Transforming Negative Thoughts: A Path to Personal Growth

Key Messages

• It is important to pay attention to our thoughts
• Positive or negative — our thoughts shape our lives
• Negative bias tips the scales, and gives our negative thoughts more power than our positive ones*
• Many of the negative thoughts we hold may no longer be accurate or helpful
• We can gain control of the negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs that hold us back, by challenging, reframing and replacing them with more accurate, adaptive, and positive ones

FOOD FOR THOUGHT!

Paying attention to the negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs that hold you back from living the life you want paves the way to creating the life you want

Thoughts are powerful things. Positive or negative, your thoughts about everything from the way the world works and how relationships function and play out to how capable you are of achieving the goals you set for yourself, and how worthy you are of love, respect, and success shape your life.

When we have confidence in our skills, capabilities, and attributes, and feel capable of handling the challenges we face, when feel good about our prospects, our affective forecasting — that is to say, how we think and feel about our future happiness — remains positive, and we feel a sense of optimism about the future. Numerous research studies, including Dispositional Optimism, by Charles. S. Carver and Michael F. Scheier found a positive relationship between positive thinking — or optimism — and physical and mental health.

We all have negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs, and when they prevent us from living the life we want, our thoughts can work against us, and undermine our happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being.

Why we emphasize the negative

We tend to place a great deal more importance on negative thoughts than positive ones. As almost everyone who has ever received feedback on a performance, assignment, or presentation will tell you, they spend a lot more time thinking about the negative feedback they received than they do basking in the afterglow of praise and commendations.

Due to our innate tendency to place more emphasis on our negative rather than our positive experiences, we are hard-wired to place more emphasis on our negative thoughts. Research shows that we place particular importance on negative experiences and emotions throughout our lives, and, according to a 2020 study, negative bias plays a significant role in decision-making. In short, when negative, self-limiting thoughts and beliefs come along, they lower our confidence, and self-esteem and diminish our willingness to explore new experiences and opportunities.

Negativity bias — the ability to pay close attention to threats — played a crucial part in our survival as a species. In the modern world it often leaves us feeling incapable, threatened, and averse to taking chances with few real risks, and many potential benefits and rewards. When it comes to dealing with our thoughts, there are two critical questions we need to address: where do our negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs come from, and how can we deal with the negative thoughts that hold us back from living the life we want?

Where negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs come from

We are born into families and observe and absorb the actions, interactions, and behaviors of our parents, siblings, and caretakers. These important influencers, up to the age of 10, are the source of our core beliefs about ourselves, how the world works, how people interact, and how relationships work. We often hold onto these core beliefs as irrefutable facts.

As we grow and move out into the world we accumulate experiences. We label these experiences as positive or negative, and the thoughts we form about these experiences often become automatic. When our automatic thoughts are negative, they can wreak havoc on our moods and behaviors.

We also develop schemas as a means of organizing huge amounts of information and making sense of the world. While the schemas we form help us perform our day-to-day tasks and responsibilities, our negative experiences can significantly influence our behaviors and choices. A serious car accident, for example, could lead to safety behaviors that include avoiding certain traveling on certain routes or at certain times of the day. Safety behaviors often involve unnecessary self-limiting steps to avoid the recurrence of unpleasant events or outcomes. When we assign an isolated incident as a matter of fact that the world is an unsafe, perilous place, we plant seeds of doubt in ourselves, others, and the world. We can become embroiled in negative forecasting and imagining worst-case scenarios playing out. But our core beliefs, automatic thoughts, and schemas are not always accurate, helpful, or true. When we hold onto self-limiting beliefs, like we are not smart enough, worthy of, or capable of achieving our goals, these beliefs can lead to settling for less and living an inauthentic life. It is critical that we have compassion for ourselves and our negative thoughts and self-limiting beliefs, and that we take steps to examine the thoughts that hold us back.

Challenging, rewriting, and reframing

Just as an unexamined life is not worth living, an unexamined, and unchallenged negative thought is not worth holding onto. Dealing with problematic thoughts and self-limiting beliefs starts with building an awareness of the thoughts and beliefs that limit your choices and pose obstacles, and keep you stuck in situations or roles that limit your growth, satisfaction, and happiness. Make a list of your negative thoughts about the future, and imagine worst-case scenarios and situations where you tend to overestimate the probability of bad things happening. Add to this list the thoughts that lead to excuses that hold you back from taking on new challenges, learning new skills, or failing to take meaningful risks that would enable you to live the life you truly want for yourself.

The first step in dealing with the negative thoughts at play in your life is to challenge them. Take a long, honest look at the thoughts and beliefs you have identified as problematic and limiting. Acknowledge where they came from. Examine and recognize the thoughts are no longer accurate, no longer serve you, or hold you back from living the life you want. Next, one by one, you need to rewrite and replace these outdated, inaccurate, self-limiting thoughts with more accurate, adaptive, and supportive ones that authentically reflect your abilities, attributes, skill sets, and goals. And finally, with these more positive, adaptive, and accurate thoughts, you can begin to reimagine the life you want for yourself. Here, it is critical to reinforce these new thoughts by identifying and bringing in the resources and supports you need to help you meet the challenges you encounter as you strive to create the life you want.

When to seek help

There are times when our negative self-talk, self-limiting beliefs, and patterns of catastrophizing are unmanageable and impossible to overcome. Here, seeking the help of a mental health professional can be life-changing. Individuals suffering from anxiety and depression, and people living with unprocessed trauma, often overestimate the likelihood of bad things happening. They can become mired in patterns of cognitive distortions, including all-or-nothing thinking, personalization, and blame, jumping to conclusions, and the minimization or discounting of positives in life.

All forms of therapy involve thought work, where individuals work to identify and challenge the negative thoughts in their lives. We then rewrite and replace these thoughts with more accurate, supportive, and healthier ones; we reframe their views about what is possible and what their lives can be. And finally, we bring in supports and strategies to help reinforce and sustain these healthier, more adaptive positive thoughts.

Think about it

Your thoughts—positive and negative— shape your life, so when your day-to-day life is not the life you truly want for yourself, the first step to change could be to think about your thoughts. Challenge, rewrite and reframe the thoughts and beliefs that no longer serve you.

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Transforming Negative Thoughts: A Path to Personal Growth

ABOUT DR. MONICA VERMANI

One of Canada’s highest-rated clinical psychologists, Dr. Monica Vermani is a public speaker, teacher, and author in the field of mental health and wellness. In her private practice, Dr. Vermani provides a multi-faceted treatment approach in treating adolescents and adults suffering from trauma/abuse, mood, anxiety, substance addictions, and other related conditions and disorders, as well as family and couples therapy.

Dr. Vermani believes that good mental health doesn’t just happen, that it deserves the same time, attention, understanding, and effort as our physical wellbeing. Drawing from her 25 years of clinical practice, she takes readers through the same tried and true multi-disciplinary approach to treatment that has been successful in creating incremental, meaningful change for hundreds of patients and groups.

Check out Dr. Monica Vermani’s newest book, A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas, and learn more at www.drmonicavermani.com.

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