How to really change negative self-talk and negative thinking.
Moshe Rozdzial, PhD
All of us are on a journey of self awareness. However, this journey towards identity and individuality is marked by early negative events, stored as verbal (mind) or non-verbal (body) memories. These memories, coded as negative beliefs about the self, conditioned the mind into powerful protective strategies and focus. Protective attention is installed as negative perceptions, interpretations, and judgements, toward self and others. These can be projected into the present and future as worry and anxiety, perpetuating the strategies into negative life patterns. As negative thought and beliefs get reinforced through protective behaviors, they gain power and block us form getting what we truly long for: the fulfillment and connections that are our essential human legacy.
The problem is that we get emotionally fused with our negative thoughts and beliefs. With a lifetime of practice, these negative thoughts and beliefs become encoded as the false, or suffering, self. This suffering self focuses its attention on the environment and on human interactions, responding with a threat or attack reaction every time it is perceptually reinforced. The emotional outcome is anger, withdrawal, and shame. The behavioral outcome is fight, flight, or freeze. The emotional mind and the body are now engaged in the threat response, literally responding as if survival is on the line.
Most techniques used to diffuse negative thinking, beliefs, or negative self-talk, don’t work very well, because they only engage and reinforce the emotional mind. Thought stopping, an archaic method of telling the mind to stop what it is thinking, may lead to emotional rebound. Thought substitution or re-conditioning, where the thought is replaced by positive affirmations or negative deflections, work a little better, but still lead to resistant thinking, especially in people struggling with obsessive and/or compulsive patterns.
Diffusing negative thoughts requires the interaction with the knowing, observing mind and/or behavior changes. It may help to know that we are not our thoughts, and that thoughts are just energies created by neurons firing in the brain. Separating ourselves from, and observing our thoughts, deprive thoughts of emotional power. Recognizing and observing our thoughts, through the channel of the knowing mind, be it positive thinking or self-talk, provide us with a choice for a new possible reaction, and a way to understand our emotional response with compassion for self. New research has also shown that altering behaviors may also impact subsequent thought processes.
Engaging the observing/knowing mind in altering negative thinking.
Self-questioning, inquiring about our thoughts:
• Is this thought true? Is it true now?
• Is this thought important?
• Is this thought helpful?
• Is it really worth the time and energy to think about it?
• Is it better to hold onto it or to let it go?
• What other choices do I have now?
Here are some other helpful tips to help you engage the observing mind in changing negative thinking:
1. Engage in a gratefulness inventory: what am I grateful for in my life? How have my patterns protected me?
2. Externalize the thoughts : refer to them as “that thought” or “this thought” or “I’m having a thought”.
3. Humor your thoughts. Say them in an accent, add an animal sound or funny word to the end of the thought. Act them out verbosely as you say them aloud.
4. See your thought as a book title, movie, or name of a song.
5. Ask yourself where did you get that thought?
6. Evaluate the “cognitive distortion” of your thought: is it evidence-based, accurate, objective, or testable?.
Engaging the physical body and behavior in altering negative thinking.
Strike a pose: Recent studies have shown that engaging the body through physical action or behavior can also reframe the emotional mind’s attention. Literally, showing an influence of body over mind, a series of studies, by psychologists Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap, showed that holding a power posture or pose, for two minutes or more, led to greater feelings of power and confidence, with higher levels of the dominance hormone and lower levels of the stress hormone, in stressful situations such as job interviews, negotiations, or when meeting new people. Moreover, in subsequent studies, it was found that the power pose was also related to more risk-taking.
Throw it away: In a new study, researchers Richard Petty, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ohio State University along with Pablo Briñol, Margarita Gascó and Javier Horcajo, all of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain, conducted experiments that found that when people wrote down their unwanted negative thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well. They also found that people were more likely to use their thoughts when making judgments if they first wrote them down on a piece of paper and put the paper in a pocket to protect it. By physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts. Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect.