Do you have repetitive negative thoughts? If so, the diagnosis is confirmed: You’re human. The Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging reports that the average person experiences 70,000 thoughts per day. As a psychotherapist, I can say with certainty that a large percentage of the 70,000 are about what can go wrong, what did go wrong, what will go wrong, what you’ve done wrong, and what everyone else is doing wrong.
What makes negative repetitive thoughts so challenging is that they often stem from core self-beliefs, like I’m not good enough, I won’t get what I want, or the world is not trustworthy. Because they’re built out of these deeply held beliefs, repetitive thought loops are powerful and sticky; we believe our repetitive thoughts, as if their persistence is somehow evidence of their truth. As a result, we are compulsively compelled to attach and engage with their content.
Further, we learn early in life that we need to do something with and about our negative thoughts: Either prove them wrong, convince them (and ourselves) that they’re false, or actively replace them with positive thoughts that feel less threatening. Either way, we’re taught, we need to put up a fight.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these strategies: Arguing with and disproving negative thoughts is sometimes helpful, as is actively replacing the negative with positive thoughts. But the most effective approach I have found (personally and professionally) for working with repetitive negative thoughts is actually the least intuitive:
- Stop trying to change negative thoughts.
- Don’t do anything about them.
- Leave negative thoughts alone.
- Stop fighting with what’s actually happening.
- Look elsewhere.
How can we be okay when what’s happening in our mind is not okay? How do we leave our thoughts alone and not get involved in their content?
We assume that by agreeing to not change our thoughts, we are also agreeing to believe and engage with them — that if we allow the thoughts to happen, we also have to pay attention to them and invest them with meaning. But what if that weren’t true? What if negative thoughts could appear in your inner world, and you could see and hear them, comprehend their content, but not have to do anything with or about them — not have to make them go away, invest energy in them, get involved in their stories, award them with a sense of importance, or even believe them to be true? What if the negative thoughts could mean nothing about who you are? Before we can practice this, however, we have to know it’s possible. And I can tell you with certainty, it is.
We are a culture of doers, and the instruction to not do, for some, can feel like not enough. It can be helpful, therefore, to reframe the not doing into a doing, or in this case, the not changing into a changing. Specifically, instead of focusing on not changing your thoughts, practice turning your attention away from the contents of the thoughts and placing it on who or what is actually hearing the thoughts. Ask yourself, who are these thoughts talking to? For whose attention are they vying?
As soon as thoughts appear, particularly negative ones, we tend to narrow our attention down onto the thoughts with the focus of a laser beam, thereby darkening anything else that might exist in our awareness. And yet, what if, when thoughts appear, we were to look beyond them, and contemplate what else is here? What is behind and under the thoughts? In so doing, we leave the thoughts alone, and direct our attention to the spaciousness within which the thoughts are appearing. If thoughts are like birds appearing in our sky, we shift our attention from the birds to the sky.
An important aspect of the practice of not changing negative thoughts involves another not — not judging the fact that you have negative thoughts. In truth, thoughts happen, with or without our consent. The fact that negative thoughts may come back again and again, in almost or entirely the same form, is just how it is — it’s a byproduct of our mind’s operating system. It is not a failing on our part; it does not make us less spiritual, or more troubled or tortured. The sooner we can accept this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of living. Getting rid of negative thoughts is by no means a necessity for well-being.
Try it out for a day or an hour: Don’t change your thoughts, no matter what they contain — just leave them alone, and let them happen. Turn your attention away from the thoughts and toward the one who’s listening, the one whose attention the thoughts are beckoning. Sense the space in which the thoughts are appearing, the silence behind the noise, the stillness under the movement of thoughts. Notice your own awareness, that presence which is aware of these thoughts.
When we shift our attention in this way, something very curious happens: The thoughts start losing their power. They may still be there, but they contain less oomph. Simultaneously, the volume of the thoughts shifts from a shout to a whisper. And sometimes, as the thoughts figure out that they’re not that seductive to us anymore, or that their appearance no longer sends us into a tailspin, they start to fade altogether. But then sometimes they don’t fade. And while we would prefer that the negative thoughts subside rather than continue, neither is evidence of the success or failure of our process.
Repetitive negative thoughts are part of the human journey; we cannot stop them. We can, however, stop trying to stop the unstoppable, or to change the unchangeable. What matters is how we relate to the thoughts, what we tell ourselves we must do or not do about them, and the self-attack we propagate as a result of having such thoughts. We generate internal peace when we give up the fight with the inevitable and direct our attention towards new frontiers. Ultimately, the relationship we build with our thoughts and the agency we take with our attention is what creates our experience. And, as is always the case, life resolves itself in contradiction: When we stop trying to change reality, reality changes.