Updated: May 26, 2021
“I’m always screwing up.” “They never listen to me.” “I’m not good enough for
this.” “What I do is embarrassing.” “I should...” “They are supposed to...”
Everyone runs into these types of thoughts now and again. Sometimes they
are important to register, but usually they keep us from being productive or
making the most of our time. It might seem hard to tell the difference when the
right move is to pay attention to them, or push them away.
What is negative self-talk good for and when is it bad for you?
Thoughts such as these are a method of feedback, which should evaluate
how we or other people behave and set expectations on how to distribute our
internal resources. In these cases, these thoughts are an important tool for
regulating our future behavior. “Next time I will do better”, or “this endeavor is
risky”, “I’d rather relocate my energy into something else”. In these cases,
internally, we don’t even notice something is wrong.
But other times our thoughts on what we “should do” or “should have done” keep us from getting a good night’s sleep, from working efficiently or from enjoying time around our friends and family. Sometimes our perceptions differ from reality and things are actually less fatal than they seem.
These negative thoughts can sometimes just be roadblocks between where we are and where we want to go. They can keep us from being productive, blind us to opportunities to learn and grow and even compound in our heads, sending us spiralling into a negative black hole. In such cases we know that we need to deal with them, monitor which are in need of a reaction and which to be ignored. The question is how?
What to do with them
How about just learning to live with them... No, we are just kidding. There are
plenty of different techniques which might help us to cope with these thoughts.
telling yourself to “just let them go” might not actually work. But here are some
The first step is identifying a negative thought. It might seem obvious, but to
realise that you are experiencing negative thoughts and then act to unpack
the reasons is harder than it might seem. In difficult situations we often don’t
realize what is happening or how to react. So if you feel tension, take a deep
breath (this slows down the tempo and gives you time to review your thoughts
and emotions) and try to ask yourself, what is bothering you? Put your
thoughts into a sentence. You might spot the exact reason for your negative
thoughts and that is the first step in making advances in how to deal with this
Reframe. Instead of just looking at the down side, look at the bright side as
well. Instead of obstacles see opportunities. I know, it sounds like these words
are coming from a cheesy motivational speaker at a low-budget company
workshop called “Shiny-happy life in 5 easy steps”, filled with clichés like
“Work smart, eat healthy, enjoy life, be productive, travel”. As a matter of fact
they are, but life also gets messy and without accepting it, we won’t be able to
So in order to clarify how this philosophy works, let’s use an example. Instead of “I can’t do that” try asking yourself “What is the worst thing that can happen when I try” (Hint for people with the tendency to envision catastrophic scenarios: the usual answer is... “Nothing much”), we don’t live in a Roland Emmerich movie. Life tends to go on, whatever may happen. Instead of telling yourself “I’m always screwing up” try to recall a situation when you actually didn’t. What made it go right? What can you do to prevent screwing up in the future? And did you really actually screw up?
So now let's move on to another technique – changing perspectives. Sometimes we are harsher on ourselves than on other people. As a result we tend to think that we performed worse than we actually did. So try to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and ask yourself “Did other people see it the same way?” or “How would I look at other people if they acted as I did?” We usually don’t judge the same behavior in other people as strictly as we do in ourselves. Even if we might think that we would - this is really just a pseudo-rationalisation intended to protect our negative thought habits. In reality we don’t actually do that, it doesn't even come to our minds. This should lead you to be kinder to yourself (and not harsher on others!). If you don’t believe me, ask your friends what they think.
Negative thinking is a part of life. Some people have more negative thoughts than others, some have less, but more acutely severe. Only very few people have none. To have such thoughts is normal, but it doesn’t mean we should bow down to them. We don’t have to, and luckily there are techniques out there to help us out. Do they work 100%? No, they don’t. Come on, you didn’t think it would be as easy as that, did you? But actually, they do help most of the time. The more open you are with yourself, the more you can help yourself. But to be open with oneself is also to admit that life can get challenging. But let's save that topic for another day and another post.