Why do I have negative thoughts? 5 ways to, compassionately, show them the back door
Negative thinking is very common and can greatly limit your potential.
Negative thoughts can become habitual, and over time can alter the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. They can develop into negative self-beliefs.
They are often the cause or effect of low self-worth, depression, or anxiety.
They may sound a bit like this:
‘Why am I so clumsy’
‘I’m not clever enough’
‘I never do anything right’
‘I’m a loser’
‘I hate myself’
‘Everything I touch breaks’
Negative thoughts can determine our experiences. They reaffirm themselves through directing our behaviour. However, they do not define us. Our thoughts do not represent who we are, they are just thoughts. They come and go. They can be positive, or negative, it is the way we respond to them that determines how we experience life.
This article is going to:
✔ Define what negative thoughts are and how they reproduce themselves
✔ Explain the science behind why we experience negative thoughts
✔ Provide exercises to help identify and manage your negative thought patterns
A word on how yoga can help.
Our bodies are our most grounding gift. Yoga encompasses many things! Including mindful movement (asana), breathwork (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana). These practices encourage us to recognise our habitual thinking patterns - which we may well be unconscious of - and realise that our thoughts do not define who we are. They are like passing clouds against a clear and limitless sky. We can observe them as they pass and accept them for what they are, without being moved by their meaning. Because often the meaning is neither true nor helpful.
By accepting negative thoughts for what they are, just thoughts, we allow them to be seen, without placing any further negativity upon them. With practice, we can embed more helpful thinking patterns.
The way you think determines your experiences in life. You can choose to experience joy and contentment.
- Why do we experience negative thoughts?
Negative thoughts are not always a bad thing. Our brains are programmed to have negative thoughts to allow us to discern between something that is safe or harmful, or to question the things we experience (Watkins, 2008). The brain is wired up to create connections between thoughts, experiences, actions, and behaviours. However, sometimes links develop that are not based on what is real or true.
For this reason, habitual thought patterns easily develop which can limit potential and grow into more serious mental health variances such as low self-worth, depression, or anxiety.
We are not necessarily taught this, but we have tools to manage our own mental health already inbuilt.
*So how do we work with negative thoughts in a way that is constructive and ultimately change the way we think? *
The key is first to recognise our personal thought patterns and tendencies, then challenge the thoughts, and finally create new, evidence-based thoughts to replace the old, automatic thought response. There are five useful exercises at the end of this article to help break this down into easily manageable chunks.
To determine whether the thoughts you are having are negative, head to my article '10 Common Negative Thought Patterns With Journal Exercises' for a list of common experiences.
*What does this mean? * That you can change the way you think about yourself. If you have very negative thoughts about yourself or other people, you can change them! And when you do, your life and how you experience the world will change for the better. You are able to realise your full potential.
The Science It is helpful to think about negative thoughts as pathways in the brain, they start as a faint track, then the more we ‘go down that route’, the more we think a negative thought, the deeper the track becomes, until it is a deeply embedded road. At this point, it’s difficult to cover that road up or choose another. Negative thoughts lead to negative beliefs as a result of these deeply ingrained pathways that become ‘what we know’ about ourselves.
Cells and neural networks in the brain have the capacity to change. Some functions are hardwired, however, others aren’t. Over time, new connections, or pathways, can be made, and others lessened or eliminated.
As described by Joyce Shaffer:
‘Neuroplasticity, the capacity of brain cells to change in response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors, can have negative or positive influence at any age across the entire lifespan’.
Neuroplasticity demonstrates how we can change ‘what we know’, even at the most fundamental, biological level, just by thinking differently.
Here’s an example of different ways we can interpret a situation. As you will see, negative thoughts can determine how we respond, however, there are many other ways of experiencing a situation that are more likely to be true.
Example of a reaction when having done a presentation (on social media, in job, university etc.)
Ø Negative attitude
‘’I got that wrong, I said the wrong thing, I wasn’t concise enough, I stumbled over my words, what will people think?’’
Ø Positive attitude
‘’I’m really proud of myself for doing that, it was courageous, not everyone would do that, it might not have been perfect, but nothing is perfect and nor should it be. I stepped out of my comfort zone and followed through, that’s impressive’’
These two different responses to the same situation will result in an entirely different experience, and ultimately, a different self-image. Take a moment to ask yourself, which response is most familiar to you?
It’s ok to make mistakes Mistakes are a natural part of life. They happen to everyone and they don’t have any bearing on our self-worth. This, for me, was another bombshell.
‘What so, I don’t have to be perfect at everything first time???’
In her book, Valerie Young explains that women are much more likely to take a negative situation, mistake or criticism personally than men. This is not due to any difference in ability or competence, but purely to do with how men and women are socialised. Men are more likely to take risks and make more mistakes. They don’t associate failure with their own personal worth. They are more likely to blame external factors than themselves.
Conversely, women are more likely to internalise a failure and blame themselves. This is mostly down to the way women have to prove themselves more to be accepted on the same bar as a man. They are held to higher criticism and as soon as they make a mistake, boom, it is because they are a woman, rather than the reality, of course, that is because they are a human. And all humans make mistakes. We are supposed to, it is a part of our growth. Men are accepted without having to prove themselves, so they do not fear making a mistake as it will affect how they are received much less than for women.
