7 Ways to Stomp Out Negative Thinking

Does negative thinking derail your life? In this episode, the Savvy Psychologist shares 7 tips to help re-shape your thinking.

Dr. Monica Johnson
5-minute read
Episode #378

It's a new year, and you want to have a new you. You’ve set an intention to adopt a brand new mindset. But it probably took you less than 10 minutes to realize that it's easier said than done.

You may fall victim to all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionism, or an ever-present inner critic. No matter the mental malfunction, here are 7 tips to help you rise above the unfounded negativity of your mind.

1. Identify the malfunction

You may have heard the phrase “name it to tame it.” This definitely applies to negative thinking. If you can identify and label your unhelpful thinking pattern, it’s easier to work around it. It can also be fun to give your common patterns fun names like, “hey, there’s Perfectionistic Patty showing up.” When you're aware that a problematic pattern has arisen, it can cue you to think about how this pattern may be affecting your judgment or your emotions about yourself or a situation.

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2. Be a detective

Examine all the evidence that supports or challenges your negative thought patterns. We have a tendency to accept our thoughts as facts without question. When you engage in that behavior, you’re essentially engaging in punishment without due process. Examine your thoughts and look for loopholes.

For instance, if you have the thought, “I’m always failing,” look for times when you didn’t fail. If there is one time where you succeeded, it means you're automatically wrong, which at a minimum softens the thought. Now you have to change the thought from “I’m always failing,” to “I sometimes fail” or “in this instance, the situation didn’t go the way I desired.”

None of those feel great, but the emotional impact of the word "always" is equivalent to getting sentenced to life in prison whereas the softened version is more like 3 years with time off for good behavior. If we can get in the habit of being a good detective, then we can always remain a few steps closer to being free from our negative thinking.

3. Be a scientist

Do an experiment to check the validity of your thought. For instance, if you have thoughts akin to “no one cares about me,” test it out! Like a good scientist, you need to have reasonable parameters. Don’t reach out to the guy who ghosted you 3 weeks ago, as that’s only setting you up for more rejection. Try contacting one of your friends, a parent, a work colleague, your sponsor, or your therapist. I’m confident one of these sources will have a welcoming response.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “When I had that thought, I wasn’t thinking about my mom. My mom doesn’t count.” Anyone who grew up in an unsupportive household can tell you quite adamantly that parental care does count. This goes back to defining the parameters. Did you mean that “no one cares about me romantically at this time”? That might be true. But as a good scientist, it brings up more questions that we have to explore. Like, am I acting in ways that will lead me to get a romantic partner? In what ways can I experience connection with others that will be satisfactory to me? Am I ready for a romantic relationship? Why am I idealizing romantic love over other forms (e.g. familial, friendship, other support systems)?

Explore the answers that arise when you go through this process. Again, it forces you to be thoughtful about your thoughts. A good scientist doesn’t try to manipulate the outcome to match their hypothesis. They set up sound experimental conditions and allow the chips to fall where they may. Sometimes, like in the example I just reviewed, you can come up with more questions than answers initially, but you need to keep adding in new data and refining the process.

Eventually, you'll get to a place where you know, through repeated testing, that several people do care about you. However, at this moment, you are frustrated with your lack of dating prospects. This second thought is more accurate than the original thought. 

4. 100 shades of grey

This strategy is helpful in combating that super common all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of thinking of success in terms of a binary pass/fail or yes/no, measure things on a 0-100 scale. This will allow you to think about events in degrees of success. For example, if trying out that new recipe didn’t go quite according to plan, you can say to yourself, this was a 70% success, and make note of any lessons you can learn from to improve the next time.

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5. Survey says!

I’m channeling my best Steve Harvey here—or, if you’re old school, you might think about Richard Dawson. This method involves outing yourself a little bit. For instance, if you think you’re the only person who gets nervous when speaking to new people, you can survey people you trust—or even strangers if you’re feeling friendly—and see if they have struggled with this as well. What you will find more often than not is that you’re not alone. Other people think, feel, and behave in ways similar to you. Talking about these things with others normalizes these experiences.

6. Define and refine

This is something that I say some variation of to my patients on a daily basis. How do you define that? What does that mean? What is the definition of __________?

We react to vague internal statements all the time. For example, you might be a person who works a standard 40-hour week and after a long day, all you want to do is take a hot shower and relax. However, when you’re sitting on the couch trying to relax, you don’t allow yourself to get comfortable. Instead, you think, “Ugh, I’m being so lazy.”

That’s when Dr. J swoops in to say, what is your definition of lazy? I’d bet good money that the definition isn’t someone who wants to rest after a full day of work. What’s more likely to be true is that perhaps you grew up in a family that was high achieving or maybe you believe your value to others is based on how much you can produce; therefore, it’s making it difficult for you to relax in circumstances that are completely normal. Which means that calling yourself lazy is both untrue and unhelpful. What is more helpful is figuring out what makes it difficult for you to engage in self-care.

7. Find and replace

We've all used this function on our word processors and now I’m going to ask you to use it on your brain. This method is super helpful for “should” statements, which is a type of cognitive distortion. The goal here is to substitute trigger words or phrases with less emotionally charged responses. For example, if you misplace your keys and internally yell at yourself for being “such an idiot,” you can change that to “I’m really frustrated that I misplaced my keys.” It might seem small, but it’s not. How many arguments have you gotten in or witnessed that were over semantics? Word choice and phrasing matter, not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

The goal here is that when one of these statements arises in your brain, find and replace it. Over time, you will discover that you’ll more often default to the replacement phrase.

Which of these strategies do you think you should work on this week? Let me know via Instagram @kindmindpsych, via my email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191‬.

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.