For those of you who remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live parody on the self-help movement, you probably recall how hilariously he represented everything wrong with the self-empowerment school of thought. The movement was based on the notion that “positive thinking” and “positive affirmations” work. Guess what? They don’t. Recent research indicates that there is no “power” in the whole “power of positive thought” movement. What has been shown to work however, is not thinking negatively! Why is this? Well, there are many reasons, but basically, it’s because most of us respond to the world based on some very basic deep-seated beliefs about the world and ourselves. The school of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which has been proven to work in clinical studies, calls these beliefs schemas. These are core beliefs that reflect how we feel about ourselves; one example might be “I am unlovable.” Someone with this schema may not go around actually saying that, but might go around saying something to the effect of “I’m unattractive” or “no one would ever really want to have a relationship with a person like me.” These thoughts, many of which were formulated in childhood are based on some of those awful early childhood experiences and can last well into our adulthood. So how could a few positive affirmations possibly have a chance against the power of a lifetime-full of traumatic childhood memories? So, where is the power? The power is in stopping these automatic thoughts. CBT is all about learning how to identify “automatic negative thoughts,” which we all have by the way, and, to STOP THEM! No, I didn’t say it was easy, however, it is effective. Many studies have shown that whether people with mild to moderate depression participate in CBT, go on psychotropic medications (anti-depressants) or do both, the outcome is the same; within four to six weeks their mood improves! Why? Not because the individual is thinking positively, but because he is thinking less negatively, negative thoughts lead to negative feelings, which lead to a negative mood. This mood over time can lead to clinical depression. CBT works, so here are ten helpful tips to help you think less negatively; and, improve your mood at the same time!
Tip # 1 Stop taking everything so personally!
“Personalizing” means thinking that all situations and events revolve around you! Yes, we all like to have a sense of “specialness” but this desire can be our downfall. For instance, you’re at work, in a meeting, and while giving your presentation you see several co-workers whispering and rolling their eyes. For many of us, we automatically have that negative thought “they must hate my presentation, they think it’s stupid, I’ve made a fool of myself.” When in reality there are other possibilities: they may be just plain rude, period; They may all be focused on their own automatic negative self-thoughts about how their presentations can’t possibly measure up to yours; Or, someone may have told a joke, passed gas or have their fly unzipped. The point is, it’s not always about you, so stop taking everything so personally.
Tip #2 Stop Catastrophising!
Catastrophising is when you continually attribute extreme, horrible consequences to the outcomes of events. For instance, you ask the cute guy at the gym for his phone number and he politely declines. You then go home and tell your roommate that you think you’re headed for a life filled with utter desolation, emotional and sexual unfulfillment and have indeed realized that life may possibly not be worth living. Get over yourself! He may have a lover, he may have just broken up with a boyfriend, or he may be having a herpes outbreak and would have said yes otherwise. The world is not going to end; You will meet another man, STOP CATASTROPHISING!
Tip #3 Labels are for canned goods!
Don’t label or mislabel people or situations. Labeling or mislabeling often involves language that is colorful and/or emotionally loaded. When your boss gives you a suggestion on how to improve your work, your thinking “he’s a jerk” or “I’m a loser” never helps. Take what’s helpful information, and throw away what’s not, including the label.
Tips # 4 Stop Magnifying (the negative) & #5 Minimizing (the positive)!
Don’t magnify bad or minimize good situations! Example: Your roommate tells you that the shirt you’re wearing really shows off your biceps but he thinks another pair of jeans would look better with the shirt. You in turn minimize his comment on the shirt by not even acknowledging the compliment, and respond to it with something to the effect of “So you think these jeans make me look like I have a fat ass?”. A better response might be “thanks, I really like this shirt too, what might match it better? My baggy jeans from the gap, or my old faded pair from Eddie Bauer?” This is one scenario where it is definitely okay to emphasize the positive as the song goes, and DON’T magnify the negative, especially when it doesn’t even exist. This is called paranoia, but that’s another disorder and another article.
Tip #6 Stop Overgeneralizing!
Overgeneralizing is when you see one negative event as a never-ending pattern. Remember junior high sports? How many of us still attribute those adolescent disappointments to today’s events? For instance, you get asked out for a game of tennis and respond with “Oh, I was terrible at sports in high school, no thanks” meanwhile your thoughts are going off in even worse directions. You find yourself thinking, “why should tennis be any different, I can’t play sports, in fact, I just suck at everything I ever try.” This is a perfect example where a positive affirmation such as “I see myself as an excellent tennis player” would not work. But, stopping yourself from overgeneralizing would work, because the truth is, even if you do suck at tennis, there are a lot of things in life you’re really good at. Don’t forget it!
Tip # 7 Stop that All or nothing thinking!
I once facilitated a singles group for gay men where one of the participants made a comment to the effect “If I can’t have Antonio Sabato Jr., then I don’t want anyone at all.” And he wondered why he was single? Life is made up of shades of gray; Few situations or people are ever black and white. Don’t allow your thinking to polarize you into no win situations. The fact of the matter is that the gay community is made up of a wide array of men. For the same percentages of men who look like Antonio, there are an equal percentage of those who look like Quasimoto, and the truth is, there are a lot of wonderful men somewhere in between.
Tip # 8 Don’t Mind-Read! (Unless you qualify as a potential employee for the Psychic Hotline)
How many times have we come home from a party where no one spoke to us and we said to ourselves “ Everyone there thought I was fat and ugly!” Now, we all know gay male couples whom we feel are “mismatched” couples, you know, the one where one of them looks like the Calvin Klein underwear model and his partner looks like Shelley Winters. There is no accounting for taste. Who are you to project your negative self-thoughts into the mind of another? Maybe no one at the party spoke to you because you didn’t speak to anyone else? It couldn’t possibly have been that scowl on your face.
Tip # 9 Stop Comparing! (his apples, your oranges…whose are bigger?)
If every 55-year-old woman in this country went around obsessing “Cher has a better figure than mine.” Well…there would be an entire generation of middle-aged women flinging themselves into the Grand Canyon. We all have different body types, different temperaments, and different communication styles. Save the comparison shopping for the super market and focus on being your own personal “marketing expert”, accentuate your good traits and don’t put any energy into what you feel aren’t your best assets; Unless of course you’re willing to do something about them.
Tip # 10 Stop Your Negative Mental Filter!
Having a negative mental filter is when you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it to the point where all of your reality becomes darkened by this view. It’s just the opposite of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. The more you dwell on your negative thoughts the more you develop a negative view of yourself, others and the future. This is known as the negative cognitive triangle; And, it leads to depression. Cynicism and pessimism are traits that cause stress and only lead to a downward mood spiral as well. So, one last time, I’m not saying, “If you can’t think positively…” What I’m saying is, don’t worry about thinking positively, just worry about not thinking negatively. This takes constant work; this is one of the reasons why people go into therapy, to get coaching on how to retrain their natural (negative) thought patterns. A therapist can serve as a coach. You can change your thinking with help, or alone. So remember, if you follow these ten tips to stopping those damn negative and persistent thought patterns you’ll find that your mood and outlook will improve. You can do this, how do I know you can? Because you’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggonnit, people like you!
About the Author
Tony Zimbardi, PSY.D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hollywood. He held the mental health chair on the L.A. County Commission on HIV and was board president of Being Alive, L.A. Tony Zimbardi can be reached via his website: www.drtonyzimbardi.com