According to Psychology Today, it has been estimated that we have between 25,000 – 50,000 thoughts per day, 95% of which are habitually repeated. On average, 70% of these thoughts are believed to be negative.
Our minds often fall into habitual styles of thinking such as “I’m not good enough”, “I can’t do it” and “I’m a failure” unconsciously, and as a result, we start to believe that these thoughts are true. Our thoughts then fuel our feelings of stress, anxiety and overwhelm, which triggers even more negative thought patterns to be produced. And unless we start to shine a light on our unhealthy thought patterns, the cycle will continue.
Our mindfulness practice provides the perfect opportunity for us to see things from a different perspective. By bringing awareness to the content of our minds, we can start to observe the different stories and narratives we tell ourselves day in, day out.
This simple shift in perception is ultimately the thing that will liberate us from the shackles of our negativity. When you learn to observe your thoughts, you will realise that they’re not “facts” and more often than not, they aren’t even true. You will then have the choice to attach yourself to the thought, and build on the narrative, or simply let it go.
So, how can we go about doing this? Here are three simple questions to ask yourself whenever you’re caught up in a cycle of negativity.
Is this thought helping me?
We often fall into patterns of thinking that don’t serve us. For example, telling yourself “this project is so stressful and I’m never going to be able to get it all done” is unlikely to help you actually complete the task at hand. In fact, it will most likely have the opposite effect, as it will cause you to feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Each time a new thought pops into your mind, you have the power to observe whether this thought is serving you or if it’s irrational. If you’re unsure whether your thought is helpful or not, you can ask yourself:
- Will this thought help me be the person I’d like to be?
- Will this thought improve my life in some way?
- Will this thought inspire me to take positive action?
If not, then it’s safe to conclude that the thought is unhelpful. Once you have identified the fact that the thought isn’t serving you, you can decide whether you’d like to build on it, or you can simply let it go.
How else could I think about this?
Imagine your partner has been working late all week and you haven’t had much of an opportunity to spend time with one another. You might feel neglected, frustrated or perhaps a little unsupported. You might then start thinking that your partner prioritises work over family commitments, or that they don’t care enough about you to come home on time, which might cause you to ruminate about all of the other times they came home late or let you down in another capacity.
The challenge is that thinking that this way won’t help you to achieve your outcome of wanting to spend more quality time together. In fact, it will most likely have the opposite effect as it may even cause you to pick an argument with them the next time you're together. So, what would be a more helpful way to think about this scenario?
Perhaps you could consider that your partner's work obligations are due to the pressures they’re currently facing, or they're working harder to provide more for yourself and the family, as opposed to a lack of prioritisation.
When you reframe the way you think about certain scenarios, you’ll often start to realise that there are multiple sides to all stories, and that you have the choice to see things from a different, more supportive, perspective.
How could things be worse?
When her husband died suddenly in 2015, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, she found herself in a period of grief, darkness and depression. But one day her friend, psychologist Adam Grant said to her, “you should think about how things could be worse”. This made her realise that her husband could have suffered his heart attack whilst driving with their two children, and perhaps, she could have lost all three of them. This realisation helped Sandberg come back to feeling thankful for the fact that even though she’d lost her husband, she still had her children.
And although it seems counterintuitive, asking yourself “how could things be worse?” ultimately helps to foster resilience and positive thinking by cultivating gratitude.
Even when you’re going through a particularly challenging period in your life, you can usually find things to feel thankful for, and things that are going well, no matter how big or small they may be.