It’s very hard to notice but we have a very persistent critical voice that lives in our heads. And the strangest thing is that we let it be there all the time. Not a day goes by without it trying to criticize, blame, and judge ourselves or other people around us. I started to notice this unconscious tendency in myself after starting my meditation practice and in this post, I would like to share some tips that I use myself which might help in using mindfulness to stop negative thoughts.
The first step is to notice our negative thoughts whenever possible. But this is very hard to do when we live on autopilot, immersed in our daily activities. We hardly ever have time to just stop and be aware of what’s going on in our heads.
For example, during one of the darker periods of my life I used to wake up with a heavy feeling every morning. All daily routine activities seemed pretty much meaningless: getting off the bed, brushing my teeth, putting on the clothes, eating breakfast, going to work. Looking back, I now see how negative thoughts about doing all these things were making me unhappy. It might sound strange, but I wasn’t really aware of these thoughts at that time because my subconscious mind masked them as “normal” and “mundane.”
There are two common mind traps that we need to avoid when trying to be aware of our negative thoughts. One is trying to control or suppress them. I remember telling myself, “Just stop thinking about it and it will go away.” That didn’t work because the more I tried to stop my thoughts the more they proliferated in my mind. Another trap is trying to think positive thoughts. So instead of thinking about how I hated my job at the time, I would think about the money I was making and how it helped me buy more stuff. The sad truth about this is that we can’t always think positive thoughts no matter how hard we try. When it seems like trying times are finally over something else comes up and makes us unhappy.
The second step is finding triggers or things that push our buttons. The best way to do that is to be alert during the day and try to notice negative emotions and reactions to specific activities, places, or people. We can think about it as a chain that first starts with a thought which leads to an emotion that, in turn, leads to a reaction. Most of the time, we’re not aware of the first link in this chain (the thought). By pinpointing specific triggers, we can become more conscious of things that serve as a cause of negativity in our lives.
The third step is to learn to accept our thoughts. Even though this might sound simple, the act itself is not. I would describe it as being comfortable with every negative thought that pops up in our heads and letting go of the need to label it in any way. When we put a conscious effort to be with our negative thoughts, with time we come to realize that they’re not that threatening. They’re just thoughts.
The final step is to disidentify from our thoughts. We can think of it as creating distance between ourselves and our thoughts. Here’s a simple mental exercise that I use to work with my own negative thoughts. First, whenever a criticism or self-judgment pops up in my mind, I mentally repeat it to myself, for example, “I can’t do anything right.” Then I change it to, “I think I can’t do anything right.” And lastly, I rephrase it to “I’ve noticed I have a thought that I can’t do anything right.” Doing this allows me to see thoughts as thoughts, to create a “mental distance” so to speak. Thanks to this process thoughts lose their power to draw me in completely, and I become more aware of my thinking patterns. As a supplement, I created this free worksheet available through the link below.