Breaking the Habit of Negative Thinking

(c) 2012 Carol James, Founder of

One behavioral symptom of stress is negative thinking or self-talk, which usually contains self-defeating or self-diminishing statements. For example, "I just know I'm going to fail." or "Things just never work out right for me." or "I always get the short end of the stick."

I've noticed that negative self-chatter is pervasive with many people. One example comes from a conversation I had a while back with a desperate woman who somehow found my phone number. Negativity and depressive beliefs dripped from her lips. No matter what I said, she insisted that she had nothing to be happy about and that her heart had closed.

I tried to help her see that as long as she looked only at what was wrong with herself and her life, she would continue to find more things wrong, and that she could not get to happiness from where she now stood. But she kept interrupting me to share more problems.

Amazingly, this woman also told me how happy and successful she used to be, but she had lost it all. It was clear to me that she had allowed the conditions and circumstances of her life to determine her level of happiness. As long as things went well, she was happy. But as soon as circumstances changed, she lost her happiness. Yet try as I might, I couldn't help her break through her wall of self-defeating talk.

After thirty minutes of trying to help her remember something – anything – that would bring her a feeling of hope or happiness, I began feeling hopeless myself when I was suddenly inspired to say, "This may be a little thing, but when you hear a bird sing, does it bring you joy?"

Her response was immediate: "That's not a small thing to me. I love to hear birds sing."

"And hearing the laughter of a child playing?" I countered. I could almost hear the rush of relief (mine or hers?) that broke forth as she shifted her perception. For the first time in our conversation she stopped insisting that she had nothing to be happy about. In her silence I could tell that my message had finally penetrated her resistance.

I have found that negative thinking derives from beliefs about ourselves that were formulated long ago – about who we think we are and what we are capable of doing. In our early years, many of us had parents who did not know how to be loving, nurturing or supportive, so we learned from them how to criticize and judge ourselves. As a result, we often treat ourselves exactly as we were treated as children, scolding ourselves for being afraid or for making a mistake, and often taking on a distorted view of how things are, without ever questioning its validity.

But the past is ancient history, gone, dead and buried (at least if you allow it to be), and now it's time to treat yourself exactly as you've always wanted to be treated. When you catch yourself beating yourself up, remind yourself to be gentle and loving. After all, if you aren't that way with yourself, how do you expect others to be that way with you?

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