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7 Ways to Learn from Your Negative Thoughts

Positive and Negative Thinking

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” ~Plutarch

I remember when I first learned about “positive thinking.” I was to observe my thoughts, then sort them into “useful” and “not useful.”

This made sense to me, and it surprised me how many “not useful” thoughts I encountered. On a daily basis, I was telling myself that I was not good enough, that things could never work out, and that I was on the verge of being fired from my job.

“Not useful. Not useful,” my mind kept repeating. And yet the thoughts persisted. Why was this? Why wasn't my positive thinking working?

I began repeating affirmations. I made a list of everything I hated about myself, then reframed it in the positive and read it every day. I repeated mantras. I watched YouTube videos with subliminal messages.

And yet I was calling myself a “worthless P.O.S.” on a daily basis.

It was only when I began working with a therapist that I began to see the value of my “negative” thoughts. I told her about my sorting process, and her response was, “That's good, but you're missing some in-between steps.”

Those in-between steps involved looking deeply at the negative thoughts, questioning their validity, and then redefining them.

Rather than rejecting a part of my mind, I began to lean toward it, to learn from it. Thoughts that don't feel good are merely opportunities to redefine, to change reality as you know it, and to help your own mind to suffer less. When you know how to handle them, they are gifts.

Here are some steps you can take to lean toward negative thoughts and redefine them:

1. Observe (without judging) your emotions.

However you feel is fine. Really, it is. Emotions are attention-getting devices that the mind uses to help you observe your thoughts. Notice, especially, when you don't feel good. When do you experience fear, hopelessness, or anger?

2. Notice the thoughts behind the emotions.

Feelings are caused by thoughts. You can access these thoughts by asking “why?” Why are you afraid? Why do you feel hopeless? Why are you angry? The thoughts behind the emotion can show you your mind's misunderstandings, because any thought that causes an unpleasant emotion is likely caused by an assumption. And assumptions can be redefined.

3. Channel your inner two year old.

And “why?” And ask it again. Why do you think what you do? And why do you think that? What might you be assuming? And what are you basing that assumption on? Who are you considering to be your authority? Question, question, question. Dig deeply, and look at every facet of that assumption. It might be helpful to type or write this out.

4. Look at the “evidence” for your belief.

The mind can only see evidence for what it already believes. So what experiences, conversations, etc. is your mind using to prove its “negative thought” true? List them. Then ask why they are true? Do they make sense?

5. Come up with other possibilities.

What other explanations are there? For example, if a co-worker yells at you and you are assuming it is because you are lazy, what other reasons could there be? Could they be stressed out at home? Pressured by deadlines? List as many other possibilities as possible.

6. Find evidence for at least one possibility.

Your mind is subconsciously finding evidence for its assumptions, and now you are going to fight fire with fire. Why should your redefinition be true? Prove it to yourself!

7. Repeat.

Repetition is how the mind learns. You will need to repeat this process, even if it seems to be verbatim. And you will need to vary the wording, as your mind presents it to you. Eventually, your subconscious mind will accept your redefinitions, and you will see a natural end to your negative thoughts.

For me, this process was life-changing. I began therapy living in a four-bedroom house, working in the job I had held for ten years.

I did not love the job. I did not want to raise my daughter (who has autism) in that school district, which would provide her with minimal help. I did not want to retire in that town, where people used four-letter words in restaurants and teenagers pushed baby buggies down the sidewalks.

So, as I redefined the beliefs I held about myself, I found that the limitations I had placed upon myself disappeared.

I had wanted to move to a warmer climate, but I doubted my ability to land a new job. So I tried. I pulled the right strings and landed a Skype interview 1,300 miles away. The day after the interview (which I had deemed to be a failure) I received a job offer.

We emptied our house, signed it back over the bank, and took whatever our Volvo station wagon would carry to Houston. A year later, we moved onto a small thirty-five-foot sailboat. Our goal now is to be cruising full time within the next five years.

In the meantime, we are enjoying our life in the marina, which is a tight-knit community that will always be “home” to us. And I am not afraid to try new things, to take “risks” and to see exactly what my potential is.

What is the moral of our story? Don't let your thoughts and fears limit you. They may seem like gospel truth, but nothing actually is. Everything you think, everything you feel, is up for questioning. If it doesn't make sense to your mind, it can be redefined.

