1. Watch your tendency to over-generalize the negative (and minimize the positive).
Ask yourself: “If something negative unexpectedly happens, do I over-generalize it? Do I view it as applying to everything and being permanent rather than compartmentalizing it to one place and time?”
For example, if someone rejects you or turns you down for a date, do you spread the negativity beyond that person, time and place by telling yourself, “I’m just not good at relationships; they never work out for me, ever”? If you fail an exam do you say to yourself, “Well, I failed that exam; I’m not happy about it, but I’ll study more next time”? Or do you over-generalize it by telling yourself you’re “not smart enough” or “incapable of learning”?
Remember, negative thinking stops us from seeing and experiencing positive outcomes, even when they happen often. It’s as if there’s a special mental block filtering out all the positives and only letting in data that confirms the negative biases we have. So, do your very best to catch yourself today.
Being able to distinguish between the negativity you imagine and what is actually happening in your life is an important step towards living a happier life.
2. Start focusing on the grey area between life’s extremes.
Life simply isn’t black or white—100% of this or 100% of that—all or nothing. Thinking in extremes like this is a fast way to misery, because it basically views any situation that’s less than perfect as being extremely bad. For example:
Rather than the rainstorm slowing down my commute back home from the office, instead “it wasted my whole evening and ruined the night!”
Rather than just accepting the nervousness of meeting a new group of people, “I know these people are not going to like me.”
Since 99.9% of all situations in life are less than perfect, “all or nothing” thinking tends to make us focus on the negatives—the drama, the failures, and the worst-case scenarios. Sure, catastrophes occur on occasion, but contrary to what you may see on the evening news, most of life occurs in a grey area between the extremes of bliss and total devastation.
3. Stop looking for negative signs from others.
Our negativity leads us to quickly jump to negative conclusions about the unknown, which can be especially harmful in our relationships. We are provoked to interpret something another person does as being negative, even when we have been given absolutely no indication of what the other person is thinking. For instance, “He hasn’t called, so he must not want to talk to me,” or, “She only said that to be nice, but she doesn’t really mean it.” When we jump to conclusions like this, we only cause ourselves and others unnecessary pain, stress and frustration.
So, if someone says one thing, don’t assume they mean something else. If they say nothing at all, don’t assume their silence has a concealed, negative connotation. Assigning meaning to a situation before you have the whole story makes you more likely to believe that the uncertainty you feel (based on lack of knowing) is a negative sign.
On the flip-side, holding off on assigning meaning to an incomplete story helps the mind overcome it’s negative thinking tendencies. When you think more positively, or simply more clearly about the facts, you’ll be able to evaluate all possible reasons you can think of, not just the negative ones. In other words, you’ll be doing more of: “I don’t know why he hasn’t called yet, but maybe… he’s actually extremely busy at work today.”
4. Identify the underlying triggers to your negative thinking.
To change your thinking, it helps to have a crystal-clear understanding of what you’re thinking in the first place. When a troubling (negative) thought arises in your mind, instead of ignoring it, pay closer attention and then record it. For example, if you’re sitting at your desk and you catch yourself ruminating about something negative, pause and write it down immediately. Get that raw thought out of your head and down on paper—just a short sentence or two that honestly depicts the specific thought that’s presently troubling you:
“I’m not good enough for the job I’m applying for because I don’t have enough experience.”
Then, identify what triggered the thought. Again, be brief and specific:
“I’m new to the industry, and therefore I’m feeling out of my comfort zone.”
At the very least, this process of evaluating your negative thoughts and their underlying triggers helps bring a healthy, objective awareness to the sources of your negativity or anxiety, which ultimately allows you to shift your mindset and take the next positive step forward.
5. Change your mantra.
All journeys of positive change begin with a goal and the determination needed to achieve it. However, what do you think happens when you are too determined, or too obsessed, with a goal? You begin to nurture another belief: who you are right now is not good enough.
So, the bottom line is this: you have to accept yourself as you are, and then commit to personal growth. If you think you are absolutely “perfect” already, you will not make any positive efforts to grow. But, constantly criticizing yourself is just as counterproductive as doing nothing, because you will never be able to build new positive changes into your life when you’re obsessively focused on your flaws.
The key is to remind yourself that you already are good enough; you just need more practice. Change your mantra from, “I have to be better,” to, “I will do my absolute best today.” The second mantra is far more effective, because it actually prompts you to take positive action at any given moment while simultaneously accepting the reality that every effort may not be perfect.
Being able to distinguish between healthy striving and self-abuse on your journey is another critically important step towards living a happier and more successful life.