Be wise enough to let go of the negativity inside you.
“I know my negativity kills me, so why do I think like this?”
You wouldn’t believe how many emails Angel and I receive every day that contain a similar question. Thankfully, we have answers.
Over the past decade we’ve coached thousands of people who were struggling with various forms of self-inflicted negativity, and we’ve learned a lot by helping them get their thoughts straight.
Thinking ‘the worst,’ expecting catastrophic failure and betrayal, seeing problems where others don’t, and even seeing positives as negatives – all convey a kind of emotional insurance policy. “If I expect the worst, then I won’t be disappointed if and when it happens.”
Can you relate in any way?
Another negative thinking trap that can mess with us is the ‘I told you so’ syndrome. For some people, it can feel more important to be proved right in their negative predictions than to have good things happen (and therefore be proved ‘wrong’).
Before I get too positive about negativity though, here’s a thought: The habit of thinking negatively doesn’t just predict how likely someone is to become depressed, but also predicts how likely they are to suffer from all sorts of other diseases and disorders later on in life. I’m not suggesting that negative thinking alone creates disease, but it certainly doesn’t help.
In this post we’re going to look at what you can do to stop thinking negatively. But first, let’s examine a super-common mistake negative people tend to make:
Negative people 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 UFO encounters or perfectly truthful politicians.
The ‘being more realistic’ declaration is a favorite of cynics everywhere. And in a way they are correct. But only because negative thinking causes us not to try – or if we do try, to do it half-heartedly and give up sooner – so the negativity itself influences our outcomes. Self-fulfilling predictions like this really do happen. Research has even found that in some cases what we believe about our health can have more bearing on how long we live than our actual health.
What makes all of this so scary is the fact that it means negative thoughts can plague us even when things seem to be going relatively well. For instance, the thought “It’s too good to last!” quickly wrecks havoc on a positive situation. Thus, my first tip has to do with how negative thinking distorts our perception…
1. Stop thinking in 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 negative thinking tends to view any situation that’s less than perfect as being extremely bad. For example:
- Rather than the rainstorm slowing down my commute home from work, instead “it wasted my whole evening and ruined my night!”
- Instead of my business venture taking a while to gain traction, “it’s never going to work, and it’s going to completely ruin my financial future.”
- Rather than just accepting the nervousness of meeting a new group of people, “I know these people are not going to like me.”
All or nothing thinking completely misses out the subtle shades in life. It makes us see the future in terms of dramatic disasters, disappointments and catastrophes. Sure, disasters occasionally happen, but contrary to what you many see on the evening news, most of life occurs in a grey area between the extremes of bliss and devastation.
The first step to overcoming negative thinking isn’t to ‘just be positive’ suddenly, but to carefully look for shades of grey. Say you’ve been worrying about an intimate relationship. Rather than thinking: “It’s going to end with two broken hearts, I just know it is” or even “It’s going to be absolutely perfect 24/7,” how about: “I expect there will be great times, good times, and not so good times, but we will work together, respect each other, and give our relationship a fair chance before drawing any conclusions. ”
2. Stop over-generalizing the negative.
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 turns you down for a date, do you spread the negativity beyond that person, time, and place by telling yourself: “Relationships 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 harder next time”? Or do you over-generalize it by telling yourself you’re “not smart enough” or “incapable of learning”?
And this leads in perfectly to the next point…
3. Stop minimizing the positive.
Negative thinking stops us from seeing and experiencing positive outcomes, even when they happen often. It’s as if there’s a special mental screen filtering out all the positives and only letting in data that confirms the ‘negative bias.’ Magnifying setbacks and minimizing successes leads to de-motivation and misery in the long run. Know this.
Get into the habit of seeing setbacks as temporary and specific learning experiences rather than as permanent and pervasive misfortunes. We all tend to find what we look for in life. If you find yourself thinking negatively about a person, for instance, get into the habit of balancing it out with one positive thought about them: “She’s so selfish… Mind you, to be fair, she was helpful when my car broke down last year… and she does have a good sense of humor…” The positive is always there somewhere, but you have to search for it. (Angel and I discuss this in detail in the “Adversity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
4. Stop looking for negative signs from others.
Too often we jump to conclusions, only to cause ourselves and others unnecessary frustration, hurt and anger. If someone says one thing, don’t assume they mean something else. If they say nothing at all, don’t assume their silence has some hidden, negative connotation.
Thinking negatively will inevitably lead you to interpret everything another person does as being negative, especially when you are uncertain about 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.”
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 is essential to overcoming negative thinking. 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, but maybe…”
- “…he’s extremely busy at work.”
- “…his phone has a poor signal in the office building.”
- “…he’s simply waiting for me to call him.”
You get the get the idea. None of these circumstances are negative and all are as plausible as any other possible explanation.
Next time you feel uncertain and insecure, and you catch yourself stressing about a problem that doesn’t exist, stop yourself and take a deep breath. Then tell yourself, “This problem I’m concerned with only exists in my mind.” Being able to distinguish between what you imagine and what is actually happening in your life is an important step towards living a positive life.
5. Stop making unreasonable rules and expectations.
You must deal with the world the way it is, not the way you expect it to be. Life is under no obligation to give you exactly what you expect. In fact, whatever it is you’re seeking will rarely ever come in the form you’re expecting, but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful.
Stop forcing your own misconstrued expectations and rules on life…
- “He was late, so he must not care about me.” – Or perhaps he just got caught in traffic.
- “If I can’t do this correctly, then I must not be smart enough.” – Or perhaps you just need more practice.
- “I haven’t heard back from my doctor, so the test results must be bad.” – Or perhaps the lab is just really busy and your results aren’t available yet.
Inventing rules like these about how life must be, based on your own stubborn expectations, is a great way to keep your mind stuck in the gutter. This isn’t to say that you should never expect anything at all from yourself and others (diligence, honesty, determination, etc.), but rather that the rules that govern your expectations should not steer you toward unreasonably negative conclusions.
If you feel dissatisfied or let down by an outcome, then you must have been expecting something different. Rather than get upset, ask yourself, “Were my expectations too narrow?” and “What new truths have I learned?”
The bottom line is that you must see and accept things as they are instead of as you hoped, wished, or expected them to be. Just because it didn’t turn out like you had envisioned, doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly what you need to get to where you ultimately want to go.
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 a strong way to live. It’s about using your faith to fuel positive thinking and positive action, every single day.
This is what I wish for myself. And this is what I wish for you.
Let’s choose positivity today. Together. (And we’re here to help too if you need us.)
Which point above resonates with you the most? What else helps you stay positive and motivated in the face of this negativity? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Photo by: Sayla Marz