Negative or unhelpful thoughts are often automatic, but they don’t have to take control of you. With a few pointers, you can learn to tolerate your inner critic without getting bogged down by it.
This is Part 3 of a three-part series about how to deal with negative thoughts. Part 1 talks about how to become aware of them. Part 2 is about how to let them go. Part 3 (this article) discusses how to work with, or “replace,” unhelpful thoughts with positive ones.
In this article, you’ll learn the final step in this process: how to work with unhelpful thoughts and toward more balanced, realistic, and helpful ones. There are several ways to do just that, from therapy to journaling exercises.
When you’re ready to start facing your unhelpful thoughts, the two-column exercise is a great place to start.
First, pull out a journal and create two columns. On the left-hand side, write out all your current negative or unhelpful thoughts. Don’t overthink them. Just jot down as many as you can.
In the right-hand column, write between one and three counterarguments. This can help you get some distance from the part of the mind, or inner critic, coming up with the automatic thoughts, and “You” observing those thoughts and doing the healing work.
Consider writing your unhelpful thoughts in quotation marks. This might help you start to view them as thoughts, like the hundreds of other thoughts that run through your mind each day, rather than absolute truths.
This exercise in action may look like:
|Unhelpful thought||Helpful thought|
|“This is too hard for me.”||This is new, and I am learning.|
|“I am the worst at this.”||I’m not the best at it, and I’m not the worst either. I am somewhere in between.|
|“I’m a bad person.”||I have value. That’s something I would tell someone I care about.|
|“I made a massive mistake and everyone saw it. “||I had a human moment. Even if someone noticed, I know they’ve made mistakes too. No one will remember tomorrow.|
|“I can’t do this.”||I can do this, but I might need to step back and take a breather first.|
|“I am not good enough.”||I am good enough; it’s just that my imposter syndrome is making me feel like I’m not.|
|“Nobody likes me.”||I am loved by my friends, my partner, my parents, my pets…|
|“I’m alone.”||I’m not alone; I have myself.|
|“I’m a failure.”||If I didn’t make that mistake, I wouldn’t have known how to grow. I know what to do differently next time.|
|“I’m having a breakdown.”||This feels like a breakdown, but it might be part of a breakthrough.|
When you’re done, consider hanging some of your positive thoughts in a place where you’ll see them, like a bathroom mirror or a Post-it note on your desk.
Unhelpful thoughts, in part, come from accumulated evidence in our mind. We’ve learned important things about the world around us — and ourselves — based on prior experiences.
But if you find yourself believing that your unhelpful thoughts are true, it’s time to find some new evidence.
World-renowned marriage expert John Gottman recommends that for every negative interaction we have with a partner, we should aim for five positive interactions. This magic ratio may be a helpful approach try in your relationship with yourself.
Set a timer on your phone for the same time every day. When it goes off, name five things, either in your mind, out loud, or on paper, that you appreciate about yourself or the work you’ve done.
Self-compassion is a powerful tool for building a positive relationship with yourself.
Instead of beating yourself up for having harsh self-criticisms, try taking a step back and recognizing that your inner critic is, in a counterproductive way, trying to keep you safe by warning you of some possible danger that it perceives.
Next time self-criticism is feeling overwhelming, you might try showing compassion to your inner critic, thanking it for its efforts in trying to keep you safe, and then trying out some strategies for giving yourself compassion instead of beating yourself up.
You can learn more about how self-compassion can help you work with your inner critic by reading the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer of self-compassion research and professor of educational psychology, here.
Our unhelpful thoughts often contain hidden invitations for action. The call-to-action journaling exercise may help you feel more empowered. It looks like this:
|“This is too hard.”||Who do I know that can help me do this?|
|“I am the worst at this.”||What tutorial can I watch to improve my skill set for this project?|
|“I made a massive mistake and everyone saw it.”||Whose mistake do I remember from last week, and do I think less of them for it?|
|“Nobody likes me.”||Who can I call right now, who makes me feel accepted?|
|“I am never going to find a job.”||What workshop can I take to make my resume more impressive?|
As a general rule, try to identify call-to-actions that are small, achievable baby steps. Setting major actions that take a lot of energy or time can be off-putting and might have the opposite effect.
When you catch yourself thinking an unhelpful thought, ask yourself:
- Would I say this out loud to someone else?
- Would I say this to a child?
- Would I let someone speak that way to my child?
Sometimes just imagining someone else’s face if they heard what you’re thinking can make a difference. This may help you shift your language to something more loving.
Sticking up for yourself out loud may feel good, too. You can say to yourself, “Hey, I don’t like how you’re talking to me, brain. That’s enough out of you. I’m done.”
On top of your negative or unhelpful thoughts, you may feel bad about having these thoughts to begin with — a vicious cycle. This creates a resistance to your present experience, which can make your internal suffering that much worse.
As Buddhists say, surrender. If you see an unhelpful thought arise, just notice it there. Take a pause. Try your best not to push it away. Ask yourself, Can I allow it to be here?
Kyle Cease, a comedian turned spiritual thought leader, recommends that people add “and I love that” onto every unhelpful thought.
- I failed my test… and I love that.
- I can’t find a date… and I love that.
- I will never be enough… and I love that.
It’s an exercise in radical self-acceptance, and may even infuse a bit of humor into the situation. As your nervous system recalibrates and you adjust to this sense of surrender, you may find that the unhelpful thought dissipates on its own.
Much of our mindsets are programmed in our early childhood and in our evolutionary underpinning. Yet, you may not even know what kind of messages drive your subconscious mind.
It may help to enlist the help of a trusted therapist. Not only can they provide a warm, caring place to talk about your feelings, but they’re trained to spot patterns that you may not be able to pick up on.
A 2021 study involving 91 adults with anxiety, depression, or PTSD found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helped improve repetitive unhelpful thinking patterns, like brooding, rumination, and worry.
Everyone has unhelpful thoughts, some more than others. But, like any other habit, the more you practice turning those thoughts around, the easier it may become.
True transformation comes from consistency. Practice these tips a little every day and, over time, you may hear your whole inner dialogue change course.
Remember: You are not your thoughts, and you don’t have to be owned by your thoughts.
To continue the inner work, you may find it helpful to read some of these books:
- “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself” by Shad Helmstetter, PhD
- “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook” by Kristin Neff, PhD, and Chris Germer, PhD
- “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” by Steven C. Hayes, PhD
- “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT” by Russ Harris
- “The Negative Thoughts Workbook” by David A. Clark, PhD
- “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD
- “The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook” by Matthew McKay, PhD; Jeffrey C. Wood, PsyD; and Jeffrey Brantley, MD