Can You Overcome Negative Thinking?
Are You a Negative Thinking Addict?
It never fails to amaze me how easy it is to engage in habitual negative self-talk, often without even giving it a second thought. It’s much too easy to simply blast off unkind words to yourself, or to become negative in your thinking and in your outlook about life. Like an addiction, negative thinking is something we all seem to do without a hint of regret or even a moment spent acknowledging that it's bad for us. Seldom do we see it as a signal that unhappiness is hiding out somewhere inside. And, by not recognizing or acknowledging a propensity to think negative as sign of unhappiness, I believe we miss out on opportunities to improve our lives.
Because negative words become manifested as negative thoughts, this Hub will explore habitual negative thinking and how it creates automatic negative self-talk, and how negative self-talk leads to negative responses, actions, and reactions.
When you speak unkind words to other people, usually in a burst of anger, if you're like most of us, you probably later regret your outburst. And, again, if you're like most of us, you are quick to offer sincere and heartfelt apologies for engaging in such outbursts.
When you engage in speech that hurts a close friend, speech that is belittling, ridiculing, humiliating, overly critical, unjustly harsh, judgmental, or just downright demeaning, to save the friendship, you will find a way to say,“I’m sorry.” Or, you might say, “Please forgive me,” and then even promise to never do it again, and you’ll actually mean it.
Without a doubt, it is much easier to speak kind words to and about others than it is to speak them to and about you. Why is that I wonder? One reason might be that it is easier to see what you do to others than it is to see what you do to you. You can see a look of hurt or sadness that might come upon the face of a loved one you yelled at. Or a look of anger or surprise come on the face or upon the entire countenance of a co-worker you’ve embarrassed or said unkind words to.
But when you say mean or hurtful things about you to you, especially when it is through internal mutterings, the hurt and anger inside is usually invisible on the outside. And even if it were visible, unless you were looking in a mirror, you still wouldn’t see it. You might know it was there, but you wouldn’t have to look at it. It's something that no one usually sees, so it’s something that is sort of there and not there at the same time. Something easy to ignore, to forget about. Easy to treat it as though it is not important. But what becomes of that hurt, or that anger? What becomes of what is left of it, after it’s forgotten or is relegated to the innermost reaches of your mind? What happens to the debris that gets left behind?
Maybe, left unattended, it grows and grows over the years and finally becomes a force of its own. Maybe it becomes a secret hiding place inside of you that sneaks out in other ways. Maybe it becomes a decidedly negative force within you that makes it easier for you to feel bad or to become angry at the slightest provocation. Or to maybe it makes you look continuously for the faults and shortcoming of others while blinding you to your own failings and shortcomings.
Case Study: One Woman's Fight to Change a Habit of Negative Thinking
Here is a good example of what I am describing above. I once had a neighbor for several years that we will call Emily (not her real name). She worked in the medical profession, but could not seem to hang on to any job she managed to get. She had a master’s degree in her field, was in her early thirties, and had worked for more than 10 years in her chosen career area. She had even held a few managerial positions during her career, a few of them for several years.
Still, it never failed that after she had worked at a particular place for a relatively short period of time, Emily invariably began to have nothing but negative things to say about her job. Either her supervisor was someone who was grossly incompetent, or he or she was meaner than the troll that lived under the bridge in the Billy Goats Gruff children’s story. Sometimes it wasn’t just problems with her boss; it was also problems with co-workers that she would describe as mostly lazy idiots who only worked to avoid work or whiners and complainers who expected her to do their jobs for them.
If it wasn’t her boss and co-workers depressing Emily, then it was all of them, plus this or that and something else that irked her to no end. Every time we talked, Emily would have a negative, unchangeable, depressing story to tell me about her job. The way she made it sound, I knew if things felt as bad to her as she described them to me, she would end up either leaving her job, or would get fired or be asked to resign. No one could live indefinitely with that kind of misery.
In the past, at jobs I’d held, I always avoided being around co-workers like Emily. Those who only had depressing stories to tell. In fact, the truth is if we hadn’t been neighbors, I’m sure she and I would not have been friends because I prefer to be around positive-thinking people.
It can be very difficult indeed, to be positive around people who only seem to be able to notice or to process despair, gloom, agony and doom. I am sure there had to have been at least a few positive things in at least some of Emily’s workplaces (she went through two jobs in the years I lived near her), yet she never had even one good thing to say about any of them.
I don’t think my neighbor realized how negatively she talked about her jobs and co-workers, and I am not sure if she ever thought deeply about it. But I did. I thought about it a lot, because I felt that it would benefit her greatly to see that some of her negativity had to be related to her own personal issues, and that not all of the negativity living inside her was directly related to her job and/or her co-workers.
