Is thinking about negative and stressful things before going to bed keeping you awake at night? You had a stressful day, have a lot to do tomorrow, or ruminate about past events that you just can’t get out of your head. It can even happen that you lose hours of rest if this negative self-talk persists.
Excessive reflection about the past and troublesome thoughts are some of the biggest risk factors for insomnia. And it is not only what you think or say to yourself before bedtime that keeps you awake. It is your internal self-talk in general, which has a profound impact on your sleep and your overall wellbeing. So it seems to make perfect sense that we try to turn negative self-talk into positive self-talk.
But is this really so, or isn’t it rather the constant arguing with our thoughts that leaves us stuck in a battle we can’t win? And if so, what are more helpful ways to better deal with our repetitive negative thoughts?
In this article, you’re going to discover just why it is we get so negative, and 10 things to avoid so that negative self-talk doesn’t determine your life.
Why are we so obsessed with being negative?
Think about the stories you see in the news. Whether you’re browsing headlines on your favorite news site, or still enjoy finding out what’s going on in the world by watching the news on TV or indulging in a newspaper, you’re going to find one glaring thing in common: we seem to love bad news. In fact, the negative news stories far outnumber the positive ones, which usually get kind of buried back where they’re hard to find with the odd exception generally found in human interest pieces.
In our personal lives, we likewise get caught up in the negative things going on from day to day over the positive. Even planning for life events such as the birth of a child or a wedding can very quickly devolve into worry over the aspects of the situation that can go wrong. If we’re staying on the positive side of things fairly well, you’ll find any number of people willing to bring you down through stories of their own disastrous wedding vows, or hair-raising tales of just how difficult it is to be a parent.
How does this happen? Why is negativity so easy?
Our brain is just doing its job
We all have an inner ‘negative’ voice that includes criticism, doubt, and fear. This problem-solving focus is evolutionary determined. With each generation, the human mind has become more and more adept at predicting and avoiding danger.
And today, after one hundred thousand years of evolution, the modern mind is constantly searching, evaluating, and judging everything we encounter: Is that good or bad? Is it safe or dangerous? Harmful or helpful?
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But today it ‘s no longer wild animals or a member of a rival tribe that our minds warn us against. Instead, it’s events like losing our job, being rejected, failing an exam, embarrassing ourselves in public, getting sick or any other common issue we worry about.
This is just our brain doing its job, trying to understand the world, anticipate and solve problems, and avoid possible pitfalls. But that also means, we naturally spend a lot of time thinking about things that may or may not happen.
“I’m not negative!”
The problems begin when we start denying that negativity exists in the first place. Our culture is obsessed with finding happiness and constantly tells us to eliminate “negative” feelings and thoughts and accumulate “positive” ones in their place. That seems to make sense because who wants to have negativity and unpleasant thoughts?
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that the things we generally value most in life bring a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant. For example, in a long-term romantic relationship, you may experience beautiful feelings of love and joy, but you will also inevitably experience disappointment and frustration.
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The same is true for almost any meaningful project we undertake. Although they often cause excitement and enthusiasm, they generally also bring stress, fear, and anxiety. So in general it is quite impossible to create a better life unless you are willing to experience unpleasant feelings. However, what you can learn is how to deal with such experiences in a way, that they have much less effect on you.
1. Don’t play Devil’s Advocate
…and get caught up in chasing down the root of the negative self-talk until you find the exaggeration or untruth which started it all. Again and again, your mind will try to suck you into that downward spiral of problem-solving and internal debating, which is, in most cases, irrelevant and wastes a lot of time and energy. More effective is to stay in the moment and to notice the negative self-talk and its related thoughts and feelings. Don’t wrestle with your experiences, but give it some space until it passes on its own.
2. Don’t ask “Is that negative statement true?”
Ask instead, “Is this thought helpful or not?” In so many areas of our lives, we want to prove beyond doubt that we are right. But often, our righteousness only makes things worse. Whether a thought is true or not is not so important. More important is whether it is helpful. Keep in mind that thoughts are nothing but words. If they are useful words, then it is worth paying attention to them. If they are not useful, why bother?
3. Don’t cling to “Just stop it” approaches
…like trying to snap a rubber band on your wrist in a stinging reminder you’re not allowing those thoughts anymore. Forget it; these techniques never work longterm!
