Depending on which articles you read, there is a general assertion that we have somewhere in the region of 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day. Of those, a fair percentage will be repetitive; what you think about today will be what you thought about yesterday, and you’ll think about tomorrow.
We also know, many of these thoughts will be negative.
Not necessarily catastrophic, but there’ll probably be some sort of negativity bias – an assumption that, to some extent, if it can go wrong it probably will. That the bus will be late. That your football team won’t win. Or that you’re just not good enough to get that job you really want.
It’s those last thoughts – the ones that tell you that you fall short, ‘always’ fail, ‘never’ win – that can be so hard to manage and, at the same time, insidious. They, along with how we’ve processed and navigated previous ‘failures’ and mistakes, can quietly erode our self-belief and perpetuate the idea that we just don’t measure up.
A certain amount of ‘negative’ thinking can be normal, even helpful, in as much as if we can reasonably plan for the worst, we might feel more prepared, if the outcome doesn’t go our way. Our brain is naturally wired to remember when something went wrong before – like accidentally burning ourselves on the oven – so that we don’t make the same mistake again. But it’s when that thinking becomes toxic and destructive we might need to take steps to manage it.
Here are some ideas that might help:
1) Don’t believe everything you think. It sounds easier said than done, I know. But a reality to keep in mind is that some of your thoughts will be complete garbage; just noise and nonsense. Random thoughts will pop in to your head that genuinely don’t mean anything. It’s only because we give those thoughts credence and energy that they gather pace, like a snowball that turns into an avalanche.
Just because you’ve had a thought, also doesn’t mean that’s what you’re really thinking. A weird or random thought doesn’t make you a bad person and it’s what we do with our thoughts that will take us towards recovery or relapse (see point 2).
Thoughts are not facts; they might feel real, but it doesn’t mean they’re true. Thinking is what we do as humans, it’s natural and it’s normal, we just have to learn to discern which thoughts get our time and attention.
2) Try non-violent communication. Often the internal dialogue we have can amount to throwing rocks at ourselves. See if you can learn ways to be less ‘violent’ in your self-talk. When you find yourself having thoughts that beat up your brain, ask yourself “how is this thought helping me right now?” or “will this thought get me the life I want?” By using mindfulness for example, you can learn to become the observer of your thoughts rather than the participant. So instead of saying “I’m such an idiot!” you could say “I’m noticing I’m having a thought about being an idiot”. You distance yourself from the thought by not engaging with it, and seeing it for what it is – just a thought. Particularly pay attention to ‘absolutes’ like ‘always’, ‘never’ and ‘should’. Is it genuinely true that you “always” get stopped at red traffic lights or that you “never” get what you want? Check it out . (See point 3).
3) Sense check. If you are having negative thoughts which seem convincing, even believable, ask a friend or colleague to help you out. Tell them what you’re thinking and ask them to help you make sense of it. You could fact check what you think you know, or tell them why you think it.
4) Befriend your ‘inner critic’. In point 1) I said don’t believe everything you think, but that doesn’t mean we can’t honour it. Instead of seeing our internal dialogue as an enemy, we could consider the possibility that it’s also been a protector. Recognise that the reason your brain tries to talk you out of things, or pressures you to step up, is because it wants to keep you safe and see you succeed as part of a tribe. You still don’t have to give the hurtful thoughts credence, but you can give them enough space to know you’re just trying to do your best.
In the video above, Dennis Tirch says that when we’re in the grip of negative self-talk, we could simply thank the mind. Like in the points above, instead of indulging the thoughts we could just acknowledge why they’re there, maybe they’re trying to protect us from whatever it is we don’t want to happen, and then assert that you can take the wheel of your thinking from here.
5) Remember you’re not alone. Sometimes our thoughts can be overwhelming, even scary, and it’s important we have people who can support our well-being, especially when we’re not doing ok. Reach out to your doctor, a friend or an organisation like the Samaritans on 116 123.
This article was written in time for Random Acts of Kindness Day 2021 – edited 2022.
Copyright Delphi Ellis 2021-22