Therapy, Toolkit

Making Your Thoughts Work For You

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” Richard Bach

We become what we think we are.
In other words, if we tell ourselves we are worthless, that we are failures, that we don’t measure up when compared with others, guess what? We form our words and our behaviors and our expectations to meet these negative perceptions. Pretty soon, life is pretty grim. It conforms to our negative expectations. We carry our destructive thoughts like a dark cloud over our heads.

Do you ever feel yourself sliding down this slippery slope of pessimism and self-doubt? Do you know anyone like that? How do people get this way?

Often, negative thoughts can be a sort of defense mechanism. “If I am always ready for the worst, it won’t be so bad when it comes.” The problem there is that the wall of negativity blocks out the positive. I sometimes ask my clients to name 5 things they like about themselves. This simple exercise can feel like a monumental challenge for someone drowning in destructive thinking. They cannot see one single thing they like about themselves, let alone five.

So we back up, slow down, and look at where the negativity is coming from. It usually has served some sort of purpose, and let’s face it – life has its negative moments. Sometimes we feel like failures, like life is really beating us up. It’s when negativity becomes a habit, a lifestyle, that we begin to develop patterns of unhealthy behaviors and feelings. Expecting nothing but the worst eventually will attract only the worst to you. It’s like wearing a pair of glasses with distorted lenses. The negative filter blocks out the positive aspects of our lives and ourselves.

The first step in changing this pattern of negativity is to become aware that it is happening. The “whys” will be sorted out later – for now, become aware of those distorted lenses and willing to take a look at what life might look like without them.

Second, the negative thoughts have served you in some way. Maybe they allowed you to keep a distance between yourself and others. Perhaps putting yourself down or expecting the worst in life helped you avoid taking risks and the possibility of failure – “I’m not good enough, so why even bother?” The reasons for habitual negative thinking vary, but in many cases they were simply the best you knew how to do at the time. But…what if there is another way?

Understanding how negative thoughts color your perception of yourself, the world, and the people in it is a powerful step toward balance and healing. Journaling, talking to friends, family, a counselor, or a mentor can help you identify habitual destructive patterns and replace them with more realistic and neutral thoughts. Becoming aware is the key – take a step back from your thoughts and ask yourself “Is this true? Is thinking this way working for me? What might I be missing by focusing on the negative?”

Suggested reading for learning more about your thoughts and their effect on your life – David Burns, M.D., The Feeling Good Handbook.

The Feeling Good Handbook


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