How Negative Thoughts Are Ruining Your Life
How we think about our problems can be our biggest cause of distress.
Posted August 20, 2014 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Last year, a study of more than 30,000 people revealed that harping on negative life events (particularly through rumination and self-blame) can be the prime predictor of some of today's most common mental health problems. Results from the eye-opening U.K. study, the largest of its kind, indicated that it isn't just what happens to us that matters, but how we think about it that shapes our psychological well-being.
"Whilst we know that a person's genetics and life circumstances contribute to mental health problems, the results from this study showed that traumatic life events are the main reason people suffer from anxiety and depression. However, the way a person thinks about, and deals with, stressful events is as much an indicator of the level of stress and anxiety they feel," said lead researcher Peter Kinderman, Head of the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society.
While self-reflection can be a key ingredient to a happy, mindful life, these new findings seem to drive home the point that rumination is just not good for us. Therefore, while I encourage people to pursue self-understanding as a means of overcoming personal struggles and becoming their truest selves, I strongly believe that this must be done with self-compassion. In order to face any challenge without dwelling in self-hatred or self-doubt, every one of us should adopt what my friend, psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Dr. Daniel Siegel calls a COAL attitude, in which they are Curious, Open, Accepting and Loving toward themselves.
Armed with this attitude, individuals are better able to battle one of the biggest obstacles they will encounter in life: their own inner critic. The "critical inner voice" is a concept I'm often introducing to new audiences. It's the cornerstone of a theory and therapy technique developed by my father psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone. It is the basis of a book we co-authored titled Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and the subject of many of my lectures and Webinars. Why I have invested so much of my time and work into this subject is because what I have found in my 30 years of research and clinical practice is that, in almost all cases, we are our own worst enemy.
The critical inner voice is the language of this enemy. It is an internal dialogue that drives rumination, self-blame, and self-loathing. It mocks us, shames us, scares us, and lures us into self-limiting or self-destructive behavior. It tells us not to trust the people we love. It influences us to not try to reach a goal. It advises us and subdues us, keeping us seemingly safe inside a miserable, albeit familiar, shell.
Every one of us possesses this voice in one form or another. Perhaps yours is more focused on your career. "Don't go after than promotion; just accept where you are. You're not capable of success." Maybe it lectures you on your love life. "Don't bother dating. It's useless. No one will ever love you. You're doomed to be alone." Hopefully, like most of us, there is a side to you that is positive, self-compassionate and confident, but you are also divided. And while one side is goal-directed and life-affirming, the other is self-critical, self-hating, and ultimately self-destructive.
As a result, the most important battle you may fight is the one going on inside you — the real you versus your critical inner voice. The good news is this is a fight that you can win. As Kinderman pointed out in his study, "Whilst we can't change a person's family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels."
You can start this process by adopting a zero tolerance policy for your "voices" or self-destructive thoughts. Because these attitudes are deeply engrained since childhood, it can be hard to distinguish your critical inner voices from your real observations or sense of self. The "voice" can be tricky and impact your mood in ways that seem subtle. It can play on things that are real. For example, if you're a shy person, it may remind you, "You're too self-conscious; don't go to that party. Just stay home and read. You'll only feel awkward and out of place." Very often, we listen to these thoughts without really being conscious that we're having them.
Thus, the first step in fighting your inner critic is recognizing when it speaks up. When do you start to attack yourself? What triggers, little or big, set it off? Is it attending a social event? Speaking in a meeting? Asking someone out? Once you begin to note the scenarios that trigger the voices, you can identify patterns in your thoughts and become more aware of them. You can actually recognize when you are attacking yourself. Moreover, you'll be better equipped to resist listening to these thoughts.
The next step may sound the simplest, but it can be the most challenging. As soon as you notice a voice start to echo in your mind, stop it! Stop that way of thinking without question. Have zero tolerance of anything that this internal enemy is telling you. One strategy to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder involves telling yourself that your brain is lying to you. When you start to replay a thought, you can remind yourself, "It's not me, it's my OCD." The same goes for your inner critic. "It's not me, it's my critical inner voice. These thoughts are not my conscience trying to keep me on track; they are an internal enemy trying to take me off course and steer me away from my interests and goals."
An example many people can relate to is trying on clothes. Staring in the mirror, you begin to catalog small flaws in your appearance. You have thoughts like "my arms are too scrawny" or "ugh, I hate my thighs." Pretty soon, the thoughts escalate. "You're so ugly. You don't work out enough. You'll never look attractive. You're disgusting!" You have gone from being in a fine mood, getting dressed in the morning or shopping with a friend, to feeling depressed and demoralized. You show less confidence throughout the day as a result.
This is why you need to implement a zero-tolerance policy at the first sign that your inner critic is at the wheel. Don't allow yourself to ponder what it is saying. There is nothing to mull over, no statement to consider, no point of view to entertain. This is just rumination in action. Be wary of thoughts that sound friendly or seductive. "It's okay that you're alone. You're fine on your own; you don't need anybody."
Be careful of voices that sound paranoid toward others or self-aggrandizing. "No one sees your potential. They don't appreciate you. They are just jealous of you." While these thought processes may sound sympathetic or even complimentary, they leave you feeling empty and often heading in the opposite direction of your goals. Plus, once you act on these thoughts, more critical self-attacks are there waiting to greet you. "There you are again, all alone. What a loser!"
When you find yourself overthinking, and you notice that your thoughts have turned negative, you are far better off stopping ruminating and instead taking action that goes against them. Part of zero-tolerance is not allowing these voices to influence your actions. If they are telling you to be alone, invite a friend to coffee. If they are berating your career success, apply for that senior position. Take actions that move you closer to your most authentic self. When you first change something about yourself, you can expect your voices to get louder. However, the longer you persevere in your actions, the quieter they will become. It's hard to attack yourself for being lazy when you exercise regularly or to undermine your goals when you're actively pursuing them.
A recent systematic review of studies found that mindfulness-based and cognitive behavioral interventions may be effective in reducing both rumination and worry. They conclude, "More broadly, it appears that treatments, in which the participants are encouraged to change their thinking style, or to disengage from emotional response to rumination and/or worry, could be helpful."
Furthermore, research from Dr. Kristin Neff has indicated that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger. Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on evaluations but on a basic sense of your worthiness as a human being. Dr. Neff defines self-compassion as a kind, connected, and clear-sighted way of relating to ourselves even in instances of failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection.
By initiating zero-tolerance, we are evicting what Arianna Huffington has referred to as the "obnoxious roommate" in our heads. The way to do this is by becoming aware of and not listening to these thoughts, cultivating self-compassion, and acting against the directives of your inner critic, not allowing this internal enemy to control your life.
Watch a cartoon on the critical inner voice here.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org