Rx for Negative Thinking

In advance of what looks to be an especially challenging Thanksgiving for many people, we asked psychotherapists Barry Michels and Phil Stutz—whose work integrates a no-nonsense practicality with a respect for something greater than ourselves—to share their wisdom on gratitude. It is gratitude, the pair has found, that is the true antidote to negative thinking, and the key to peace of mind.

Barry and Phil’s tool for bringing more gratitude into your life—called Grateful Flow—works no matter what the season, however. It’s an evergreen technique that’s easy and incredibly rewarding to incorporate into everyday life, confronting the smallest (or largest) worries, and embracing the simplest of gifts.

A Q&A with Barry Michels and Phil Stutz


Why is gratitude so important?


BARRY: Gratitude is the appreciation of things that are given to you—things you couldn’t have created on your own. It automatically puts you in touch with something greater than yourself, a beneficent force that’s interested in your welfare. It’s important because our minds tend to default to negativity; we need gratitude to prevent negativity from smothering our lives like a black cloud. With gratitude, you can create an inner sense of serenity, a sense of harmony, even when things aren’t going well on the outside. Practicing it regularly allows you to master your own mind, which is the only thing you can really control anyway.


How do you see gratitude as connected to peace of mind?


PHIL: Gratitude restores peace of mind when negativity threatens to destroy it. For most of us, peace of mind is a precious feeling. It’s the sense that everything is in its right place, “all is well,” you’re in harmony with the universe. Without this sense of serenity, everything becomes dark and crisis-filled; your energy becomes focused on just getting by. Enjoying life becomes a luxury you can’t afford.

BARRY: Negative thoughts can take so many different forms: worry, self-criticism, judgment, and disdain for the people around you. But whatever form it takes, it cripples you. We like to think we react to the world as it is, but the truth is, we react to the world that exists in our minds. This inner world completely colors the way we see reality. If you’re constantly worried, for example, the whole world starts to look like a dangerous place. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, expressed it this way: “The mind is a place unto itself, and can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven.” Negative thoughts can literally screen out everything positive around you.


Can you give an example?


BARRY: When a patient—let’s call her Lisa—arrived at my office for the first time, I tried to shake her hand, but she was so preoccupied rummaging through her purse that she ignored me completely. In a rising panic, she cried, “I’ve lost my car keys! What am I going to do?” It sounded like Armageddon had come.

I said, as soothingly as I could, “Don’t worry, I’m a licensed professional, trained to handle these situations.” She looked at me distrustfully. I said, “Look in your left hand.”

Sure enough, she’d been holding the keys the whole time. She was giddy with relief and we both enjoyed a good laugh. But I was surprised at how quickly she clouded over again: “If you’re a trained professional, you must see what’s happening here—I’m losing my mind!”

She wasn’t losing her mind, she was losing control over her mind. She was a classic worrier. In the next 50 minutes, she displayed an uncanny ability to create one terrifying scenario after another:

“I’m taking my kids to Six Flags, what if they get stuck on the roller coaster?”

“I noticed some joint pain and the beginning of a rash yesterday, do you think it’s the Zika virus?”

“I’m having my whole, extended family over for Thanksgiving and it’s going to be a disaster!”

Lisa’s worries colored everything in her life. There was nothing to look forward to. Her whole life was about barely surviving one calamity after another. Even if everything went well at Six Flags, and the doctor said she didn’t have Zika, and her Thanksgiving dinner went well, it didn’t matter. Negative predictions are damaging regardless of whether or not they come true in the future, because they destroy your peace of mind in the present! Lisa could never settle on the couch with a good book, spend a relaxing day with her family, or meet a friend for lunch, because there was always something more important to worry about.


Why is gratitude the antidote to negative thinking—why wouldn’t positive thinking be the solution?


PHIL: It’s tempting to believe we can improve our lives simply by substituting positive thoughts for negative ones. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work; positive thoughts don’t have anywhere near the power that negative thoughts do.

Negative thoughts get their power from an unexpected place: our modern, scientific worldview. Its assumptions are stark, to say the least. From your first science class, you’ve been taught that life is an unending struggle for survival, in which you will face unpredictable threats to your existence—earthquakes, megastorms, terrorism, automobile accidents, super-viruses, etc. And in the end, you lose the struggle—you die, and none of it had any meaning.

No human being can live comfortably with such chaos. We need a sense of control over our lives. As strange as it sounds, worry creates that sense of control. Deep down, we believe if we anticipate everything that could happen—it won’t happen. It’s as if the negative thoughts are a protective shield against an out-of-control universe.

