Stuck in Negative Thinking? Here’s What to Do

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We have all been there: A strong emotion like anger or fear sucks us in and suddenly we can’t seem to control the things we say or do, hurting ourselves and those around us.

“We act like wind-up toys, repeatedly bumping into the same walls, never realizing there may be an open door just to our left or our right.

When we get stuck in a particularly nasty feeling, there are a few common culprits.

●︎ Monkey mind: We’ve spiraled off into a cascade of regret about the past, worry about the future, or judgments about ourselves, writes David.

●︎ Old ideas: We’re repeating old thoughts and behaviors that no longer fit the current reality, like “I always choke in important situations” or “I’m not good enough for him.”

Righteousness: Our need to be right leads to conflict with others, rather than forgiveness and understanding.

●︎ Blaming thoughts for behaviors: Because we think certain things—“I always choke”—we feel compelled to take certain actions, like avoiding public speaking. We fail to recognize that we could choose a different path.

The way we cope with negative feelings often serves to keep us stuck.

Some of us bottle our emotions, trying to ignore them and soldier on. In the process, we end up stressing out the people around us and may find those feelings “leaking out” in other ways: anger at a cashier, for example, when our real anger is directed toward someone else.

Finally, many of us respond to negative emotions by forcing ourselves to be positive. “This isn’t such a big deal,” we might tell ourselves, or “I should feel grateful for everything I have.” Yet trying to reason away our negative emotions and feel good all the time can be detrimental to our mental health—it’s something called “toxic positivity.”

Thankfully: You can learn and practice emotional agility. Here are a few ways:

1. Acknowledge Your Thoughts and Feelings

To get unhooked, we first have to acknowledge the hook—in other words, be mindful and accepting of our feelings. In one study, for example, researchers found that smokers were more successful at quitting after participating in a program based on accepting, observing, and detaching from their cravings.

2. Be Kind to Yourself

In fact, if we want to make improvements in the future, the best approach is self-compassion. With the clarity it brings, we can try to understand what the feelings are telling us—and what we can learn about our desires, boundaries, or needs.

●︎ Stop: Aim to become a “thought-catcher.” Instead of letting negative emotions bubble under the surface, notice and call out when you’re feeling them.

●︎ Rethink: Question the thought you’ve “caught.” Ask yourself: Does this make sense? Am I being too hard on myself?

●︎ Substitute: Talk back to your negative thoughts with an affirmation or probing question. For example, if you’re thinking “This is all my fault”—challenge that with “I can’t assume I’m automatically at fault.”

3. Take on a New Perspective

Looking at our predicament from another person’s perspective is another way to gain some distance.

For example: What would my friends think? They probably wouldn’t say you’re an incompetent employee and a poor excuse for a spouse.

Eventually, by sitting with our feelings in this way, they may pass—along with the fatalistic stories we’ve concocted in our heads. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever return, but we’ll be more prepared if they do.

Negative emotions can be clues to our deepest values, and the ways in which we may have gotten off track: Loneliness reminds us to make time for our relationships, for example, and anxiety might mean we’ve taken on too many projects.

Once we’ve identified these inconsistencies, we can make small course corrections to point us in the right direction: setting up a weekly dinner with friends, for example, or deciding to say no to commitments in the near future.

Eventually, we can honor our feelings but not be ruled by them.

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