Take back control. How to challenge negative thoughts (part 1)

man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair
man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair
Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

One issue seems to crop up time and time again in discussions with clients; how to challenge negative thoughts. These thoughts could be about ourselves or someone else, the connection is that the thoughts are negative and seem to be uncontrollable. We will always have thoughts. Like everything else in how we live our lives, however, the issue is one of balance: “am I in control of my thoughts or are my thoughts in control of me?”

I think of the mind as being like a stroppy teenager; it thinks it knows best, is unwilling to compromise, and gets all uppity when it does not get its own way. Before we know it, the teenager has taken control of the household and left the rest of us feeling miserable. Much of my work is to help people socialise that stroppy teenager, to remind it that it needs to have a healthy relationship with the other two major systems that make up our ‘self’ (body and brain) and is not in control.* Obviously books and theses have been written on this topic, and I will return to this topic in the future.

In the meantime here is a ‘simple’ practical exercise to help you in the process of taking back control.

Step 1: Build an awareness of when you say something negative either about yourself or someone else. So often our words come out automatically with out us thinking about them. However, be really aware of the way we frame these words, it will usually be in a way that paints us as the victim: it’s not fair or why me?. Without this awareness, and the courage to accept our role in putting ourselves forward as victim, we will not move forward.

Step 2: Pause and take a breath. Just focus on your breathing for a few moments. This helps to break the cycle.

Step 3: Notice the thoughts that are passing through your mind, try not to engage with them at this stage.

  • be aware of words such as never, always, can’t, should, need and must. These words should be assessed for validity at a later stage. We tend to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves through the words we use. Where have these demands come from; are they demands we have placed on ourselves or have simply accepted them from other authority figures in the past. How has this adherence to these demands hurt us, are they relevant to our present?
  • when we are criticising others, just check our whether they really are that unwilling to compromise, stubborn or awkward. How would we really react in the same situation?
  • Or, are things as hopeless as we seem to think they are, or am I simply engaging in excessive worry – and calling it ‘being realistic’?

The aim of this step is to try and gain a little bit of distance from the problem. To allow us the space and calmness to assess the situation with a slightly different perspective. Engaging with objectivity rather than stubbornly embracing subjective fantasies.

Step 4: Review the situation in 24 hours.

While the exercise is a stand-alone exercise, it should really be done as part of a wider mindful way of living that builds your mental fitness: using exercises such as mindful listening, and mindful speaking, for example.

Of course, challenging the thoughts is one thing, but actually getting to the emotional source of the thought is something else, something a qualified counsellor can help you to do.

*Before anyone begins to point out that thinking of the mind-body-brain in this way is simplistic - I agree. If anyone wants to have a look at the deeper philosophical issues regarding the mind-brain-body problem then click here