Having occasional negative thoughts about ourselves is completely normal; being stressed, tired, frustrated or experiencing challenges and changes, etc. can contribute to developing a nitpicking and overly critical inner voice. Often a collective reflection of our feelings, negative thinking can reveal what aspects of emotional self-care we need to work on.
Important Note: While some negative thinking is part of everyday life; if it’s interfering with the ability to function or becomes a toxic mindset cycle leading to thoughts of helplessness, self-harm and/or suicide, professional support should always be obtained. Some resources that may be useful have been included at the end of this article.
After a recent move into an apartment that has considerably improved our lifestyle; my husband and I are quietly processing the impact that previously living in poor-quality housing took on our mental and physical health. The first of three landlords we rented our previous home from acknowledged that the over 130-year-old property had numerous issues and repairs when we moved in; they did their absolute best, as did we, to maintain an already rundown home. Things became noticeably different, however, with the next two subsequent owners (both purchasing the duplex sight unseen) who were *maybe* unaware of the ongoing and mounting repairs that were urgently required. The place we used to live in was a money pit; with the standard of living rapidly declining.
All of this made one thing absolutely clear; we had to leave.
We’ve been settling into our new apartment for three weeks; while it’s not particularly fancy, it’s worlds apart from where we were — it’s a dream come true.
I thought this change would be the catalyst needed to let go of the recurring negative thinking that’s been swirling around my head. There has definitely been a general improvement, but a change in circumstances can only do so much. Negative thoughts, unfortunately, travel with us no matter where we go. If we don’t consistently deal with them, they’ll continually and surreptitiously work in the background.
This led me to understand that actively challenging the negativity we naturally carry is a necessary step towards reclaiming all the spaces around us that we closed off; out of fear, anxiety or a belief that we don’t deserve better. Interrupting negative thinking, for many of us, allows us a chance to breathe; providing a moment to ground ourselves in a way that nourishes rather than tears ourselves down.
As it turns out, we are evolutionary wired to give greater weight to negative experiences instead of positive ones. We automatically respond faster and stronger to the bad, easily dismissing the good. Neuropsychologists call this the Brain’s Negativity Bias […] | Marbella University International Centre
Challenging our negative thinking is important because if we consistently dwell on the pessimistic aspects of our thoughts, feelings and experiences; we can impact neural structures in our brains that support the regulation of emotions, memory and feelings. We can end up rewiring our brains to more easily fall into unhealthy, defeatist thought patterns.
So, how do we disrupt what comes so naturally to us? How can we interrupt and challenge our brain’s negativity bias?
Every so often it can take a moment to recognize when we’re thinking in a negative way; as soon as we become aware of these thought patterns we must not ignore or dismiss them. With practice, we’ll become adept at spotting when/why this occurs; supporting our ability to go on to challenging how we think.
Once we’ve become used to identifying obstructive thinking, it’s time to explore what may be contributing to it. Is it based in fact/reality or is it an emotional response to how we feel about something? Good points to examine are:
- What was happening when these thoughts began?
- What could be contributing to them (lack of sleep/nourishment, stress, worry, unexpected change, etc.)?
- Is there something that could improve the situation/feelings around these thoughts?
- Are these thoughts constructive or destructive?
Now that we’ve scrutinized when and why our negativity bias is working so hard to nestle into our thought patterns; it’s time to practice consciously disputing what our gloomy inner voice tries to manifest. Here’s a recent example I’ve encountered:
[Negativity Bias] Something is likely to go wrong with my new home.
[Examination] I’m perceiving things this way because I’ve experienced a fundamental change in circumstances and it’s important to me to live in a safe, comfortable way.
[Challenge/Disruption] I’m secure and content and have always deserved to exist this way. My lifestyle has improved and will continue to do so; it’s okay to want to protect that.
There’s no quick fix to retraining how we approach the negative thoughts that so often come with stress, upset or difficulties; it takes effort and consistency (which can be hard to muster when we’re struggling). It’s crucial we’re kind to ourselves no matter how successful we are at turning our reasoning around.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the point of doing all this is not about being happy all the time; positivity isn’t inevitably the answer to our problems. We’re complex and nuanced individuals; it stands to reason that nurturing our mental and emotional thinking requires a refined approach.
Negativity maintains a purpose; it can keep us safe from considering impulsive decisions or putting ourselves in danger. Weighing up possibilities and exercising caution when appropriate is useful and welcomed; but if we grant it a more dominant role in all of our thinking, it can become the thief of joy.
We should always honour our thoughts and feelings; however, the moment they start to disconnect us from being able to rationalize and enjoy life, it’s time to help them move along. We all deserve better than the negativity we so often level at ourselves.
What are your experiences with negative thinking? How do you deal with an overly critical or pessimistic inner voice?
NAMI Helpline – a free, nationwide U.S. resource that offers experienced peer-support guidance and advice
CheckPoint – global (by country) resources for mental health support