Had I been limited by my beliefs about myself and my fears, I would still be living in that house. Instead, I am free to explore the world, and to re-invent the “American dream” as my family sees fit.

I have learned that I am more than those fears that kept me stuck in that job for ten years, and my life consists of more than that house and the property that we thought was “ours.”

Take nothing for granted, and don't accept anything as the “way it has to be.” Look closely at your negative thoughts and redefine them in a way that helps you to reach your own potential.

Positive and Negative Thinking image via Shutterstock

About Bethany Rosselit

Bethany blogs at http://www.onlinelifecoaching.info , where she helps others to break from the script and find the courage to face their fears, realize their dreams, and reach their true potential. She offers e-courses as well as individual e-mail, chat, and Skype sessions on a sliding scale designed to fit any budget.

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  • Lada

    The thing is that I’m exhausted from these thoughs/emotions/whatever goes on in my mind analyses. I’ve been doing that for a year or so and it doesn’t make me happy (or maybe joyful is the right word) at all.. I’m sure it is useful to know the patterns that doesn’t serve you but the whole “spiritual work” has only made me confused, angry and sort of not living my life in the present moment.. :/ Sorry about this rant, but I’m just really tired of it and don’t know what to do 🙂 – Lada

  • onlinetherapyandcoaching

    Hi Lada! What strategies have you been using to look at your thoughts? Redefining limiting beliefs is hard work, but the end result need not be anger and confusion. What do you think has led you to experience these emotions?

  • LaTrice Dowe

    It’s difficult to be surrounded by those that have negative attitudes. To me, it’s a waste of time AND energy. I understand everyone has their moments, but how else can you get through the most difficult periods?

    I try to remain optimistic, despite not being able to know the outcome.

    Thank you, Bethany, for sharing your experience.

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  • onlinetherapyandcoaching

    Hi LaTrice! The important thing to remember is that people with negative attitudes probably have a lot of misunderstandings in their minds. Negativity almost always comes from misunderstanding and misperception. Asking open-ended questions and being curious with these people can help, and, yes, sometimes spending time with someone else is what needs to happen, especially if you have a strong sense of empathy and experience the emotions of those around you.

  • Steve B

    This is fantastic stuff. It’s exactly how I got through my negative, depressive, suicidal garbage 10 years ago. It’s what I tell people who feel like they are stuck in a cycle of negativity and self loathing. I would like to add a clarification for those readers who get to step 7: Repeat. This does not mean daily. It means often. like every minute of every day. Always be aware of what you are telling yourself. As Bethany stated, “eventually your subconscious will accept your redefinitions.” It took me 6 months of persistent, constant identification of my thoughts and sorting/evaluating them before I started feeling better. And you WILL want to give up at some point. “This isn’t helping anything. I’m a failure.” etc. Fight through it and don’t give up. This system works!

    Thanks Bethany for posting such a great procedure in a lot fewer words than I’ve ever been able to describe it. 🙂

  • I love how you acknowledged the benefits of “negative” thoughts. During my life, I’ve put into action many of the techniques you described. I’ve noticed I’m able to befriend my fears and see them as allies.

    When I have moments when “negative” thoughts seem to overtaken my life, I take the irritability, brain fog, and exhaustion as my body’s sign to rest. I slow down and listen to my body more and react to situations less.

    In the fast paced world that we live in, sometimes it’s hard to not instantly react to what life brings. However, I found that I make decisions more aligned with my true self when I listen to my body, rest and respond to situations when the weight of “negative” thoughts has dissolved.

  • What a wonderful article! I love how you came to see “I am more than those fears that kept me stuck”. So true for all of us. Thanks for sharing your inspiring and happy-ending story. 🙂

  • Shanker

    Hi Bethany,

    You said it right. I need this advice, as I suffer from negative thoughts and feelings always. Every challenge/demand, even if it is reasonable, looks threatening to me. I like your information that ‘every thought is based on an assumption. You need to recognize it and redefine it if required’. Yes, I’ve been meekly accepting or dismissing my negative thoughts and feelings. Now, I can take them differently. Thanks!

  • gerard

    Very good advice. But when people talk they spill out the truth. I live in a town where people use four letter words and teenager push babies around. If I was a person that people looked up too. in a town with no future, would I not be helping others and town by staying there ? or should I just hide in my happy corner of the world and be my new happy me, just a question?. If helping one self is the best one can do great, then what you did is right. But I always get a strong impression north American psychology is really self center psychology.