Working With Negative Thoughts

From the Harmony Habit Tip Archives (November 2012):

“(Negative) thoughts are rather like wild dogs that need training. Rather than beating them down or throwing stones, we tame them with compassion.”
~ Pema Chodren

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Reflection:

“I’ve found your practice brings quick and measurable results,” a reader recently wrote. “I’m very excited about the changes I’m bringing into my life! Would it be possible for you to address the negative thoughts and programming that work to undermine and sabotage our progress?”

This individual had been reading my last few Harmony Habit Tips about building and strengthening new habits. She was very intentional about creating more positive results, yet in the process she discovered that negative thoughts, if left unchecked, could keep her from achieving her goals.

“Once I become aware of these messages,” she continued, “I tell myself ‘Cancel, Cancel’ and do my best to create a positive thought to replace it. What do you do?” she asked.

A number of other people have also asked me about what to do about this kind of constrictive pattern of thinking. Like this individual, they have the best of intentions about doing something differently, feel fully committed to changing, and yet recognize that their thoughts sometimes can stop them from moving forward.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, for example, my brother Steve shared with me that, as much as he wants to take better care of his back (which has pained him for years) he neglects to do some of the things he knows would help, such as certain breathing and stretching exercises, yoga or massage. He even paid for a workshop last fall but didn’t attend.

“You really wanted to do this,” I said. “So what stopped you?” “I don’t know,” Steve replied.

Referring back to the elements one needs to build new habits, I said “You had the intention and desire, you just needed a bit more knowledge and skill. Did you know your ‘big why’ behind it?” “Yes,” Steve said, “Now that I’m semi-retired, I want to travel, visit my grandchild, ride my bike.”

“Then I’ll bet it was some unconscious belief that you held you back,” I said. “Something like ‘it’s no use’ or ‘that stuff doesn’t really work’ or ‘I’m different, I wouldn’t fit in there.’ Have you considered that?”

“There was probably a football game on!” Steve said jokingly, and then added, “I should still look into that.”

thinking woman in yellowWe all have constrictive mindsets that can undermine us. Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer often quote a study that concludes that an average of 65,000 thoughts pass through our minds each day. For most of us, 80-90% of those thoughts are negative and totally unconscious! Given this reality, it’s a wonder we make any progress at all!

We can’t stop our thoughts. As the teacher Byron Katie points out in her book Loving What Is, “No one has ever been able to control their thinking although they’ll tell you the story of how they have. I don’t let go of thoughts – I meet them with understanding then they let go of me.”

Byron Katie teaches us to practice at not taking our thoughts too seriously, not attaching to them. Instead, Katie suggests that we make friends with them – hopefully before they derail us! Yet, even when that happens, she reassures us that there is a way to get back on track.

Katie asks: “Is this true?” or “How do I react (or treat others) when I think this thought?” or “Who would I be without this thought?” (When I’ve asked clients this question, I usually hear something like “I’d be unstoppable!” or “I’d be calm and relaxed.”) The last questions is, “Would I be willing to let this go?”

Finally, in answer to the question “What do you do?” I do what Byron Katie recommends. I make it a practice to become more aware of my unhelpful thoughts and then question them. Every time I do this work, I feel more expansive and less constricted – and far more able to progress toward my goals.

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This month’s practice:

We can’t change a negative pattern unless we become aware of its presence and understand the effect it has on us. Once we recognize a limiting mindset, we can choose to work more consciously with it.

First and foremost, make it a practice to become more aware of unhelpful, negative thoughts. (Remember, many of our thoughts and beliefs are unconscious, so be sure to dig deep.) Pay particular attention during the times when you experience stress. Stop, breathe and examine your thinking. Notice whether your thoughts are getting in the way of creating the results you want, or keeping you stuck.

Once you’re more aware of the content and the effect your thoughts have, apply Byron Katie’s four questions:

  1. Is this true? Can I know this is true for sure? (If the answer is “no”, move onto the next question; if the answer is “yes,” add, “and this means ________.” Then question the truth of that thought.)
  2. How do I react (or treat others) when I think this thought?
  3. Who would I be (or how would I behave) if I could never think this thought again?
  4. Can I see one good reason – that’s not stressful – to keep this thought? Would I be willing to drop it?

After you’ve done this work thoroughly, you’re likely to find the clarity and energy needed to break through that which previously held you back. If you do the work often enough, you may also discover that your once frequent negative thoughts have turned into just a few yips and yaps here and there!

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