening in your life is an important step towards living a happier life. (Note: Angel and I discuss this extensively in our NEW book.)
2. Start focusing on the grey area between life’s extremes.
Life simply isn’t black or white—100% of this or 100% of that—all or nothing. Thinking in extremes like this is a fast way to misery, because it basically views any situation that’s less than perfect as being extremely bad. For example:
- Rather than the rainstorm slowing down my commute back home from the office, instead “it wasted my whole evening and ruined the night!”
- Rather than just accepting the nervousness of meeting a new group of people, “I know these people are not going to like me.”
Since 99.9% of all situations in life are less than perfect, “all or nothing” thinking tends to make us focus on the negatives—the drama, the failures, and the worst-case scenarios. Sure, catastrophes occur on occasion, but contrary to what you may see on the evening news, most of life occurs in a grey area between the extremes of bliss and total devastation.
3. Stop looking for negative signs from others.
Our negativity leads us to quickly jump to negative conclusions about the unknown, which can be especially harmful in our relationships. We are provoked to interpret something another person does as being negative, even when we have been given absolutely no indication of what the other person is thinking. For instance, “He hasn’t called, so he must not want to talk to me,” or, “She only said that to be nice, but she doesn’t really mean it.” When we jump to conclusions like this, we only cause ourselves and others unnecessary pain, stress and frustration.
So, if someone says one thing, don’t assume they mean something else. If they say nothing at all, don’t assume their silence has a concealed, negative connotation. Assigning meaning to a situation before you have the whole story makes you more likely to believe that the uncertainty you feel (based on lack of knowing) is a negative sign.
On the flip-side, holding off on assigning meaning to an incomplete story helps the mind overcome it’s negative thinking tendencies. When you think more positively, or simply more clearly about the facts, you’ll be able to evaluate all possible reasons you can think of, not just the negative ones. In other words, you’ll be doing more of: “I don’t know why he hasn’t called yet, but maybe… he’s actually extremely busy at work today.”
4. Identify the underlying triggers to your negative thinking.
To change your thinking, it helps to have a crystal-clear understanding of what you’re thinking in the first place. When a troubling (negative) thought arises in your mind, instead of ignoring it, pay closer attention and then record it. For example, if you’re sitting at your desk and you catch yourself ruminating about something negative, pause and write it down immediately. Get that raw thought out of your head and down on paper—just a short sentence or two that honestly depicts the specific thought that’s presently troubling you:
“I’m not good enough for the job I’m applying for because I don’t have enough experience.”
Then, identify what triggered the thought. Again, be brief and specific:
“I’m new to the industry, and therefore I’m feeling out of my comfort zone.”
At the very least, this process of evaluating your negative thoughts and their underlying triggers helps bring a healthy, objective awareness to the sources of your negativity or anxiety, which ultimately allows you to shift your mindset and take the next positive step forward.
5. Change your mantra.
All journeys of positive change begin with a goal and the determination needed to achieve it. However, what do you think happens when you are too determined, or too obsessed, with a goal? You begin to nurture another belief: who you are right now is not good enough.
A few months ago, one of our new Getting Back to Happy course students had become overly obsessive in her efforts to meditate. As her interest in meditation grew, she began to increasingly say to herself, “I am not good enough,” and, “I have to be better at this.” She began to notice various imperfections within herself that needed to be “fixed.”
In a nutshell, her over-the-top efforts to meditate for extensive periods of time had opened the doors to lots of unexpected self-criticism and stress. Thankfully, with a little coaching from Angel and me, she eventually realized her obsession toward meditation had made her forget one of the basic objectives of meditation—self-acceptance.
So, the bottom line is this: you have to accept yourself as you are, and then commit to personal growth. If you think you are absolutely “perfect” already, you will not make any positive efforts to grow. But, constantly criticizing yourself is just as counterproductive as doing nothing, because you will never be able to build new positive changes into your life when you’re obsessively focused on your flaws.
The key is to remind yourself that you already are good enough; you just need more practice. Change your mantra from, “I have to be better,” to, “I will do my absolute best today.” The second mantra is far more effective, because it actually prompts you to take positive action at any given moment while simultaneously accepting the reality that every effort may not be perfect.
Being able to distinguish between healthy striving and self-abuse on your journey is another critically important step towards living a happier and more successful life.
Afterthoughts, and Next Steps…
There’s a quote I’ve always loved that’s often credited to Ignatius: “Pray as if God will take care of all; act as if all is up to you.”
That’s such a strong way to live! It’s about using your faith to fuel positive thinking and positive action, every single day. I sincerely strive for this in my own life. And, I sincerely wish this for YOU.
It’s important to note, too, that replacing your negativity with positivity isn’t about turning off all your negative thoughts—that’s nearly impossible because negative thoughts typically arise spontaneously and uncontrollably. It’s also not about turning your false negative thoughts into false positive ones. The goal is to reframe negative thoughts effectively, so they are based entirely in reality, detached from needless drama, and focused on the next positive step forward that can be taken in the present moment.
The five methods covered above provide solid starting points.
Challenge yourself to START, today!
And, with “starting” in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this article. What resonated with you? Where will you start? Is there anything else you would add to the list?
Please leave me a comment below and share your thoughts.
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