BARRY: I’ve actually had patients admit this to me: We work on their worrying, they start to feel less plagued by it, and then they say, “I feel unprotected now, like if I stop worrying completely, that’s when I’m going to be hit by something terrible.”

PHIL: There’s a word for that kind of thinking: superstition. Your worrying is no more effective at preventing bad things from happening than a rabbit’s foot is in bringing you luck. All negativity does is destroy your peace of mind. You need to find something stronger than positive thoughts, something that shifts your perspective of the universe from a survivalist one to one in which you feel supported and connected to something greater than yourself. You can believe that this other universe exists, but you need to be able to feel it to really free yourself. The best way to feel it is with gratitude.


How do we make the leap to that feeling?


PHIL: Imagine you open your front door and someone has left you a box of your favorite chocolates. Now imagine it happens every single day. You’re being given a gift, every day—your likely response is to feel grateful.

What does this have to do with the universe? The universe is leaving you boxes of chocolates all the time. If you become aware of them, your experience of life will radically change. When you realize there is something out there constantly giving you things, then you realize you aren’t alone and that you are supported by something greater than you. As you relax into that, you can stop worrying.


What kind of gifts should we be looking for from the universe?


BARRY: Personally, I try to think of little things that I take for granted:

  • There’s air to breathe.

  • I have food for my next meal.

  • I have clothes to protect me from the sun and the cold.

  • My body does all kinds of things for me without me even thinking about it—my heart beats, my brain works, I digest food, my body temperature is regulated, and so much more.

  • I have hot and cold running water.

  • My car works.

  • My dog wags his tail when I come home.

  • I have friends I can talk to and who love me.

  • I was able to witness the birth of my child.

  • There’s this thing called the internet where I can look up almost anything I’ve ever wanted to know.

  • Your box of chocolates might differ from mine, but we’ve never met anybody who, if they put their mind to it, can’t think of some experiences that filled them with gratitude. Usually, it’s when something good happens that you couldn’t have created on your own. You find your soulmate, you hear an owl hooting in the woods or see an eagle fly overhead, you encounter a moving piece of art or music, you round the corner and the moon is sitting low and full in the sky. These are transcendent experiences; they’re so strong that your natural reaction is to feel grateful.


    Transcendent meaning you are connecting to something bigger—how do you define that?


    PHIL: Why do you feel grateful when you experience these things? Because your heart senses something your head refuses to acknowledge: You’re being given something. If you’re being given something, that implies there’s a giver. Something is leaving a box of chocolates on your front porch. We call this giver the “Source.”

    The Source is always here. It created everything you can see. Most miraculously, it created life and remains intimately involved with everything it created. Including you. In the past, it gave birth to you, in the present, it sustains you, and its creative power fills your future with endless possibility. Here’s the key: Once you can recognize all that the Source is giving you, you aren’t alone and your superstitious reliance on worrying goes away.

    BARRY: To develop a consistent, ongoing relationship with the Source, you need to learn how to create a sense of gratefulness on demand—not just wait to feel it when something good happens to you. Creating gratefulness is a skill, and just like learning the violin, it has to be practiced over and over again, even when you don’t think it’s helping.

    To be able to generate gratefulness—particularly when worry or negative thinking is starting to take over—you need the tool that we call the Grateful Flow.


    Okay, so how do we use the tool?


    BARRY: Grateful Flow is the tool to use whenever negative thinking starts up—whether it takes the form of worry, self-criticism, or judgment of others. It’s also good to practice the tool whenever your mind is idle—waiting in line at the supermarket, sitting in the carpool lane, etc. The more you use it, the stronger your connection to the Source becomes. You gain perspective, which is the priceless ability to experience life as positive, no matter what is happening in the present.

    Here’s the tool:

    1. Start by silently stating to yourself specific things in your life you’re grateful for, particularly things you normally take for granted. (You can also include things that you are grateful are not in your life.) Go slowly. Feel the gratefulness for each item. Each time you use the tool, try to come up with new items for the list.

    2. After about 30 seconds, stop thinking and focus on the physical sensation of gratefulness. You’ll feel it coming directly from your heart. This energy you are giving out is Grateful Flow.

    3. As this energy emanates from your heart, your chest will soften and open. In this state you will feel an overwhelming presence approach you, filled with the power of infinite giving. You’ve made a connection to the Source.

    4. Related: Managing Anxiety