It’s far easier to slip into a negative mindset than to embrace a positive outlook—and when pessimism becomes a pattern, it can be difficult to break. Most of us have a built-in negativity bias, which means we tend to be more sensitive and attuned to unpleasant happenings and events than positive ones.
Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of “Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking,” points out that negative thinking is actually a close cousin of anxiety, as they both have one thing in common: thinking the worst. “For anxiety, it’s being afraid of the worst, and for negative thinking, it’s assuming the worst is true,” she explains. “But life is never what our anxiety or negative thinking predicts.”
Our thoughts ultimately control our actions, notes Karen R. Koenig, LCSW. “You can’t have persistent negative thoughts and expect positive outcomes,” she says. “Negative thinking and self-talk only lead to non-productive results, which will then reinforce negative thinking. Negative thoughts lower your mood and depress your motivation, while positive thoughts energize you and elevate your spirits.”
Reframe Negative Thoughts
Embrace the word “some.” Chansky recommends this as a way to counter “all or nothing” thinking. For example, instead of, “My presentation was horrible,” you might think, “Some things went well in my presentation, and some didn’t.”
Embrace the phrase “right now.” When you’re having a bad day or a bad moment, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming everything is bad, for eternity. Instead of thinking, “I’m broke, I have no money,” change it to “I’m short on cash right now.” The “right now” reaffirms that this is a temporary situation and not a permanent fact of life.
Do a fact check. If you find negative thoughts creeping into your head, do a quick “true or false” test to determine whether those thoughts are really true. For example, if you’re worrying that your boss is angry with you, ask yourself, “Have I done (or not done) anything that would make my boss angry?”
Go neutral. Chansky believes the opposite of negative thinking isn’t positive thinking—it’s accurate thinking. In situations where you simply can’t stretch far enough to find a positive angle, try thinking neutral thoughts instead. “Researchers have found that what differentiates depressed people from non-depressed people is not the presence of positive thoughts, but the absence of negative thoughts,” she says.
Use “get to” instead of “have to.” This simple yet powerful phrase substitution serves as a reminder that many of the things we resist can actually be sources of gratitude. For instance, instead of “I have to go to the gym,” think, “I get to go to the gym”—as in, you have the physical capability, time, transportation and financial means to do what many cannot.
Get specific. When negativity threatens to cloud your entire outlook, narrow it down to find the isolated event that is weighing on you. Once you pinpoint the specific source, you might just find that it’s smaller—and more easily surmountable—than it seemed.
Run it by your inner board of directors. Chansky asks her patients to name four people, real or fictional, such as a grandmother, a meteoric celebrity like Oprah or trusted, wise people like the Dalai Lama. “Rather than accepting the negative narrative they have about themselves, others or the world, ask what your trusted advisors would say,” she suggests. “If the panel disagrees, you’ve got to go with that.”
Turn self-critique into opportunities for improvement. Instead of looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking, “I’m so overweight and out of shape,” think to yourself, “What steps can I take to make my body healthier?” Or instead of thinking, “I am so bad at my job,” ask yourself, “How can I learn more or change my role to better suit my skills?”
Keep practicing. It’s not a quick and simple endeavor to train your brain to think differently. Like any lifestyle change, it takes time and patience. Stick with the strategies, stay consistent, and over time, you’ll notice that positivity becomes more of a natural tendency than something you have to force.