Why Do We Have Negative Thoughts?
Dr. Rick Petronella
Even with the benefits of speaking, the tongue has power to destroy. The angry words we mumble under our breath on our way out the door, the words we shout out when someone driving their car cuts us off, those words we hurl when we’re on the defensive— all of them can transform us into someone we never thought we could become. Offensive words begin in our minds, find their way into our mouth, and are spoken before we can stop them. Ironically, they can cause the most damage where we least expect it- to ourselves, our families, and our reputation. The negative attacking words we spew tend to char the hearts of those we love as well as our own. Most often, our attacking words leave us in a place of regret and self-disdain.
A while back I worked with someone who spoke critically most of the time. It often seemed that everything, everyone, and every thought demanded his critical analysis even if he was not asked his opinion. The food his wife served him was too cold. The baseball cap bill was too wide, the traffic too congested. Eventually, his comments infiltrated his own heart and altered his actions. His critical words injured others; they seared his relationships with his family, and friends. He was a very unhappy man.
Consider when a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5–6 NIV)
Negative self-talk is part of the human experience. Challenging negative thoughts is a practice of cultivating self-awareness. While positive self-talk can improve mood, boost productivity, and increase self-respect, negative self-talk can take a toll on our emotional well-being, hinder self-confidence, and lead to self-blame.
While negative self-talk is a natural part of the human experience, there are ways to disrupt patterns of unhelpful thinking with a few strategies to challenge your inner critic.
Why are we prone to negative thoughts and self-talk? As human beings we are hardwired with a negativity bias, a psychological principle asserting that we’re more susceptible to negative stimuli than positive ones, and we can easily become consumed by them.
Our tongue can stir up anger and crush the spirit. But our words can also turn away wrath and promote healing (Proverbs 15:1–4; 16:24)
The Link Between Self-Talk and Self-Doubt:
When it comes to our abilities and talents, the occasional bout of self-doubt is common. However, if you find that you’re constantly questioning whether you’re good or capable enough, the negativity bias suggests there’s a tendency to fixate more on what you did wrong than what you did right. Think of a time when you accomplished something, but you focused more on that one thing you could have done better. Despite that 90% of your efforts went over really well, we tend to dwell and ruminate on the other 10% that could have been better. When you’re hyper-critical of that 10% and are constantly questioning your abilities, then your negative self-talk has manifested into self-doubt. A consequence of self-doubt can be a self-deprecating mindset that occurs when we don’t acknowledge our achievements. We relinquish any successes we may have earned because we don’t believe in ourselves and our abilities. When you’re hyper-critical of that 10% and are constantly questioning your abilities, then your negative self-talk has manifested into self-doubt.
How do we stop these negative thoughts?
Challenging negative thoughts is a practice of reframing your negative self-talk to create a positive shift in your mindset. But challenging thoughts takes a little more effort than just trying to think positively. Identifying your negative, recurring thought patterns can help you learn how to respond to your negative thoughts in a more constructive manner.
Our propensity for negative self-talk often becomes automatic, as the nature of the mind is to fixate on the negative. So, the first step in challenging negative thoughts is to become aware that you’re having them.
Challenge Your Thought
It can be helpful to think of any evidence that disproves the negative thoughts you’re having. Your thoughts are not always accurate. For instance, if your thought is, “I’m terrible at my job,” ask yourself whether there’s any evidence to the contrary. Disputing the thought with positive evidence can help you reaffirm your capabilities and increase your self-confidence.
Having compassion for ourselves and others is also key to overcoming negative thinking. We want to be able to love ourselves first, to have full acceptance of who we are, flaws and all, to accept the fact that we are imperfect. When we can do that, we will often find that the negative self-talk backs off because we love ourselves and we’ve decided that we’re not going to continue to speak to ourselves or others in a negative way. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13)
Embrace Gratitude, Be Thankful
Positive psychology research shows that having gratitude improves emotional well-being and boosts happiness, which can also make it a valuable tool for rewiring negative thinking. The next time you find that you’re criticizing yourself, finding gratitude for where you are and what you have can help to change your mindset. Remember, you are worth it.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Quiz: How Well Do You Handle Your Inner Critic?
Most of us have an Inner Critic, an internal “voice” that judges our actions or inaction, tells us what’s wrong with us and how we should or should not be. This constant judgment can lead to debilitating feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety. While it’s difficult to silence the critic completely, there are ways to cope with it. Answer these true/false questions to discover how well you handle your Inner Critic.
1. I can’t seem to do anything right. I feel depressed and incapacitated by the constant nagging, judging voice inside me.
2. I don’t necessarily realize I’m at the effect of my Inner Critic, but I often compare myself to others and never quite measure up. I feel inadequate.
3. Just when I’m about to embark on something new and exciting, such as a job or relationship, my Inner Critic kicks up doubt and fear to prevent me from pursuing the opportunity.
4. I have difficulty staying in the present moment because my internal judging voice loudly intrudes, dictating what I should and shouldn’t do.
5. Because of that voice, I second-guess my choices and actions and don’t trust myself. As a result, I worry that I’ll make a big mistake and something bad will happen.
1.I see my Inner Critic as a misguided ally who wants to help or protect me. I look for the positive intention behind what it says and embrace that rather than the negative message.
2. I’ve gotten to know the themes my Inner Critic harps on, so I can distinguish those voices from other more useful internal dialogue.
3. It’s helpful to notice when my Inner Critic is present. I breathe deeply and center myself to release fear and anxiety and return to a more peaceful place.
4. Giving my critical inner voices funny names and descriptions —such as Task-Master or The Perfectionist—helps me diminish their power and not take them seriously.
5. As I’ve become skilled at handling the Inner Critic, it bothers me less often. I still hear it sometimes, but I don’t believe what it says and it rarely affects me adversely.
If you answered true more often in Set 1 and false more often in Set 2, you may wish to learn some effective ways to handle your Inner Critic. Please call if you’d like support in exploring this further.