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How Mindfulness Can Reshape Negative Thought Patterns

If you often feel stuck in negative thought patterns, this may help.

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"Our life is like a silent film on which we each write our own commentary."

—Unknown Zen Buddhist Master

"T'is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so." 

We spend most of our lives thinking or lost in thought. The average human has 17,000-50,000 thoughts daily. Around 90 percent of them are repeat-thoughts! (These numbers go down, however, if you're an experienced meditator). Unfortunately, we tend to believe the stories underlying these often excessive thoughts, although they may have little basis in reality. Mindfulness can help us relate more skillfully and wisely to our own thought patterns. Here's how.

I call the thinking patterns that we often get stuck in and that reduce the quality of our lives mental tapes because they usually have roots in the past. (Though nowadays, most of us are streaming music instead of listening to tapes anyway!) These tapes often originate from when we were younger, more vulnerable, less mature, and less competent. Let me clarify, however, that thinking patterns are complex and this isn't the only way mindfulness can help reshape thought patterns; it's just one common and effective way (I'll cover others in future posts).

I will start with a personal example of an old mental tape. I used to worry unnecessarily about my professional growth as a budding psychotherapist, writer, and professor. The first time I remember this was when I was in sixth grade and had to write my first research paper. My teacher was strict and didn’t provide the guidance I felt I needed. As loving as they were, my parents didn’t know how to help me with research either. Back then, I couldn’t stop worrying about it. I barely slept the night before it was due. My 11-year-old self needed a lot of research guidance, compassion, support, and patience; no wonder he worried so much. Fast forward to now—even though I write well, teach well, am on track to finish my doctorate in a year, and have always completed what I needed to, I still often get swept up in the "worry about completing future tasks" mental tape from when I was 11!

That old mental tape from sixth grade surfaced recently. Around a month ago, when I went to the movie theater with my wife, I had a subtle yet long-lasting burst of anxiety about all I needed to complete that week. The mental tape was back, consisting of the predictable old thought patterns, such as, "I need to finish this and that," "Will I be able to do it?" and "All I have to do is hard and stressful!" "Why is my to-do list always so long?" ""What will go wrong if I don't perform these tasks well?" This unnecessarily interrupted my focus and enjoyment of the movie. This was an old mental tape from my past—a mere repeat, a meager obsolete replay, that tried to convince me it was only related to what’s happening now. Each time I identify the old tape and its source, it gets weaker. I know this cognitively, but this awareness has not always prevented me from feeling stuck and lost in it.

Developing a mindfulness practice has allowed me to disconnect from this outdated mental tape. How? By compassionately observing my own mind. Mindfully, I can realize that throughout my whole life, I have almost always managed to complete the tasks at hand, and even if I didn’t for some reason, I still do okay anyway. In other words, mindfulness can help reality kick in. Just like a lake produces a mirror-like image of the surrounding trees and sky when it’s still, in mindfulness practice, these truths arise naturally as we learn to wisely and compassionately observe and calm our minds.

So how can this help us with our old mental tapes that have unnecessarily brought us down? If you’ve been in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), your therapist likely has helped you identify cognitive distortions and actively challenge them. CBT therapists assume that thoughts directly cause feelings. Therapy is thus about "correcting irrational thoughts," which is theorized to automatically lead to happier emotional states.

Mindfulness and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy offer an alternative to traditional CBT. From a mindfulness perspective, my feeling overwhelmed with responsibility originates from an old mental tape of ruminative thoughts about not being able to complete responsibilities, and all my old fears about what could have happened when I was in the sixth grade, the first time I was faced with a research paper. That mental tape has since repeated itself countless times because it developed a connection to neural networks in the brain facilitating its proliferation. Mindfulness offers this awareness and allows me to do something different. Fortunately, our brains are quite plastic; they can learn, adapt and change no matter how old we are.

So, to change this habit, when I notice that I am simply re-experiencing replays of old thought patterns—“hearing old tapes playing”—I can assess their legitimacy in the now, and step into Ontological Mode of being. This can naturally discredit the tapes' basis in reality, as I have always completed what I needed to (letting the facts naturally inform, guide, and nurture the irrational thoughts fueling the obsolete mental tape) so I can enjoy the present moment.

Taking it a step further, I can also see the “old tapes playing” mindfully, as merely mental events, like rainy clouds passing through the sky, not take them seriously, and simply stay present in the here-and-now, which is indispensable in Ontological Mode of Being. Realizing that negative thoughts can be triggered by low moods and vice versa, I can notice my emotional states, the thoughts they generate, and continually and gently remind myself that thoughts aren't reality. From this vantage point, it can be interesting—potentially fascinating—to notice the thinking patterns that certain moods engender, instead of mindlessly following their storyline as if they were a truth with a capital T.

In my practice, I mindfully choose to consider the evidence that I have always completed what I've needed to. This enables me not to buy into the old conditioned thought pattern (tape) that doesn't accurately reflect me, and update it with a more meaningful and flexible one that captures all my strengths, accomplishments, and wisdom. I know I complete all my tasks by merely seeing the facts and looking at how far I've come. This also helps me to savor the present.

You can look how far you've come, too. You can do the same with mental states or mental tapes that can unnecessarily bring you down, and find refuge in the moment or the current task at hand. What are your most common tapes? According to Dr. Ronald Siegel, among the most common (we can give them funny labels) are the "I blew it again" tape or the "no one cares about me" tape, or "I suck at everything" tape. Even more basic are "obsessing" or "criticizing" tapes. We all have them, even when they are often baseless.

This post may seem easier in principle than practice, but every time you practice, it gets easier. It is never too late to practice, practice, practice. Through the compassionate, calm, and wise observation you cultivate in mindfulness practice, you can undercut the old tapes by watching them play out and redirecting your precious attention to now and to the facts. I created this meditation to help you mindfully observe your thoughts. Dr. Ronald Siegel's is also effective. Lastly, if your mental tapes feel too deeply ingrained for this post, EMDR therapy, which I'm certified in, can also help in reprocessing past upsetting memories to help them merely remember them instead of constantly relive them helplessly in the present.

Bottom line: Instead of conditioned habits writing our stories and dictating our mental patterns, it's also time for us to write our own commentaries and live fully in the moment.

This post is for educational purposes and should not to substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional. Copyright Jason Linder, LMFT 2019.