Mca blog

Managing Those Negative Thoughts

My father-in-law passed away earlier this year, two weeks before his 97thbirthday. When my husband emptied his house, he discovered 2 boxes filled with hundreds of slides which we found, after converting them to digital format, dated back to the 1950s.

I had known my father-in-law for 34 years before he passed away. He was a strong-willed, determined man who would put his needs before others and wasn’t afraid of offending anyone. He loved to holiday and to live a casual life (I hardly ever saw him dressed in anything other than shorts). He had strong opinions and readily shared his views with whoever would listen.

But the man I had known was not the formally dressed gentleman I saw in most of these photos. In these photos I saw someone with a lightness, a graciousness that I never encountered in his later life. I saw an artistic eye that carefully framed each shot he took. I saw someone who was savouring each experience, and who took multitudes of photographs in an apparent attempt to permanently capture each wonderful moment of his life, a life he may have thought he would never have, given the earlier traumas and losses he’d experienced during the war. I saw a contented man with a relaxed joy and connectedness.

Looking at these photos made me realise just how much we continue to change and evolve throughout our lives. Becoming an adult is not where the development of our character and our personality finishes. We may think of our evolution as a function of our experiences, but it’s actually more a function of how we respond to our experiences. We have little control over so many situations in life, but we have full control over how we respond. The photos revealed a man who had moved on from his difficult past, whereas the man I knew had, either through choice or inevitability, returned to that dark place.

A question that I’m frequently asked is, how can I stop my negative thoughts? Can I learn not to be overwhelmed by them?

We’ve evolved to have a natural bias towards having, and focusing on, our negative thoughts. This is a survival mechanism. In short, the cave man who didn’t feel anxious about each rustle in the bushes, or didn’t adequately plan for worst case scenarios, was less likely to survive to pass on his genes.

But having negative thoughts and becoming overwhelmed by them are two different things. Our brain fires off thought after thought throughout the day and night. It’s normal – this is what the brain does. Some thoughts are pleasant, some are useful, most are meaningless. If you don’t believe me take five minutes to write down every thought that comes to your mind and you may be horrified at how much rubbish your brain can produce. But most of these thoughts you may not even be aware of as you don’t need to be.

Sometimes, though, we listen to all the “stuff” that our brain produces. We listen to that perpetual inner dialogue and allow ourselves to go off with these thoughts which, as we’ve already said, are mostly negative. And that’s the problem.

Mindfulness teaches us how to observe our thoughts in a way that builds awareness of which thoughts are useful and which are not. This means that with training we learn to recognise if a negative thought is one we need to pay attention to or can ignore. If it isn’t important we can shift our attention to thoughts that serve us better at that time. The negative thoughts may come, but our choice lies in where we place our attention.

Let me give you an example: You bump into a friend unexpectedly whilst out walking and, after the usual greetings, she says she must rush and off she goes. Do you take it on face value that she’s in a hurry to go somewhere, or start wondering if she deliberately cut your meeting short because she didn’t want to be with you? Or, you have an important presentation to give at work, on a subject you’ve not spoken on before. Do you prepare in a relaxed fashion and anticipate a successful presentation, or do you imagine worst case scenario of doing an entirely inadequate job and spend days or weeks worrying about it before the event?

Of course, everyone’s different but it’s likely that you find it easier to focus on the bad thoughts because good thoughts take more effort than bad ones – thanks to our negativity bias that I described earlier.

Not only do positive thoughts take more effort, but we may not even realise we’re being negative unless we can increase our awareness. Here’s an exercise that can help.

Step 1: Stop yourself regularly throughout the day and deliberately listen to your inner dialogue. Check in to determine if it’s positive or negative self-talk. Even if you don’t change the thoughts, bring awareness to their feeling tone. If all you do is step 1, you’re on your way to building awareness.

Step 2: If the thoughts are unnecessarily negative consider shifting your focus to a thought about something good. I don’t mean fake it. Rather find something around you that is pleasant to focus on. Perhaps the sunshine feels good, or you just had an excellent cup of coffee, or a tasty meal, or a friend/family member/colleague said or did something nice for you today, or… You get the picture? There’s always something authentically positive you can find, no need to fake anything.

Step 3: As negative thoughts return, which they will, acknowledge their presence in your mind and let them go. In time, this will become habit and the process will be easier.

I’m reminded of the following quote by Jason Mraz:

Last weekend a young man asked me how I remain so positive. “It seems al the negativity in the world doesn’t affect you”, he said. I had no more than a minute with the young man so I offered this: It’s all about where you choose to put your attention, and I choose to be happy.

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