You wake up and instantly think about everything that needs to get done. You walk into your kitchen, and see only what’s out of place. You believe you can always do more, and so can your family.
You hyper-focus on unchecked tasks, problems, flaws, mistakes, rainy days, dust and dirt. You can’t help but be negative, and many times you don’t even notice it. You don’t even realize you’re doing it. You’re grateful for what you do have—like your loved ones and your life—but you just can’t seem to climb out of that negative mindset.
Some of us develop a negative outlook because of our upbringing. As psychotherapist Liz Morrison, LCSW, pointed out, “If parents seem to see the glass half empty as opposed to the glass half full, negativity can become a learned behavior for anyone living in the household.”
If your mom saw a disgusting mess rather than remnants from a sweet get-together, today you might, too. If your dad fixated on your only B (among all A’s), then you might let a small, shaky part of a performance color the entire thing.
Or maybe your parents were super supportive and positive about your stuff, but directed their pessimism toward themselves. They made cruel comments about everything from their appearance to their abilities.
Stress and trauma also can lead to a negative outlook on life, said Morrison, who specializes in working with children and families at her private practice.
Some people are especially susceptible to negativity because of their genetic makeup, which predisposes them to feeling depressed, anxious or easily overwhelmed. When we feel this way, “the brain tends to distort reality, often creating a negative narrative about ourselves and our accomplishments that in the moment can feel very real and accurate,” said Mara Hirschfeld, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in individuals and couples going through relationship distress at her private practice.
Hirschfeld shared these examples of negative narratives: “No matter what I do, it never feels like enough. I am never enough” or “Every time I try and change my behavior, I arrive at the same conclusion. I am starting to believe I can never change. It’s just not possible.”
Many of Hirschfeld’s negativity-prone clients also report struggling with perfectionism—”having high, often unrealistic expectations for oneself”—a sinking self-worth and increased anxiety and depression.
While we can’t eliminate our negativity, we can shift how we respond to our negative thoughts, Hirschfeld said. Below are some ideas for making that transition.
Identify your negativity. Negativity may come so naturally to you that you don’t even realize your lens is distorted. For many of us negativity is as natural as breathing. We don’t think about it. It just happens—and we certainly don’t question it. As Hirschfeld said, it’s impossible to change what we don’t see.
Negativity can come in different shapes and sizes. We might overgeneralize, so a mistake on a work project suddenly signifies that we’re a raging failure, Morrison said.
We might magnify a negative detail while filtering out the positive aspects of a situation. For instance, one of Morrison’s clients felt like they stumbled in several places in their presentation, and deemed the entire talk a mess. They completely glossed over the parts of the presentation that went well.
We also might cling to shoulds and stringent expectations. I should love spending every second with my child, but if I don’t, I’m a bad parent. I should keep the house tidy, but if I don’t, I’m an awful partner. I should be able to ace that exam, but if I don’t, I’m an utter idiot.
All these negative views—and many others—are actually cognitive distortions or thinking errors. They may sound logical and accurate. But they’re not ultimate truths; they’re lies.
Externalize your negativity. One of Hirschfeld’s clients named the part of her that ruminates on negativity “Negative Nancy.” “Then whenever ‘Negative Nancy’ would come and visit, she would acknowledge it by labeling it as such. [This] helped her externalize the feelings of shame or guilt and [gave] her the opportunity to have greater objectivity in the moment.” What can you call the negative part of you?
Speak to your negativity. “Secondly, we need to learn how to react and respond productively to this part of ourselves when it shows up,” Hirschfeld said. The key, she said, is to gently acknowledge your negative part, get curious about its fears, and extend some self-compassion.
The idea of speaking to a part of ourselves as though it were a separate entity might seem silly or strange. But it’s actually an effective technique from “Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS), an evidence-based model created by Dr. Richard Schwartz that works on healing trauma through gaining acceptance and compassion for the self,” Hirschfeld said.
She shared an example of what this might look like:
“There you go again Negative Nancy, always reminding me I can’t do it or that I failed at something. What are you trying to protect me from? What is the message you want me to know?”
“I don’t want you to continue to make the same mistakes.”
“Thank you for caring about my success and for always wanting me to perform at my best. However right here, right now these thoughts are distracting me. Can you trust me that I have received the message and will take note of what needs to change so I can return to the present moment?”
Consider the cold, hard facts. Morrison works with clients to find concrete evidence “that actually fulfills the concern or feeling the person has.” For instance, for the client with the presentation, concrete evidence might mean being called into their supervisor’s office and scolded for stumbling over their words, she said. If they don’t have such evidence, perhaps the negativity isn’t so accurate, after all? What kind of observable facts do you have to confirm your negative impressions?
Re-stabilize your nervous system. If talking yourself out of the negativity spiral isn’t working, or you’re too flooded in the moment, Hirschfeld suggested practicing deep breathing or mindfulness techniques.
“One of the most helpful breathing techniques is 4-4-6, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and works to calm and soothe the body.” This consists of inhaling for 4 counts, holding for 4 counts, and exhaling for 6 counts.
Engage in self-care. Practicing self-care activities also is helpful when overwhelm sets in. In fact, sometimes, trying to shift our thoughts only makes them more negative and more critical—like in the case of a depressed state, Hirschfeld said.
She recommended recognizing and accepting that you’re not feeling well today, and engaging in self-soothing activities. This might include taking a gentle yoga class, listening to music, reading poetry, or watching your favorite show.
It might feel like your negativity is a permanent, persistent part of you. It might feel like you’ll never change. But don’t give up, Morrison said.
Remind yourself regularly why you’d like to change your stripes. Morrison encourages her clients to think about what brought them into therapy, which might’ve been feeling upset all the time or finding their negativity was hampering their work or relationships.
And remember, “Working towards being less negative is a constant process or evolution that requires self-awareness and personal discovery,” Hirschfeld said.
It’s something you can absolutely do.