5 Kinder Ways to Respond to Negative Thoughts About Yourself
As writer Anne Lamott once said, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone.” Our minds can be bombarded with shaming and blaming thoughts about what we should or shouldn't be doing, thinking, and feeling. As well, we concoct unhelpful and untrue stories about ourselves, our bodies, and our lives. We can get stuck in negative patterns of thinking that replay over and over again, leading us to feel stressed-out, anxious, depressed or unworthy.
Believe it or not, your thoughts are always trying to protect you and keep you safe. In fact, your mind has evolved to always be on the lookout for problems and dangers, so most of us are prone to having many negative thoughts, which is known as the negativity bias. Although it may not always seem like it, your thoughts really do have your best interests at heart. For example, shaming thoughts are usually trying to protect you from negative judgments from others, and worried thoughts are usually trying to protect you from making a mistake.
Rather than allowing these negative thoughts to bully you and adversely affect how you feel about yourself, you can start practicing mindful ways to respond to your negative thoughts about yourself and even befriend them to understand how they are trying to help you.
How to respond to and learn from your negative thoughts
Observe the thought — without judgment
Just like emotions, our thoughts are simply the mind’s way of pointing out something it believes you need to pay attention to. When you’re having a painful thought about yourself, recognize that you are the observer of your thoughts, and then label the thought as objectively as possible. For example, “I’m noticing that I’m having a thought about my self-worth,” or “I’m experiencing a negative thought about my body.” You can even ‘name to tame’ the stories you tell yourself, such as, “I’m telling myself the ‘who do you think you are’ or the ‘you’re so incompetent’ story again.”
This technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is called cognitive defusion, and when you can step back and get a little space between you and your thought or story, it allows you to see that they are simply just thoughts — not reality. This will give you greater freedom in how you respond to your negative thoughts.
Whenever you observe your thoughts, it’s important to use a kind words and adopt a warm, understanding and accepting tone of voice when you speak to yourself, as if you were speaking to someone you love.
Let go of that negative thought
Negative thoughts can keep us feeling stuck when we believe them to be true and real. What’s more, trying to push away negative thoughts and feelings just seems to amplify them. At the heart of cognitive defusion is the willingness to let go of the attachment of over-identifying with thoughts that cause suffering. Remember: you are not your thoughts.
Thoughts are just mental chatter that passes through our minds like weather systems pass through the sky. When you are not over-identified with your thoughts, you can see which ones are valuable and helpful, and which ones are not. Rather than get caught up in negative thoughts about yourself, simply let them go. Really, you can choose to not get caught up in negative thinking or not entertain and play out the unhelpful thoughts. You might even visualize letting the thought or story go by placing it on a cloud and watching it float away.
Becoming mindful through your senses and body
Usually when we get stuck in negative thinking, we are either ruminating about and rehashing what we feel didn’t go right in the past, or rehearsing what we fear may or may not happen in the future. In doing so we totally lose touch with the present moment and what is actually happening in our lives.
When you discover yourself in the midst of a negative thought pattern, ask yourself what do you notice through your senses. Practice paying attention to your surroundings and notice what you see, hear, feel, smell and taste to bring you back to the present moment. You may even notice pleasant things, such leaves dancing as a gentle breeze blows them on a tree, the sound of birds chirping or the feel of warm sun on your skin.
You can also bring your awareness to your body and notice the physical sensations of an emotion. Emotions have mental and physical components—thoughts and body reactions. When you can locate an emotion in the body, you can anchor your awareness on where you feel the emotion most strongly. By focusing your attention on the physical sensation, you can change your relationship to the emotion and the emotion itself may begin to change.
These two mindfulness practices can help to ground yourself, so you can come home to the present moment and come home to yourself.
Befriend your thoughts to gain clarity on what is helpful and true, and what isn’t
If you are still struggling with untangling from your sticky negative thoughts, (let’s face it some negative thoughts can be quite sticky) try to get some clarity to change your perspective or change your focus altogether. To get some clarity or change your perspective, ask yourself one of the following questions from ACT:
- Is this thought in any way useful or helpful?
- Is it true? (Can I absolutely know that it’s true?)
- Is this just an old story that my mind is playing out of habit?
- Does this thought help me take effective action?
Take time to understand why the thought or story might be happening, and then respond to yourself the same way you’d respond to a close friend having the same thoughts. Remember, a good friend would respond with compassion, understanding, and encouragement.
Thank your thoughts for having good intentions
Self-preservation is one of our most basic instincts, and part of that preservation includes having thoughts to help us stay safe. Your negative thoughts about yourself are trying to protect you from judgment or harm, and they mean well.
By finding the positive intentions behind your thoughts, you can acknowledge that they are trying to help, and thank them and your mind for their effort. You can also let your mind know that it can take a break because usually negative thinking is not actually serving you, rather it’s hindering you from living a more fulfilling life.
Having negative thoughts about yourself is completely normal. It’s how you respond to the thoughts that is more important. Some thoughts can be so pervasive and damaging that they seep out into the real world, lowering our sense of self-worth and leading us to take actions against ourselves and others. The more you practice these techniques, the better able you will be able to shift your preoccupation with negativity and cultivate inner peace and self-acceptance.
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