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Negative Thoughts Are Made of Fairy Dust

Three tips for brushing them away.

Key points

  • The more effort one puts toward pushing a thought away, the more persistent it is likely to become.
  • It can help to practice talking back to negative thoughts or to let them just pass through one's mind. 
  • Working with a cognitive behavior therapist can help one generate self-statements to combat negative thoughts.
Michele Raffoni/Pexels
Michele Raffoni/Pexels

“Do this ... Don’t do that ... Do it better ... What’s wrong with you, can’t you do anything right?”

Is there an inner critic that has taken up residence in your head? Does it prick you with constant reminders of what you haven’t accomplished or ping you with guilt for what you have done wrong? Does it push your emotional buttons and pound away at your self-esteem?

In cognitive behavior therapy, we help people reset their minds, replacing disturbing thoughts with rational alternatives. Yet there's an unrecognized irony in the work we do. CBT is predicated on the belief that disturbing, distorted thoughts (called cognitive distortions) drive negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and depression, while at the same we recognize that thoughts have no power in themselves. After all, disturbing thoughts are just words, just thoughts put into words, just opinions and beliefs, none of which can push your buttons unless you let them. The emperor has no clothes. The only power they have is that which you bestow on them.

A thought just hangs there unless you allow it to take control over you. One of my favorite quotes is from Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I would add that no one can make you feel bad about yourself, not even you, unless you permit it.

Tell your inner critic that it is not the boss of you. Tell it to take a hike, go skedaddle, or just vacate the premises. When you notice a disturbing thought bouncing around in the corridors of your mind, confront it directly by talking back to it. Practice countermanding thoughts you can pull from your hip pocket to challenge disturbing thoughts. Here are some examples of this kind of rational back-talk from my patients:

  • Just take it a step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other.
  • If it’s under your control, control it; if not, let it go.
  • Think, don’t react.
  • Don’t think it, just do it.
  • I can only do the best I can, nothing more.
  • It’s not the end of the world, it only feels that way.
  • Sure, life sucks. Get over it.

A countermanding thought is a coping response for managing upsetting thoughts. Some coping responses work better for some people than others. In practice, I’ve found the best way to know what works is to try them out. But two types of coping responses don’t seem to work very well or offer only a temporary respite:

  1. Fighting it off. Some people attempt to duke it out with negative thoughts, trying to banish them from their minds. Trying to control your thoughts by sheer force of will can be mentally fatiguing, like trying not to think about pink elephants. You say to yourself, “Don’t think that ... Push it away ... Ignore it.” But the more time and effort you put toward pushing it away, the more persistent the thought is likely to become. Like spitting in the wind, trying to fight off a disturbing thought may backfire and wind up making it even stronger.
  2. Distracting yourself. Trying to distract yourself can be a helpful technique, if only for a time. When bothered by a persistent negative thought, you could do other things to distract yourself, such as watching TV, reading an engrossing book, calling a friend, or listening to music, to name but a few. However, you can only escape from yourself for a finite amount of time before you eventually come once again to face the solitude of your own mind.

What works better? Here are three suggestions, but again the proof remains in the proverbial pudding, as you need to try them out yourself:

  1. Talk back to the negative thoughts. Take the negative thought head-on, bringing it into the courtroom of your mind where you can mount a vigorous defense. Prosecute the offending thought by submitting evidence to undermine its validity and then practice an alternative, countermanding thought to replace it. (Check other my other posts for examples of countermanding thoughts that work against anxiety, anger, depression, guilt, and worry.) Sometimes a negative thought identifies a problem to solve or a behavior to be corrected. There is something to be said for the age-old expression of learning from your mistakes. But a negative thought that continues to pound away in your head long after you get the message needs to be sent packing.
  2. Let negative thoughts just pass through your mind. A thought is made of fairy dust—its “magic” comes from the power we imbue to it. Thoughts lack any material substance that can cause us to act or feel differently. Don’t bestow on negative thoughts any power they do not possess. So, for example, merely thinking you are a loser doesn’t make you a loser. It just makes you a person who thinks you are a loser. Let the thought pass through, perhaps by saying to yourself, “It’s just a thought. Thinking you are a loser doesn’t make it so.” Don’t fight it off; just let it just fade away. The thought will pass through the fairy dust of which it’s made, especially if you just let it be (gone).
  3. Think logically, not emotionally. At times when you think the worst, ask yourself if it is really the end of the world or if it merely seems that way. Become aware of the trap of emotional reasoning, which is reasoning based on feelings, not reason. With emotional reasoning, you commit a logical error of thinking that because something feels so, it must be so. It goes like this: If I feel desperate or hopeless, things must really be desperate or hopeless. Looking at the world through your emotions is like wearing dark sunglasses and thinking the world itself is truly a dark place. Practice the discipline of a Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame and let logic and rational thought, not emotions, guide you.

Checking in With Your Own Mind

Take a moment to check in with yourself to catch troubling thoughts when they bounce around in your head. Don’t just let them linger in your mind, untouched and unexamined. When you snag an offending thought, pose a set of challenge questions to yourself:

  • Challenge 1: Why must it be so?
  • Challenge 2: Who says it must be so?
  • Challenge 3: Is there any evidence that makes it so?
  • Challenge 4: Whose voice is talking in my head when I think this way? Whose words does it sound like?
  • Challenge 5: Is there an alternative way of viewing this situation?
  • Challenge 6: What rational thought can I substitute for the disturbing thought?

In my other posts, you’ll find examples of countermanding thoughts in the form of self-statements my patients have used to talk back to disturbing thoughts. Using these self-statements may be helpful, but you may have even more success with countermanding self-statements that are expressed in your own words. Working with a cognitive behavior therapist can also help you generate self-statements that work for you and pin down the specific thought triggers that give rise to automatic negative thoughts.

Go ahead and give yourself permission to get angry at the disturbing thought, just so long as you get angry at the intruder—the thought itself—not at yourself. Talk back to the thought by thinking or saying to yourself, “Stop. You’ve made me suffer enough. Go find someone else to beat up on.” Then substitute an alternative thought: “Yes, I made mistakes, but I can’t fix the past. I can only change what I do in the present, the here and now, not in the past or future.” Then do something this very day, even two somethings, to make the day more fulfilling and to accomplish achievable goals. At the end of the day, remind yourself what you have accomplished (not what you didn’t do or didn’t accomplish). When tomorrow comes, rinse and repeat.

General Disclaimer: The content here and in other blog posts on the Minute Therapist is intended for informational purposes only and not for diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of mental health disorders. If you are concerned about your emotional well-being or experiencing any significant mental health problems, I encourage you to consult a licensed mental health professional in your area for a thorough evaluation.

© 2023 Jeffrey S. Nevid

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