After listening to her off and on for many years, I came to the conclusion that much of my neighbor’s misery was her way of expressing self-pity. I concluded this because, on several occasions, she told me that she wished she had chosen another career field. She even complained that working in hospitals, for her, was depressing and that she found it very hard to enjoy her work no matter what she was doing. She just didn’t like being surrounded by so much sickness and death.
I believe my neighbor was literally “wallowing” in a brand of self-pity that kept her from finding a role in the medical arena where she could “be all that she could be.” I have never worked in the medical field, but even I know that there are many different components of the healthcare industry other than hospitals, and that with a little re-training, a new certification, or even going back to school to obtain another degree, Emily could easily have changed her reality.
One day when she came to me to tell me why she’d left yet another job, I’d had enough. That day I decided that even if it meant the end of us being friendly neighbors, that I would tell her what I felt she was not able to realize on her own.
I told Emily I felt she was avoiding coming face to face with the fact that she was working in a career that she didn't like. I told her I believed the reason she always found fault with everything and everyone she came in contact with on every job, was because she didn't want to do the hard work it would take to change her reality. I believed she chose misery over the work she would have to do to make changes that could lead to her finding more happiness in her work, and in her life.
It surprised me when she did not get angry with me for being so frank with her. Instead, she told me that her mother and her uncle had been telling her the same thing for years; that they felt she was not cut out for the work she was doing, and that she needed a change. She thought they were just trying to control her life, she said. But since I was saying the same thing, she told me it made her realize that she needed to give more serious consideration to what her family members had been trying to tell her.
To my surprise, that’s exactly what Emily did. In just weeks, she moved back home with her mother (who lived hours away in a different part of the same state). Before leaving, she told me she was moving home so that she could go back to school, full-time. After getting over my initial surprise, after thinking about it a while, I decided I wasn't that surprised to hear what Emily was getting ready to do.
In the years I lived near her, when it seemed to me that Emily did not like people very much, she was always taking in stray cats and dogs. She would find homes for them, nurse them back to health if they were ill, and would go out of her way to help as many as she could. That's why when she told me she was going to go to veterinary school, I understood why she was leaving her job and moving home. She was going to be in school for several years. Her parents had offered to help her out, and she finally accepted their offer.
Years later, I was living in another state when I learned that Emily had become a veterinarian, and that she was very good and popular in the city where she had grown up. She was on a trip, driving through my state, when she called and we decided to meet in the food court of a local mall. During lunch that day, Emily told me she would never forget how I had helped her realize that all those years she spent feeling miserable were more related to being unhappy in her career than anything else.
I was really surprised when Emily told me she now knew it wasn’t even being around sickness or death she hated; because she still was around that in her new job. What was making her most miserable, she said, was the fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life. And you know what else she told me? Emily said she had never been happier in her whole life. And, her love life was flourishing. She had met and was engaged to a man who was also a veterinarian. The two had met in veterinary school and then started their clinic together. Now they were getting married and had already become the proud parents of a little girl.
That underscored for me how, sometimes, we all have to go through pain or even misery, in order to overcome negative thinking, in order to grow.
Break Free and Overcome Negative Thinking
Emily's story always reminds me of something a personal trainer once taught me. On his advice, I sometimes carry little five-pound weights when I walk for exercise, or I hold them while dancing, stepping, or doing other aerobic exercises. The trainer explained one day how resistance training works, and I was surprised to learn that resistance actually tears down muscle cells through a process called “catabolism.” After muscle cells are broken down, the body repairs them very quickly by regenerating new, stronger cells, and the regeneration process is known as “anabolism.” Other cells in the body work this way as well. For example, it is not until a bone has been broken that calcium and other properties can repair it and make it stronger.
Thinking about how resistance strengthens muscles by first tearing them down, in a similar way, in our lives, we sometimes must go through a kind of catabolism. There is a need to break down our natural resistance to looking inwardly where we can see the stuff we either don’t want to see, or just don’t know is there. Since the pile up of debris in our minds can be on “automatic pilot” for years and years, it is important to consciously go through an inventory process to examine what you are truly thinking and saying to you, and how you may be acting toward you based on negative thoughts.
By looking inwardly, and then by questioning and breaking down to the smallest particle any negative thoughts or reasons you find, you can then engage in “self-talk anabolism.” That is, you can consciously review your life and the things in it that aren’t working, comparing them to those things that are. Doing this might shed at least some light on why the things that work are working, and it could help you discover reasons why the things that are not working, aren’t. After that, you should be able to see more clearly how you need to work to change those things you can change. You should be eager to hunt down and to destroy negative, energy-zapping, self-esteem destroying thoughts and words, and ready to replace them with stronger, more positive, self-esteem building thoughts and words.
After all, when I lived near Emily, I truly believed she was a genuine “worse-case” scenario, and this is the process that worked for her. That's one reason I believe it can work for me, and maybe for you too, during times when we might find ourselves stuck inside a cyclone of negative thinking.