3 Ways to Stop Negative ThinkingDon't Let Negative Thoughts Sabotage Your Efforts
-- By Dean Anderson, Behavioral Psychology Expert
You’ve gone over your calories for the day or eaten something on your “forbidden” list. You figure that since you've blown your diet, you might as well keep on eating and start over tomorrow. You keep eating, but despise yourself for it.
You’ve done well all week, but the scale says you’ve gained a pound. You panic, feeling certain that you’re doomed to be fat forever.
You set the alarm an hour early to exercise, but hit snooze. Feeling like a lazy slug, you wonder if you have any willpower to do what you know you need to.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?
The tendency to leap from minor, trivial problems to overblown, unrealistic conclusions is something that everyone struggles with to some degree. This type of negative thinking is one of the biggest reasons that people have difficulty sticking to their weight loss plan—and why small problems can cause stress and misery that is often avoidable.
Of course, there are dozens of deep, psychological reasons why individuals get caught up in this negativity. But you don’t have to know why you do it to stop being negative. All you have to do is to take a close look at what you are actually doing and decide to stop doing it for that moment. Here are three techniques you can use to stop all those negative thoughts before they stop you:
1. Look for Hidden Thoughts and Assumptions
The process of moving from an event (like going over your daily calories) to a conclusion about the meaning of that event (I’ve blown my diet) and what you should do about it (keep eating, start over later), typically involves several more mental steps that you probably aren’t aware of. Psychologists call these intermediate steps automatic thoughts because they are habitual, happen quickly, and feel so “right” to us that we don’t even notice them.
Although you can’t completely prevent automatic thoughts from occurring (after all, they naturally help us make good decisions in a hurry), these thoughts are not always accurate. Chronic negativity about yourself or your situation is a good sign that your automatic thoughts are inaccurate.
Luckily, it’s not difficult to learn how to identify your automatic thoughts, figure out if they make sense, and change the ones that aren’t working for you. The first step is to develop the habit of asking yourself: "What would have to be true in order for the negative conclusion I reached to be justified?"
For example, what would have to be true in order for going over your calorie limit to mean that you've “blown” your diet? Wouldn’t it have to be true that your diet is a one-day event that requires a perfect performance on your part? You know that's not the case.
2. Learn to Argue with Yourself
Once you recognize some of your automatic thoughts, you can inspect them and, if necessary, argue with them. The flaw in the above example is pretty obvious: Permanent weight loss is not a short-term project, and doesn’t require perfection. But sometimes the flaw or assumption won’t be as obvious. If that's the case, then you may need to do some investigating.
Before you jump to conclusions or attack your own character, ask yourself a few basic questions:
- If someone I respect did exactly what I did, would I come to the same conclusion about them that I’m coming to about myself?
- If someone came to me asking for advice about how to deal with this problem, what would I say to them? Would I tell them it’s a lost cause?
- How does my conclusion help solve the problem? Does deciding that I’m a "lazy slug" without willpower empower me or enable me to do better next time? What thoughts would do that?
- Is this a problem that lots of people have or am I the only one facing it? What do other people think or do when they run into this problem?
- Is this problem a general pattern in my life or am I blowing one incident out of proportion? Are there times when I do well at things that clearly require willpower and self-discipline—like going to work every day and taking care of my family?
- Have I put the same amount of time and effort into thinking about solutions as I have into listing the problems?
3. Do What Doesn't Come Naturally
One reason that negative thoughts become so automatic and pervasive in our minds is that they are consistent with our typical feelings. If you find yourself jumping to negative conclusions about yourself, your abilities, and your options and opportunities, it’s probably because that feels “right” and comfortable to you.
This doesn't mean you have to figure out why it feels "right" to feel bad about yourself. Again, you'll simply respond better to doing things differently, rather than spending hours rooting through emotional baggage.
Changing those negative thoughts and judgments into realistic and reasonable ones is going to feel uncomfortable and unnatural. In fact, feeling uncomfortable is probably a good sign that this is exactly what you need to be doing to get past your problems.
So when you're unsure about what the problem is, your best bet is to do what doesn’t come naturally. When you find yourself arriving at a negative conclusion about you or your situation, stop thinking that and start thinking the exact opposite. If you’re thinking that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, tell yourself the problem is in the situation—not in you—and look for ways to change the situation. If you think you’re "doomed to be fat forever," tell yourself that success is unavoidable if you want it; if you’re feeling like a "lazy slug," tell yourself that your “true self” really does want to exercise. You get the idea.
No matter how big, bad or scary the problem seems, you're always just one thought away from turning it into an opportunity for change, growth and progress. All you have to do is find that thought.