We all want to think more positively, maintain healthy self-perception and reap the social and emotional benefits of a happy mindset. There are so many resources at our disposal to achieve a happier, healthier mindset, and a general movement for a culture of positive mindfulness. Why, then, is it so difficult?
Too often, positive thinking becomes a mantra, as if it was as easy as saying “good vibes only” and boom – we’re healed. Positive thinking is not a switch you can flip and suddenly your thoughts follow suit. Rather, positive thinking is a cognitive pattern that takes months or years to adjust to, and lots of hard work to sustain.
To change a thinking pattern requires training and usually professional help, and it’s used in many disciplines, from life coaching and fitness training to medical and therapeutic practice. There are many theories that can help guide this process, the most popular being cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, was coined in the 60s when psychologist Aaron Beck noted that certain negative thought patterns contribute to emotional problems. CBT is used to identify a cycle of thoughts, feelings and behaviors to disrupt the negative thought process, aiming to interject positive thoughts and therefore change behaviors. Although Beck’s theory differs widely in its method and application, there are some commonalities throughout. Here are a few of them that you can try out for yourself.
Identify negative thoughts
Perhaps the best place to start is to identify what specifically the negative thoughts are that are floating through your brain. Often, they are recurrent thoughts, or follow a theme. Try to catch yourself formulating thoughts throughout the day and pinpoint a few words or phrases. Writing them down is a great way to identify patterns and themes, especially if they occur spontaneously and may be so ingrained you haven’t noted them in a while.
Identify the type of negative thinking pattern
All of the individual negative thoughts you have throughout the day form a collective pattern, what’s called a cognitive distortion. Check out the list of common cognitive distortions at PsychCentral and see if you can distinguish the cognitive distortions that play into your thinking patterns.
Choose a strategy to intercept negative thoughts
Identifying the individual thoughts and the patterns they create is foundational to fixing them. Once you better understand your areas of weakness, you can attack those harmful thought cycles by replacing them with something more positive and productive. Here are a few ways you can try to pivot your negative thoughts into positive ones.
- Identifying strengths: combat harsh self-talk with concrete compliments. Either come up with a list of your skills and traits or have friends and family name some for you. Go back to this list often, meditating on what you have to offer and adding more strengths as you notice and develop them.
- Rephrase your negative thoughts: take that list of specific negative thoughts you wrote down and change the wording. If your negative thought was “No one wants to spend time with me,” write down “Here are three people who like spending time with me…”.
- Notice alternatives: if you struggle with thinking in extremes (polarized thinking), try to come up with solutions or ideas somewhere in the middle. Make room for the complexity and nuances of people, relationships and situations.
- Chunking: break things down into steps. If your negative thoughts revolve around circumstances being too much, or too difficult, you may be thinking too big-picture.
- Step outside of yourself: sometimes all it takes to dispel a negative thought is to look at it from someone else’s perspective. If the same thought was going through a loved one’s mind, would it be reasonable or helpful? What might you say to that person instead?
If you’re still wondering how to shift negative thoughts to positive ones, perhaps the most helpful tool is creating replacement thoughts. Once you are aware of your most common negative thoughts, you can create positive, true phrases to intercept and replace the negative ones. Your negative thoughts have compiled to form a narrative about your life and self-perception; changing those individual thoughts has the power to change the whole narrative.
There are incredible benefits to mastering the art of positive thinking. A healthy outlook on life, a calm mindfulness and a positive and realistic self-concept all can be yours through the power of positive thinking. Keep in mind that cognitive processes cannot be cured overnight and often require professional treatment for the most effective intervention. Get in touch with a therapist through The Light Program to get started with positive thinking. Call (610) 644-6464 to take steps toward recovery.