How one word can help balance your negative thoughts
Someone recently asked me for a phrase or saying that would help them think more positively…my answer was not what they expected.
by, Lisa Herman, PsyD, LP
Someone recently asked me to help them learn how to stop their negative thoughts. Their entire life has been emotionally lopsided from negative thinking. For them, it was often comical to try another way to think. Thank goodness for their humor! In the search to even things out emotionally, they thought I had a phrase, a mantra, a sentiment, or an uplifting quote perhaps. But, once I told them the word they could use to help balance their negative thoughts, they didn’t know what to say. It seemed so simple, yet so strange. I told them about a new way to use a three-letter word that is in our vocabulary hundreds of times a day. However, most don’t typically use it in this manner…for balance…for self-compassion. The word is “AND”. Before I dive into how to use this word to help balance thoughts, let’s first understand why some people think and feel more negatively than others.
For many people who turn to therapy for support, one of the hardest things they work on is decreasing those darn negative thoughts. Why some have a stronger negative thought pattern, which often times makes life feel scary and difficult, stem from a variety of factors including:
Biology, genetics: including one theory that some people are genetically wired to perceive emotional events more vividly than others, especially negative life events.
One’s ability to recognize and regulate emotions: some people are better than others at identifying feelings and knowing how to cope. Distinguishing between anger and sadness is a skill and not everyone has learned. Once we know what we feel we can apply the most appropriate reaction/behavior to it. The goal is to do this by choice, but sometimes emotions are stronger than logic!
Clinically diagnosed anxiety or depressive disorders: negativity isn’t just an annoyance for many, it impairs their functioning and is overwhelming. Therapy and/or medication can be of help to many suffering from clinical psychiatric difficulties.
It’s contagious: have you ever been around others that are happy and positive? How do you feel when you leave their presence? Conversely, how do you feel when you are around people who are consistently negative. It can bring us down even if we were not down in the first place.
Chaotic environment during early childhood: if we did not have a safe, consistent, loving, and/or positively-attached upbringing, our brain can wire itself for survival. Watching out for the negative is a survival “tactic” in order to be prepared for the next emotionally (or physically) dangerous event.
Negativity is not the enemy in an of itself. Sometimes things in life are just negative. You get fired from your job suddenly. A hurricane rips away your home and years of sentimental belongings. Someone you love passes away. Life has it’s fair share of negatives. Some days are just negative, heck some weeks can be a bubble of blah. It’s when pervasive negative thoughts can’t seem to find relief that the use of the word AND can help.
Learning how to use the word “AND” (which is a conjunction that joins two separate words/phrases) helps provide balance to our thoughts. Balance leads to self-compassion and a healthier emotional relationship with ourselves.
Now that we know why some are more negative than others and a good word we can use to help balance our thoughts, let’s practice; that’s the best way to become better at this skill (yes learning how to think more balanced is a skill). First, we acknowledge your initial automatic negative thought…“I am really bad a basketball” AND then continue the sentence with a more balanced logical statement that is also true such as “When I practice something I typically get better.” Most people will stop at the first half of that sentence and sit with the negativity. Somehow, we forgot about all the times we were bad at things (like walking, talking, pooping in our pants) and with practice we got better. Let’s try another one. “Today life just sucked” AND “I’m going to go for a walk and clear my head to come up with a plan to make it a better night.” Sometimes the day does not go well (or it seems like everything in that day didn’t go well) AND you have strategies for how you are going to balance it out. See? I just demonstrated another example. Now, you try.
The use of the word AND may not work for every negative experience or emotion we have, but if you truly think hard about what else can join the negative automatic thought after the AND, you will be surprised how often you can come up with something realistic. We don’t want to try to erase the negative feelings we have – we want to try to balance them out with self-compassionate statements and using AND can help us do just that.