Until about 8 years ago, negative thought patterns ruled my world. The most intriguing thing is, I didn’t realise it.
I never completed anything, I underachieved, I experienced social anxiety, I found it difficult to integrate, I never tried anything new - so I never proved to myself that I could. The only thing I was comfortable doing was partying. And you can imagine why; drugs and alcohol are a top form of escapism. Partying was fun and it made me feel good about myself, it was such a sense of freedom and abandonment. For a night…but the party always ends.
The key point is, that I didn't realise I was experiencing negative thoughts. I thought my thoughts were accurate reflections of myself and my life.
And why would I? I was never taught that my thoughts don’t define who I am. I was never taught that negative thought patterns are learned cognitive processes. I never knew that, if I thought in a different way, I would experience life completely differently.
The moment I realised this, my life started to change for the better. It did not happen overnight, it took work and dedication. But it is a profoundly satisfying journey and I am now a million miles away from the person I was then.
And you can be too.
Why do I care? The reason I care about this subject is to encourage positive change in the world. Negative thought patterns limit people from feeling loved, accepted, accomplished, and integrated. It can create division, comparison, and ultimately hatred. This is then reproduced in the world. Here’s how:
Your life will reflect how you speak to yourself
Negative thoughts and beliefs are tricksy! They self-perpetuate in the present because they affect our behaviours and how we interpret situations.
It is easy to get caught in a cycle where we think and act in a way that is consistent with that negative belief.
If our thought patterns are negative, it is likely that we will behave in a way that is conducive to that thought pattern, which regenerates the negative thought. This can lead to negative self-beliefs, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety which likely lead to more negative thoughts and negative self-talk (Yavuzer, 2015).
Here’s an example:
** Example 2.**
‘I must not make mistakes, I’ll look stupid and people won’t like me’
Being very careful, not putting self in situations where we might get it wrong, checking things over a lot
Negative belief never gets proven wrong.
The cycle starts again.
Ø It is only in taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zone that we realise our potential, what we are capable of. And that screwing up is an important part of learning and growing.
This self-perpetuating cycle is very difficult to get out of. I can vouch for that. I’ve been there. And it was only when I started to understand the mechanisms behind my cognitive processes that I realised that what I thought, wasn’t necessarily true. The ideas I had about myself didn’t reflect me as a person, which meant...
- that maybe there was more to me than my thoughts had me believe.
I started practicing mindfulness, meditating for just 10 minutes a day, by counting to ten over and over. I began attending yoga classes regularly and as I built strength and flexibility in the body, so too my mind followed suit. I did things outside my comfort zone. I joined aerial classes which I would never have done before because I was too shy or afraid of ‘being rubbish’.
What I learned was, actually, I’m not rubbish at all. But how would I have known that if I had never tried?
How negative thoughts and beliefs develop
Negative thoughts and beliefs can stem from things we have seen or heard, often in childhood. At this stage, we are less able to effectively process the information we receive. Even seemingly minor experiences or things people say can log into our subconscious and develop into a negative thought or negative self-belief.
For example, imagine you are in a school play and you mess up your lines, you only have one line to say and you stumble over your words.
This might make you think you are useless or incapable. You do not, at this young age, have the perspective to know that it is a normal response of nervousness, that it has no reflection on your self-worth, and it’s really not a big deal. Instead, it is highly likely that 7 year old you feels like it is the single most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened and that all eyes are on you.
Then, on top of that, imagine you have a parent that exacerbates your shame by telling you off or teasing you for getting it wrong. Little 7 year old you is unable to understand that the reason a parent or friend might behave that way is not because of anything you have done, but much more about their own unresolved trauma or programmed responses.
Yes, negative thoughts and beliefs can develop in adulthood too. And over the years, the faint pathways grow into mighty roads that direct our behaviours and responses. These can get projected out onto others, often unintentionally, which then become internalised by the receiver, developing into negative thoughts or negative self-beliefs. The cycle spreads like wildfire.
Negative thoughts are largely subconscious. We don’t always know we are experiencing them, or that our behaviours are damaging - not only to ourselves, but also to the people around us.
What we can do to stop the cycle?
Here are 5 exercises you can do to help identify and manage your negative thoughts in a healthy and constructive way:
- Identify your self-talk! Becoming aware of the way you speak to yourself, and how often is the first step.
Write down the common things you say to yourself. It can be helpful to think of different situations in your life and how you generally respond.
- Recognise the patterns!
Go through the list of negative thought patterns in my article '10 Common Negative Thought Patterns With Journal Exercises' and see if there is a theme with your own self-talk. Remember, you may identify with a few of them, but you may also notice you identify with some more than others.
- Challenge your thinking!
Look at each thought and ask yourself, is this true? What tangible evidence is there? Or is this just what I think is true? Could I think about this a different way?
- Compassionate self-talk
Ask yourself, would you talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself? We are often extremely negative and often abusive .
Write a love letter to yourself, imagine you are sending it to a friend or loved one, but make it about you.
I say this because it hands down worked for me and it works for my students!
Give these a go and let me know how you get on. I am here for you.
With love and vibes,