We all struggle with “negative” thoughts. The degrees might vary, but we’ve all had an experience where we thought something along the lines of “I’ll never succeed at this,” “No one really likes/loves me,” or “I’m not beautiful/handsome enough“. These thoughts are painful. They evoke deep emotional experiences of shame and unworthiness. Which, in turn, cause us to withdraw, defend, or overcompensate.
In seeking help for dealing with these thoughts, we are usually told that we need to fight back against the thoughts. Try not to think them. Challenge them. Prove them to be untrue, so we can wriggle ourselves out of their suffocating grip. For some of us this work just fine. But for some of us it doesn't.
For some of us, thoughts are like quicksand. The more we wrestle with them, the more entangled with them we become. We are stuck in an all-out mental brawl, pushing us further into despair and frustration.
You may have even witnessed this dynamic externally, when trying to support a friend. Maybe they told you that they thought they were unlovable. And you responded by trying to tell them just how lovable they were, thinking this would reassure them and cheer them up. But instead, they come in full force with a list of all the reasons they are truly unlovable and how you could never know just how unlovable they are. Woah, now you’re finding yourself in a battle with this friend, when you really wanted to support them. We find ourselves in similar battles with our own thoughts.
So, if challenging your thoughts isn’t helping you feel better, then what? Well, what if the biggest problem isn’t the thoughts themselves, but how we relate to them (the power and meaning we assign to them)? And what if instead of a mental battle, what we really need is some self-compassion? And what if these thoughts are rooted in deep beliefs we hold about ourselves, which might need to be processed and explored in therapy? What if we are only treating the symptom and not the cause?
Let’s go back to that quicksand analogy. We know that fighting to get out of quicksand only pulls you deeper in and the only thing that slows the sinking is to stop struggling, lay back, and relax. So, if we are going to stop struggling with our thoughts, what can we do that resembles this? Mindfulness.
Now, I know that mindfulness is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days without much context or explanation of what it means. So let’s clear that up first. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what is happening in the moment, without judgement. That’s it.
Mindfulness means that, rather than struggling with the thought, we allow it to be. We don’t try to change it or stop it or push it away. We observe it, without judgment. And we do this from a place of awareness that we are not our thoughts. And that no thought stays forever.
Our default is to accept our thoughts as true and real. To identify with them and assign meaning to them. When we do this, we are also assigning power to them, and our negative thoughts tend to hold a lot of power. When you have a thought like “I’m stupid,” the painful emotional experience that follows doesn’t come from that thought itself, but the identification with that thought as being true and the power it holds to determine your worthiness. So, we can see that it is in how we relate to our thoughts that we are most affected by them.
The truth is that we have thousands (millions?) of thoughts each day. Some are benign. Some are weird and bizarre. Some are funny. And some are painful. When we take a mindful step back and observe our thoughts for what they are—just thoughts, we strip them of some of their power. And when we view our thoughts from this position, we become less entangled with them. Doing this makes room for other things, like curiosity and compassion. We can learn to observe our thoughts with curiosity, without getting sucked into the rabbit hole with them. We can learn to allow them to come and go, without the need to attach, identify, or wrestle with them, like watching leaves floating by on a stream. We can learn to say to ourselves, “Hmm I notice I’m having that thought again and that’s okay. I don’t have to accept it as truth, I can let it just be a thought.”
And we can learn to show ourselves some compassion when those painful thoughts come floating by. It’s okay to acknowledge that those thoughts are hard to deal with and that they are likely rooted in some past painful experiences. Find ways that you can nurture yourself when those thoughts come up. When your friend told you they felt unlovable, maybe they just needed to hear, “Gosh, it sounds like it would be so painful to feel that way. I’m here if you want to talk about it.” Be there for yourself in the way you might be there for a friend. Do something that makes you feel cared for, even if only by your self.
And, finally, find a good therapist who can dive deep with you. Someone to help you use that compassionate curiosity to understand why these thoughts hold so much meaning for you, how you came to believe these things about yourself, and how you can heal those wounded places from which the thoughts are coming. We will never be completely free of any negative thoughts, that’s just part of the human experience. But we can change the way we relate to them and we can form new beliefs about ourselves, which are rooted in worthiness and self-love.