Some people spend a lot of time ruminating, and often, the thoughts that occupy their minds are negative. From worrying about the future to replaying events in the past and even focusing on parts of life that leave us feeling dissatisfied, there seems to be something that pulls us towards negative thoughts.
However, focusing on negative thoughts can prevent us from enjoying experiences, distracts us from the important things, and drains our energy. It can also make us feel anxious and depressed. Fortunately, there’s a way to change this. Turning negative into positive thoughts is possible with some knowledge, awareness, and tools to help you along the way.
Why Do We Experience Negative Thoughts?
When unfavorable events happen in our lives, having negative thoughts is a normal response. However, many people experience having negative thoughts more often than positive ones. This is a type of thinking error or cognitive distortion that paints everything in a negative light.
Excessive negative thoughts are due to an evolutionary mechanism in our brains called the negativity bias. It provided humans with critical evolutionary adaptive functions that allowed for survival from life-threatening risks such as predators. This bias has been found to play a role in our early development [*], such as when children learn how to avoid potentially harmful stimuli in ambiguous situations. The better we adapt, the more likely we are to survive.
However, negative bias is not always useful in the way we live today. Sometimes this hardwired tendency influences the way we think even outside of life-threatening situations. For instance, one of the signs of all or nothing thinking is to ignore positive aspects of something even though they are present.
This partly explains why we do things such as remember insults more than compliments, respond more to negative stimuli, and dwell on unpleasant memories or events more than pleasant.
Common Examples of Negative Thoughts
“I am not good enough.” Have you ever felt like you weren’t good enough? You aren’t alone. People who think this type of negative thought tend to wallow in a state of self-doubt and pity. Although the truth is that we are all good enough in our own way, disqualifying the positive aspects can lead us to spiral into more negative thinking patterns.
“I can’t do it.” Saying that you can’t do something without trying it is an example of a fortune-telling automatic negative thought. It may be helpful to remember the famous quote that says, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you are right.” By telling yourself it’s impossible, you are affirming that belief in your mind, which will then influence your experience.
“Nobody cares.” It is normal to feel like you are all alone sometimes. However, constantly believing that nobody cares can be very detrimental to your well-being. People do care, although not everybody expresses their emotions in the same way. You may not know for certain how much someone cares, so it helps to address negative thoughts in a different way.
“If I don’t do well, I’m a failure.” Holding high expectations for yourself all the time and attaching your worth to your performance isn’t healthy. People with these types of negative thoughts often fall into the trap of thinking in should statements, such as “I should accomplish this so that I can be a good daughter.”
How to Turn Negative Thoughts Into Positive
To replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you can try several techniques and approaches.
1. Start a journal
Having negative thoughts can sometimes feel overwhelming. Having a journal, whether on paper or a digital one, helps to express those thoughts and feelings. It also allows you to identify your negative thought’s triggers and how you can prevent or address them.
2. Avoid thought stopping
Attempting to put a hard stop to your negative thoughts may seem like the right solution. Unfortunately, this approach often backfires as the negative thoughts rebound. Rather than addressing the negative thoughts, thought stopping insists that they are eliminated. Instead, it may be more helpful to change negativity to neutrality. Ask yourself whether the negative thought is helping or hindering you, and then say something like, “Let’s try a different approach” to lead yourself to more positive thoughts.
3. Recognize thought distortions
A thought distortion is the mind’s way of protecting us by convincing us that something is wrong. In reality, this isn’t always the case. By learning to identify these inaccurate thoughts that reinforce negative thinking, you can learn to challenge them:
- Black and white thinking. Mentioned earlier as all or nothing thinking, this type of thinking only sees everything as one way or another, without recognizing nuances or in-betweens.
- Personalizing. This type of negative thinking makes us jump to conclusions that we are solely to blame for everything that goes wrong.
- Filter thinking. This type of thinking involves choosing only the negative side of any situation.
- Catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is cognitive distortion that makes people think that the worst is always going to happen.
4. Try the two-column method
The two-column method or exercise can help you look at your negative thoughts more clearly. Start by creating two columns on a piece of paper. On the left-hand size, list down all your negative or unhelpful thoughts. Don’t think too much; just jot them down as they come. On the right-hand side, come up with at least one counter argument for each negative thought.
What this exercise does is help you distance yourself from your inner critic that comes up with all these automatic negative thoughts. You can also use a worksheet on changing negative thoughts to do this task.
5. Practice self acceptance
As you’re working on changing negative thoughts to positive ones, don’t forget to practice self acceptance. You may feel bad for having negative thoughts to begin with, and this may start a vicious cycle. Sometimes it helps to just let an unhelpful thought come and do nothing about it until it passes. This takes the pressure off having to improve or “fix” yourself all the time.
6. Treat yourself like you would a friend
We are often kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Instead of being harsh on yourself, imagine how you would treat a friend with the same negative thoughts. Chances are you would be more patient with them, so try to extend that same care and kindness to yourself.
7. Surround yourself with positive people
Negative people can increase your stress levels and further encourage your negative thoughts. Instead, seek supportive friends who you can depend on to provide more healthy feedback and advice.
8. Practice positive self-talk
Speak to yourself in third person to create some emotional distance during self-talk. This allows you to calm down, see things more clearly, and think more rationally.
The Bottom Line
The above examples of changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts can teach us that our negative perceptions are not the only reality that we can experience. It helps to understand why our negative thoughts occur, see some examples of what these thoughts are, and learn how to address them.
Having negative thoughts is normal, and it isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it can help us prepare for unexpected events. However, it’s important not to neglect the positive side of things. This allows us to enjoy life rather than worry about it all the time. Framing negative to positive thoughts can help your mental well-being and enrich your experience in life.
If you are struggling with managing your negative thoughts, then seeing a professional is always a good next step.
- Vaish A, Grossmann T, Woodward A. Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development. 13 May 2013.