With the four keys listed below, and a little practice, I believe anyone can break free of negativity for good.
Getting drawn into a pattern of negative thinking can be likened to building a prison in your own mind. It holds you captive. I know. I’ve been there.
People try many different ways to ‘break out’ of their negative thought patterns including distractions, diversions or ‘drowning their sorrows’ only to later mentally beat themselves up for being still stuck in their negativity. It can feel like a real internal battle.
If you are struggling with negative thinking, I can tell you from my own experience that it is possible to turn things around and cultivate inner peace and happiness.
I went from being a bulimic, self hating miserable person to ‘waking up’ out of the negativity that plauged me and into a freedom, joy and wholeness I could never have imagined in my darkest days.
With proper understanding and a little practice you can transform your life from the inside out. If I can do it from the dark place I was in, then I firmly believe anyone can!
Here are the four keys that transform a tumultuous inner environment into a peaceful and joyful abode.
Key 1. Recognize Negative Thought Patterns
Negative thought patterns are repetitive, unproductive thoughts. They serve no real purpose and directly cause negative emotions (emotions are a reflection of our thoughts, felt in the body).
Once we learn to recognise and identify these thought patterns as they occur we can start to have a choice about how to react. Here are the negative thinking patterns that are most common:
Anxious Thoughts and Worry
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”. –Michel de Montaigne
Negative thinking can take the form of imagining or expecting that bad things will happen or that nothing good will ever happen for you. You might fret about your health deteriorating, your relationship going downhill, your car breaking down or your career being ruined— even though nothing has actually happened yet.
You might focus on the lack in your life and believe that nothing will ever get better for you. Stress related to your financial future, the welfare of your children or your partner leaving you fit into this category.
When the mind casts itself into the future and conjures up scenes and thoughts about what could go wrong or creates ‘what if’ scenarios you have become trapped in these kinds of negative thought patterns.
Criticism and Self Beating
Another pattern of negative thought is to constantly criticise. You may be very harsh on yourself, focusing in on all of your weaknesses and perceived flaws.
Likewise, you may extend this habit of criticism to others in your life. This can be the cause of tremendous strain on relationships. Negative self talk and self criticism often results in low self esteem and a lack of confidence.
One way some people cope with low self esteem is to compensate for these feelings by attaining status, achievements and recognition. Others may feel completely debilitated and unworthy, isolating themselves from others or never attempting to reach their goals.
When the mind continuously hones in on what is wrong with your self and others and disassociates from what is right and good, we can become stuck in negativity.
Regret and Guilt
Ruminating on mistakes made in the past creates negativity. Feelings of guilt and worthlessness may arise when you play over and over in your mind, ‘bad’ choices or ‘wrong’ actions you feel you have made.
There is nothing negative about simply reflecting on past experiences. This is how we can and learn and mature as people. Negativity arises when you dwell on a situation repeatedly with no real intention to learn and move on – but instead you are self beating or wishing things were different instead of being accepting of things as they are.
Negative thoughts often revolve around what’s wrong with your life. Your attention becomes fixated on, and exaggerates the so called negative aspects of your life. Here your mind will often downplay what is going well.
For example, you may have a wonderful family, food to eat and shelter but your car breaks down and it’s all you can think about and focus on all week long. You allow the situation with the car to dominate your thinking and negative emotions arise as a result.
All week you are frustrated, angry and depressed because of the car when your focus could be expanded to what is going well and what you’re grateful for.
The truth is that the car has a problem. It is no longer running and needs to be taken to the mechanic. That’s a simple fact. Ruminating continuously on the situation is not constructive at all and is another way we can get trapped in negativity.
If you have this habit of lamenting over your sorrows and problems you may constantly feel frustrated, anxious, depressed and apathetic. You’re so absorbed in what’s wrong, you’re unable to notice what’s right.
Obsessing over all the things that you ‘need’ to make you happy is another negative thought pattern. The Buddha noticed two thousand years ago that the incessant ‘wanting’ was detrimental to happiness.
It creates feelings of discontent and restlessness. This thought pattern can be particularly seductive. It’s easy to place your ability to be happy on external things, like getting that sports car or finding the love of your life. It’s easy to overlook the fact that this constant wanting for more creates constant feelings of unease and discontent.
In the west we are bombarded with advertising and subtle messages from our cultural conditioning, that we need more ‘stuff’ or a better life situation in order to be happy.
To many people, it seems normal to always be discontent and wanting more. But when you always focus on what you want instead of appreciating what you have, it reinforces over and over that you and your life aren’t good enough now— that you need something outside of yourself, and in the future, to make things better.
Wanting thoughts are thoughts of ‘not enough yet’ and this negative thinking pattern can keep you stressed, uneasy and restless.
Key 2. Dis-identify From Negative Thinking
People trapped in negative thinking often feel hopeless because they don’t know what to do. You can’t always not think of things— you have to face your problems, you have to plan for your future and you have to deal with situations.
You can’t just bury your head in the sand and ignore everything. Trying to just ‘think positive’ about a situation that is truly difficult doesn’t seem authentic either.
So how do you move through life in a way that is practical and authentic without getting sucked into negative thought patterns?
Here are the remaining essential, tried and tested steps to walking out of the prison of negativity and into the freedom of your natural state of wellbeing. I have walked this path myself and can attest to its effectiveness.
