How to Free Yourself from Negative Thinking

Photo courtesy of Dara Muscat

How to Free Yourself from Negative Thinking

How to Free
Yourself from

Negative Thinking

We all worry, complain, self-criticize. It’s as much as part of being human as breathing. Of course, a few negative thoughts won’t ruin anyone’s life, but pessimism, if left unattended, can be crippling. As psychotherapist Barry Michels explains, one bad thought can lead to many even worse ones. This may sound like a familiar pattern to many of us. In fact, Michels says every patient he’s treated has fallen into this rut of negativity—and he’s been in practice for more than three decades.

Negative thinking, Michels explains, often stems from self-protection. And the problem with negativity, he says, is that it holds us back from our true potential if we allow it to control us. Michels’s advice for letting go of negativity? Cultivating more-positive thinking. This means looking at the world with respect; it means finding meaning in something greater than ourselves.

P.S. Michels is giving one of his signature workshops on defeating negativity in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 17. You can find out more and get tickets here.

A Q&A with Barry Michels

How does negativity typically manifest?

It’s any thought that portrays you or your world in negative terms. Here are a few of the many forms it can take:

  • Worrying: “My left arm is tingling; I must be having a stroke.” “Los Angeles is due for a big earthquake; we’ve got to move to Phoenix.”
  • Self-denigration: “I blew that meeting like I always do.” “I’m never going to amount to anything.”
  • Complaining: “I’m so tired.” “I can’t stand the sound of that woman’s voice.”
  • Regret: “If I’d gone to a better college, I wouldn’t be stuck in this dead-end job.”

One of these thoughts by itself won’t damage you or your life. But an accumulation of them will. The problem with negative thinking is that it snowballs. One or two negative thoughts can quickly mushroom into an inescapable worldview that whatever you want in life is impossible. That’s a huge price to pay: It’s why, to paraphrase Thoreau, most people live lives of quiet desperation.

Is there an easy solution? Can’t we just substitute a positive thought for every negative one that comes into our mind?

I’ve found it’s not that simple. Early in my career, I tried to give this advice to my patients, but we always hit a point where the patient would dig their heels in and find a way to justify their negativity. “You’re encouraging me to be in denial—all the seismologists are saying a massive earthquake is on its way,” they’d say, for example. I would respond with infallible logic: “That’s true, and if you want to take constructive action then you could get prepared or leave town, but worrying about it only hurts you.” Invariably, my patients’ negative thoughts won out over my logic.

Why do negative thoughts have so much power?

Since our very first science class in school, we’ve been taught this deeply pessimistic worldview: Life is an unending struggle for survival against constant and unpredictable threats to your existence, and terrible things can happen randomly at any moment. In the end, what’s the prize for enduring this struggle? You die.

With that worldview programmed into our consciousness, it’s no surprise that negative thoughts have so much power. We rely on them like a talisman, as if thinking about all the possible negative scenarios in advance might protect us—or at least prepare us—for the bad things that might happen.

I had a patient who as much as confessed to this superstition. She was a compulsive worrier, we’d been working together for a while, and she was getting better. “The therapy is working,” she admitted. “I’m more relaxed, less worried. But now something else is happening: I can’t shake this haunting feeling that this is when something really awful is going to happen.” In essence, she was saying that the worries had acted like a protective shield—and now she was defenseless.

Logically, of course, this is nonsense. Your negative thoughts can’t prevent bad things occurring any more than they can cause them to happen. Negative thinking has no effect on how things go in the outside world; it only makes your life miserable. But deep down, we cling to the superstition that with our negative thoughts, we can ward off bad things. That’s what gives negativity so much of its staying power.

What’s the antidote?

The solution to negativity is to create a new experience of reality by shifting your attention to all the amazing things that are going on right now. Every day there are thousands of ways, large and small, that the universe is sustaining you, giving to you, and supporting you.

Hundreds of things are going on in your body that you don’t even have to think about: Your heart is beating; you’re breathing; you’re digesting—all without you making it happen or even understanding how it happens. Extend your view beyond your body and the gifts multiply—there’s air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink. There are love and warmth you receive from your friends and family. There’s a spectacular amount of beauty in the world: a night sky shimmering with stars, the way the ocean refracts sunlight into a thousand sparkling diamonds, the sound of rain when it hits the pavement. If you shift your attention to these things, you begin to recognize that we live in a generous universe that is constantly giving. You’ll begin to feel supported, loved, and cared for—and then you can let go of your negative thoughts.

Are there ways to stay positive that will keep us from getting mired in anxiety?

It requires a tool called the grateful flow that helps generate gratefulness. I teach my patients to use the grateful flow in two situations: one, as soon as negative thoughts start up, to prevent them from mushrooming into a dark cloud of negativity, and two, as a daily practice. I use the grateful flow first thing when I wake up and last thing before I go to sleep at night.

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 thirty 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 the 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.

How does developing a gratitude practice help us over time?

The most obvious benefit is that you become less edgy, less prone to being overwhelmed, and more able to maintain a positive perspective even in hard times. The explanation is simple: If you’re aware of being supported by something greater than yourself, you’re much less likely to overreact when adversity hits.

Longer-term, the benefits are even more profound. When you feel the universe on your side, you’re more willing to expand your life, try new things, and keep going in the midst of a setback. In short, you’re more likely to fulfill your potential.

The most mysterious benefit of all is that you start to see the whole world through new eyes. Think about this for a moment: What would it be like to experience everything you’re being given continually throughout the day? How would you feel? The answer: You’d feel a renewed sense of reverence and awe at the beneficence of the universe.

You’ve experienced this before—we all have as children. Can you remember being enchanted by the simplest things because you were encountering them for the first time? You were awed because you were experiencing the world without the filter of adult thinking.

To put it another way, as adults we’ve learned to analyze—to think about—what we’re seeing, rather than experiencing it directly. By removing ourselves, we’ve lost our reverence for the life-giving beauty of the world. And that’s the greatest benefit of gratitude: You recover your capacity to be awed by the warmth, grace, and goodness that surround you.

Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard; a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley; and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. With Phil Stutz, he is the author of Coming Alive and The Tools.