“Negative thoughts” don’t make you a “negative person.”
They make you a normal person who has normal thoughts.
When people in therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, begin learning how their thoughts impact their moods and behaviors, they very often start to worry that if they have negative thoughts, let alone more negative thoughts than neutral or positive ones, that they’re doomed to being depressed and anxious indefinitely.
Relax. Even the most well-adjusted, positive people in the world have negative thoughts at times.
Especially when we’re going through periods of stress or when we’ve experienced trauma or losses, negative thoughts are a normal part of life.
Recovering from depression, anxiety, post traumatic disorders, and addiction doesn’t mean we don’t have negative thoughts. It would take the removal of some pretty important parts of our brains in order to accomplish that.
Our thinking patterns do change in recovery…but you’ll always have negative thoughts.
The difference is that when we’re in recovery, we don’t allow ourselves to be controlled by negative thoughts.
We don’t allow our decisions to be made exclusively by negative thoughts.
We don’t consider negative thought to be objective barometers of where our lives are or where they’re headed.
When we’re in recovery, we’re able to keep negative thoughts— as well as positive and neutral thoughts— in their proper perspective. That is, they’re just thoughts…no more, no less.
We wouldn’t want to banish negative thinking from our brains even if we were able to. Some negative thinking is pretty important to our survival.
For example, if we’re about to cross the street, and we notice a bus barreling in our direction, we might have the “negative” thought, “Hm, if I cross the street right now, there’s an excellent chance I’d wind up flattened.”
I would recommend you pay attention to that thought, as “pessimistic” as it might be.
Similarly, we’re going to have thoughts about what might happen if we make certain decisions, or experience certain losses, or if things go a certain way. They might be “negative,” pessimistic thoughts…but they might also illuminate to us what’s important to us, or what the stakes are to a given decision.
The problem isn’t with negative thoughts.
The problem is when we begin to assume that negative thoughts are somehow more true than positive or neutral thoughts.
An even BIGGER problem is when we lose sight of the fact that all thoughts— negative, positive, and neutral— are simply thoughts. Because we’re thinking those thoughts doesn’t make those thoughts irrefutable facts.
When we lose perspective and forget that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts, that’s when we really get into the soup.
The people who ten to be the most psychologically and emotionally healthy aren’t those who never have negative thoughts. Rather, they tend to be people who have highly developed reality testing skills.
They know that not everything that crosses their mind should be believed.
They know that feelings aren’t facts.
They know that thoughts are only their brain’s interpretations of input, and might be mistaken.
When we spiral down into depression or abreaction, part of what’s going on is, our reality testing has been compromised. We’re suddenly buying into thoughts like “things will never get better,” “I must be defective,” or “the world is out to get me.”
There are people who have those thoughts, but who don’t spiral into depression or abreaction— because they can keep those thoughts in their proper perspective.
Some people are afraid that if they get into therapy, their therapist is going to tell them to just think positively all the time. That the version of psychological “health” that is offered by therapy and therapists is one of delusion, because we’ve simply trained dour patients to ignore or overlook negative thoughts.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ll never ask my patients to try to blot out negative thoughts.
Nor will I ever ask my patients to blindly buy into their positive thoughts.
I will, however, always, always, always ask my patients to keep their thoughts in perspective.
I’ll ask my patients to reality test the hell out of their thoughts.
And, above all, I’ll train my patients to dwell on thoughts that support their goals— rather than letting their thoughts control their focus by default.
We can’t always control our thoughts, and this isn’t a particularly big deal.
We can, however, often influence our focus.
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