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Stopping yourself mid-thought as a way of cutting off the momentum of negative self-talk and trying to bring it to a halt means a confrontation with the enemy as in a hot war. Do you really think that solves your problems and calms your mind? The truth is that we have much less control over our thoughts than we think. Much better is to allow the thought or emotion to surface, sit with it for a while, and let it pass on its own.
4. Don’t try to change or reword the message
Many self-help gurus advise us to take our negative self-talk and start switching out the negative words for positive ones. I agree that we all should be a bit more encouraging and optimistic in your word choices. However, the idea behind that advice is to eliminate ‘negative’ thoughts and accumulate ‘positive’ ones.
Again this approach denies that negative thinking is a natural and necessary act of our mind, so it’s unlikely that a few positive words will change them much. Changing or rewording is just another avoidance strategy that only provides some short-term relief, if at all.
5. Don’t argue with your own thoughts
These same self-help gurus may say: “If rewording the message isn’t working, see if asking questions instead might work.” Now, I agree that instead of a statement along the lines of “I can’t make this deadline,” it can be more helpful to ask, “What can I do to make this deadline?” But you shouldn’t get into the habit of always arguing with your thoughts if negative self-thinking is looking at an outcome you don’t like.
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For example, if your mind says, “You’re a loser,” don’t argue back, “Oh, I’m not – just look at everything I’ve achieved in my career.” Or you may argue against reality, protesting, “It shouldn’t be like this!” Arguing and self-bullying are clear signs that you are in a hopeless and energy-draining battle with your inner world. Drop the rope and accept your thought, then let it go. This will create the necessary space for you to be able to decide on the next steps consciously.
6. Don’t grab a distraction
Aren’t we all experts in finding something else to occupy our minds when the self-talk turns negative? Binge Netflixing, mindlessly scrolling social media feeds, compulsive shopping, or burying ourselves in work are examples of how we try to distract ourselves from unpleasant thoughts and feelings like boredom, loneliness, sadness, or anxiety. These are all attempts to move away from your challenging experiences.
Whereas what you really need to do is to move towards them, to allow them to be. Create a culture of attention and give yourself permission to pause, focus, and connect to your inner world. Moving towards your negative thoughts and feelings is how they lose their impact over your life.
7. Don’t Plan your escape
Feeling overly anxious? Why not plan your summer vacation or go on a weekend outing? Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? But choosing a pleasant experience to take yourself out of the anxiety is often an avoidance strategy that may provide short-term relief but long-term damage.
Hiding away or escaping from experiences, situations, people, places, or activities that tend to give rise to uncomfortable thoughts or feelings may provide short-term relief. Still, in the long run, it’s not workable. It may even be damaging because you end up avoiding a lot of things that are meaningful to you.
8. Don’t try Lavender
Okay, here are the facts: According to a study from Florida Atlantic University’s College of Nursing, students inhaling Lavender oil before sitting down to take an exam experienced less anxiety.
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While there is nothing wrong with having some genuine lavender essential oil handy, don’t believe that using remedies like lavender oil will help to deal with unpleasant thoughts or feelings like anxiety effectively. It’s not your anxiety that is your enemy; the real culprit is your various attempts to cut off from your painful experiences, in worst cases, by numbing them through overmedication, drugs, or alcohol.
9. Don’t try to take the pressure off
Instead, learn to handle it better. Are you feeling anxious about a presentation, an interview, or another significant event? Good, that means you’re a normal human being because everyone feels anxious about these kinds of events. The point I want to make is, if you’re putting yourself in any sort of challenging situation, then anxiety is a normal emotion.
So next time, when you feel anxious, stop for a moment and notice it. Tune into your body and locate where the anxiety shows up (because almost always we can sense strong emotions in a particular place in our body). Once you have located it, belly-breath into that part by inhaling through your nose to a slow count of 4 and gently exhaling again for a 4; and then make a move. Remember that it is not about “overcoming” fear or anxiety first, but about doing it while allowing these feelings to exist.
10. Don’t rely on positive affirmations
You’ve heard it countless times from the best of the best like Napoleon Hill or Tony Robbins: A positive mindset leads to positive end results. So you use positive affirmations in the many suggested ways. You write your desired result on a card, keep it with you at all times, and repeat the phrase over and over in your mind. But the outcome of your efforts was probably then not what you were looking for.
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This is because positive affirmations don’t work. They’re just another control strategy that may bring you short-term gain, but it will not last. Worse, once the positive effect wears off, you will try again to change your thinking process through positive affirmations, but with the same unsatisfactory result. And if you do this repeatedly, you will end up in a negative feedback loop that will cause you more problems than before.