Negative thoughts can develop from either recent experiences or can be rooted in early life experience. They may have origins in messages that may have been transmitted or learned from family members, friends, or teachers, past experience including prejudice or privilege fostered in our culture. Yes, a privileged upbringing can produce negative thoughts and can especially influence how one views others who have not been as “fortunate.” Those who have lived with more difficult conditions, deprivation, and abuse may have a harder road but in some ways, overcoming adversity lends itself to developing a capacity to overcome negativity. Yet when the negative experiences of yesterday invade and cloud today’s thinking it becomes difficult to fight the thought that another storm may be brewing.
Regardless of the source, negative thoughts can take over and become like a chorus of critical voices chirping in the background always ready to burst forth in pessimistic harmony. When this occurs, these negative thoughts or messages set a person up to expect poor outcomes thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. The result is that “we reap what we sow.” Negative thinking leads to negative outcomes.
The significance of our beliefs and the mindsets that shape our behavior has been studied extensively. Psychologists and sociologists have documented and concluded that people act and perform in accordance with their beliefs. For example, if you think something is not possible or out of your reach, you’re probably not going to commit much energy and resources to accomplishing that goal. When we allow ourselves to be overtaken with worry we’re almost certain that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. We only see what’s troubling us and nothing that isn’t. Old habits die slowly because they are driven by an outdated mindset that includes past experience, old beliefs, and fear. So if a person wants to achieve their goals, they must first create a mindset made of beliefs that supports what they want in the future.
Fear is the nutrient that feeds and sustains negativity and this is where much of the trouble with having a more hopeful and positive attitude is rooted. Fear often leads to the impossible attempt to want to try control everything in their life, including other people. It is a source of anxiety and frustration which can lead to depression because there is no such thing as total control. But, like the boogeyman in the closet, fear can vanish in the light of day. When a person becomes aware that they and their actions are driven by fear, the power of choice becomes visible. By shining a light on fear through awareness the option of not giving in to it becomes possible. This light or awareness can lead one to believe that no matter what happened yesterday, the decision to choose one’s destiny lives in today. External conditions, other people and even negative thoughts, do not have to define who you are. I like to remember that “Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.”
The next time you find yourself drawn into negative thinking, you might want to consider trying some of these steps. Like any new effort, it will become easier with practice. Gradually you will find that the negative chorus is much quieter and you will develop a more positive outlook.
1. Awareness - Paying attention to when, where and how often and “loud” negative thinking emerges is your first line of defense. It might be helpful to keep a log using a “strength meter” such as a scale from 1-10. Remember that negative thoughts bring negative emotions.
2. Make a list - Make a list of the “most frequent offenders” situations and people who are most likely to stir or affect you in negative ways.
3. Change your language - Try avoiding words like “never” and “always” for a day. Instead of saying that you can never do something right, say that you’ve struggled with it in the past, but will do what you can to change that.
4. Take action - If you’re constantly thinking negatively about someone or a situation, then the first words from your mouth will be negative. Instead, take action to change those negative thoughts instead of letting them simmer in your mind. Complete that project or go talk to the person that is causing you to have negative thoughts.
5. Avoid gossip - This may be difficult because it is human nature to get information about someone when they aren’t there. This often leads to negative thoughts about people, which isn’t good for anyone. You might even say something like “Why don’t we talk about this with them?”
6. Do things that make you happy - If you aren’t happy, then you will naturally think negatively. Instead, do things that you like. You will be able to reduce the negative energy that you have and get some positive thinking going.
7. Don’t take things personally - This is not always easy. However when we take things personally it will allow insecurity to undermine self-esteem.
“Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right” -Henry Ford
Editor’s Note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing consultation at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington, where he maintains a private practice providing therapeutic services to adults, couples, children, adolescents, and families.