Become the Watcher of Thoughts
In order to become free of negativity you must become more aware of your thoughts. Start to pay more attention to what is going on inside your mind at any given time.
Especially pay attention to any of those patterns of negative thinking that arise. Become a curious observer of what goes on in your inner environment.
The mind can be likened to a record playing the same habitual old tunes over and over. Through lack of awareness, the record can continue playing simply because it has a certain momentum and it’s used to moving in the familiar grooves.
By bringing your conscious attention to your thinking patterns, you bring in a new higher dimension of awareness – you become mindful. You’re able to step back from the thoughts and become the silent watcher. In this way, thoughts (and emotions) immediately start to lose their hold over you.
Each time your conscious awareness is brought to a negative thought pattern it’s like you put a little scratch in that habitual old record. After a while that record never quite plays the same again and eventually doesn’t play at all.
See if you can catch negative thoughts as they arise, before they gain too much momentum. If you’re unable to catch them in the beginning then you have another opportunity to ‘wake up’ to them when a negative emotion arises as a response to the thought patterns. When a negative emotion arises you can take your attention to the thoughts you are thinking and also the emotion being generated by these thoughts. Simply be there as the witness as they play out.
The Impartial Witness
When you observe your thoughts and emotions aim to do so as an impartial witness. You simply watch them and shine the light of your awareness on what is arising.
It is common the want to resist, change, ignore or try to be distracted from ‘bad’ thoughts and especially negative emotions, but here we are facing them fully without the need to push them away.
Instead, have a sense of simply allowing them to be. This can be tricky and even a little uncomfortable at first as we are so used to trying to avoid our negative emotions and thoughts but it is imperative to stay steadfast in the stance of the impartial witness. This can take some practice but in time becomes easier and easier.
As the impartial witness we also aim not to be carried away or get involved in thoughts and emotions. Aim to simply stay present as the watcher. What you’re doing here is creating a state of detachment from thought processes.
As the impartial witness you don’t believe all of your thoughts and you don’t take them all that seriously. You begin to see them as merely inner objects that you’re observing.
Key 3. Mindfulness of the Moment
Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness. —James Thurber
Notice that many negative thoughts mostly flow from two directions. The first is dwelling on the past—maybe you ruminate over mistakes, problems, guilt and anything in your life that’s did not go the way you believe it should have gone. The second is worrying about the future—fear of what may or may not happen for yourself, others or the planet.
This may take the form of stress over whether or not you will achieve certain goals or anxiety about the security of your finances or relationships. Or perhaps you may worry about getting old. Whatever your particular negative thoughts are notice that in order to engage in negative thought patterns the mind needs to cast its focus into past or future.
When lost in negative thinking we tend to be so engrossed in thoughts that we completely lose touch with the simple beauty and aliveness of the present moment.
To become more fully conscious and able to step out of thinking processes, redirect your attention out of thought and into the here and now. Give the present moment your absolute undivided attention.
To do this become aware of your present environment. Whether you’re in your home, at the office, in the park or on a subway, notice everything around you. Use your senses to their fullest. Don’t get into a mental dialogue about the things you see, just be aware of what you’re experiencing in this moment.
Be aware of the sounds, the scents, the sensation of the air on your skin or the seat beneath you. If you’re engaged in doing a task then give it your full focus. Do just one thing at a time and be there fully to experience it.
If your walking for instance, then perhaps be aware of the swishing of your clothes or the feel of the floor under your feet.
If you’re eating, be aware of the flavours and textures of your food and how the different parts of your tongue awaken to their sensations.
It is actually almost impossible to be both fully deeply present in the moment and also have negativity arising. Try it out as an experiment and find out for yourself whether this is true.
What is the problem right now in this moment only? When you’re truly in the present moment, the past and future have no power over you.
Key 4. Choosing Constructive Thoughts Instead of Destructive Thoughts
Positive or constructive thoughts help you effectively face your day-to-day situations.
Dwelling or ruminating on the past is not helpful and will cause negative emotions, but you can use past experiences to help make decisions and adjust your actions.
Worrying will only cause grief and anxiety but there may be some constructive action you can take such as taking out travel insurance or fixing a leak in your home. Once you’ve taken that action you can then drop any thoughts about it.
Constructive thinking allows you to be happy when things are going good, to put problems in perspective and deal with them in a practical way.
From The Darkness of Negativity to The Daylight of Mindfulness
This is not a ‘quick fix’ method of turning around negativity (I don’t think there is a true one) but it is tried and tested and I can tell you from personal experience that it works.
The more you practice awareness of these thought patterns and what they’re doing to you, the faster you’ll begin to redirect yourself again to being mindful of the moment.
It’s like building a muscle and in time you become fit and mentally strong. In time the old habits are worn away and rather than being preoccupied with negativity, you’re being is engulfed in a deep sense of peace, as you’re connected to your life as it is unfolding.
It’s not that you don’t think or feel anymore; it’s just that these destructive thoughts no longer touch the essence of your being in the same way anymore. You become like a deep lake, less affected by the ripples on the surface. In time, your whole life is then transformed from the inside out!
p.s If you enjoyed this post you’ll also love How to use mindfulness to overcome negative emotions
p.s.s. If you have any questions or need clarification of any point here please jot them down in the comments section below. I’m always happy to help you.