How To Change Negative Thinking
I love a good story. I was an avid reader growing up, spending lazy summer days with my dog on our back porch, poring over new pages and getting lost in the lives of the characters. The books tended to follow a simple plotline. The characters overcame an obstacle, learned something valuable about themselves and emerged stronger in the end.
Our lives As A Story
We all play the protagonist in our own story. But real life is rarely as predictable as my childhood favorites like The Babysitters Club. There are unexpected twists and turns. Confusing plotlines. Chapters we wish we could erase. Even the best authors need an occasional rewrite.
Unhealthy storylines keep us stuck. For example, maybe you tell yourself that in order to be loveable you have to say yes to others and avoid upsetting them. You avoid conflict at all costs. Or maybe you tell yourself that you can’t succeed because you have anxiety. You are paralyzed by your emotions.
Other Unhealthy Storylines:
“I have to accomplish X in order to be worthy of Y”
“Certain experiences have broken me”
“I am unloveable”
“If I don’t push myself, I’m doomed to failure”
“I must never show weakness or make mistakes”
There may be some truth to these stories, but it’s generally overly exaggerated. And the negative “theme” gets in the way of you being able to take action and live the life you want to live.
ReWrite Your Story
Begin looking at your personal story themes and whether they put you in a place of curiosity and growth about yourself, or in a place of paralysis and negative thinking. Read about Automatic Negative Thoughts or ANTs here.
These themes originate from many places — memories throughout our lives, feedback from other key players in our stories (parents, teachers, bosses, friends and foes), current events, media, personal trauma, and prejudices we face (such as weight, race, cultural, or sexual in nature.) How effective we’ve been at handling internal/external conflict in the past is especially influential to our stories.
The good news is that these negative storylines are malleable.
Journaling and expressive writing (15 minutes a day) is incredibly beneficial to mental health. The exercise allows us to be aware of our emotions, provides a physical representation of our thoughts and feelings, and acts as a platform for inner conflict resolution. And research is showing that taking this approach a step further can have even more benefit.
Putting your personal experiences to paper, examining them, and then rewriting them has been shown to lead to mental and behavioral changes, increased happiness, and overall improved mental well-being.
How to rewrite your story:
- Write about a particular problem you face: Actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Numerous studies have shown that rewriting your story from this perspective can move you out of a negative mindset and into a healthier, more positive position, which is necessary for lasting change.
- Explore the story you are telling yourself. Look for irrational thoughts, exaggerations, story flaws, and limiting thinking. Challenge your assumptions (8 Mental Tricks That Keep You From Happiness)
- Now rewrite your story from the perspective of a friend or neutral observer: Are you harder on yourself than others? Do you make allowances for loved ones that you withhold from yourself? Take a moment to rewrite your story in the third person. When we think of our personal narrative, it’s often from solely inside our head. We don’t take into account others’ thoughts, motives, opinions or perspectives. Consider how your friend or a new reader of your story would interpret it. For example, if your story is that you are a stay-at-home mom and don’t contribute financially, what would your husband or a friend’s perspective be? Is it possible they would say that your efforts with the home and the kids far outway a paycheck?
The Stories We Tell Ourselves Can Empower Or Derail Us.
Maybe you realize that your story isn’t very helpful. But you believe you must berate and punish yourself, atone for past sins, or you fear change. It’s okay to be uncomfortable with some of the choices we’ve made in the past. Even our favorite protagonists have their foibles. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be interested in rooting for them!
When you challenge your story, you may find elements of fiction. If your story no longer serves you, it’s okay to let it go. Replace it with a story that empowers you and lets you grow. By rewriting your story, you can ensure that the future chapters make a memorable read.