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Stop Fighting Your Negative Thoughts

It's not bad to have negative thoughts. The problem is when we believe them.

Key points

  • Eighty percent of everyone's thoughts contain some sort of negative content.
  • Labeling thoughts can help a person gain the perspective that they are not their thoughts.
  • It's worth it to let thoughts simply be. There's no reason to do anything about them.

If you're like me, you’ve read countless articles (heck, I’ve probably written one) and tried different techniques to get rid of those pesky negative thoughts — those little gremlins in your mind that tell you all sorts of awful things.

Guess what? You can learn to get rid of negative thoughts.

In the book, The Happiness Trap, author Russ Harris says 80 percent of everyone's thoughts contain some sort of negative content. So it's normal to have negative thoughts. It's part of our evolutionary heritage. We’re constantly scanning our environment (generating negative thoughts all the while) looking for problems to fix.

The difficulty isn’t that we have negative thoughts. The problem comes when we believe our thoughts are true.

Dr. Harris says: Consider an article written in a tabloid magazine about the latest celebrity scandal. We read the article and we know it's likely biased. It’s exaggerated or taken out of context. We typically don’t believe every word in the article or think we need to take some action as a result.

The thoughts in our minds collectively make up these stories, and they often sound similar to tabloid articles. The problem is that we become “fused" with these stories—fused as in joined together as a whole. We don't step back to get a better perspective. We don't ask ourselves necessary questions about our thoughts such as:

  • Is this thought true?
  • Is this thought important?
  • Is this thought helpful?

Here are some other little tricks to help you “defuse" the thoughts and stories in your mind:

Label your thoughts. Instead of saying “I'm a loser,” say, “I'm having the thought that I'm a loser.” Instead of saying, “I'm going to blow this test,” say “I'm having the thought that I'm going to blow this test.” The difference may seem subtle, but it can help you gain the perspective that you are not your thoughts.

Thank your mind. If you're having anxious thoughts such as, “I hope this plane doesn't crash…I hope the pilot knows what he’s doing…” say, “Thank you, mind. Thank you for trying to keep me safe. But there's nothing that you really need to do right now. I’ve got it covered.” I’m big on notes to myself, so sometimes I write my mind a letter of appreciation for its efforts, but also let it know it can take a break.

Let them float away. This one involves imagery. You put each negative thought on a leaf and imagine it floating down a stream. When you have another thought, as you will, you put it on another leaf and watch it float by.

Sing your thoughts. Try singing your thoughts to the alphabet song or to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Your thoughts will certainly sound absurd this way, which is the whole point.

Say them in a funny voice. Try saying your thoughts in a funny voice. Maybe do an imitation of a cartoon character.

Name your stories. Many times our thoughts are repetitive and involve the same stories. My story frequently is, “I don't really know what I'm doing.” When thoughts come up along that storyline, I can say, “Oh, here’s my I’m Incompetent story, and just let it go.

Do it anyway. Perhaps the most important tip is to remember that you can have a thought and perform any kind of behavior at the same time. If it’s something you care about, it’s worth it to let the thoughts simply be. You don’t have to do anything about them. When I work with clients on their anxiety using exposure therapy (face-your-fear therapy) the most important thing they report learning is, “I can function even when I’m anxious.”

It takes a little practice to get the hang of “defusion” techniques, so don’t give up. Many of my clients use them, and each person develops their personal favorites. I’ve tried all of the above except for saying my thoughts in a funny voice. I’m pretty sure it would be helpful, if I could only get my mind to stop telling me how silly I’d sound.


Harris, Russ. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Trumpeter.