“Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles; it takes away today’s peace.”  Author unknown

My Journey
Thirty years ago, I lived with a host of negative thoughts that I couldn’t shut off no matter how hard I tried. After a childhood filled with poverty, abuse, violence, and addiction, I hated myself and was chronically depressed, anxious, sometimes suicidal, and addicted to compulsive over-eating.   
Fortunately, going to Overeaters Anonymous meetings and using the tools, especially reading and writing, led to what I call my “OA miracle.” When this happened, I realized that most of what was making me miserable were my own thoughts and my emotions about them and that nothing else COULD improve until I learned to control them. I began intensively monitoring my thoughts, debunking every negative thought every time it popped up, and identifying actions I could take to better cope with situations and events that triggered them.

After about two weeks of almost continually examining and debunking my thoughts in writing, my demons retreated. I was giddy with the pleasure of not suffering self-inflicted pain. I had to stay alert to avoid slipping back into negative mental habits, but this intense awareness reinforced my sense of being high on freedom. This doesn’t mean there were no more problems, but I could manage much better than ever before.

Although I sometimes had to remind myself that any form of negativity is a deceitful, unhelpful demon, these incidents have been infrequent, easily vanquished, and now, long gone. Just remembering that I don’t want to suffer self-inflicted pain is enough to break up even a hint of negative thinking.

My experience offers insights that can help others gain control and be happier, healthier, more focused, productive, and calm, and have greater confidence and coping skills. I do not think that because I was able to overcome negative thinking that everyone can, but write in hopes that my story will inspire others, demonstrate how this can be done, and give hope to those who are beset with difficulties.

The Process
Overcoming negative thoughts requires several steps:

There are two main methods of becoming aware of thoughts: writing and talking. Writing often reveals thoughts we didn’t know we had. Calm, reflective writing opens our psyche to see what is hiding below. In this state of reflection, we can give up long-standing beliefs and attitudes,  choose another path for our thoughts and life, and see how to make such change happen.

Talking also reveals beliefs we didn’t know that we have. This can be enlightening but can also lead to believing a statement is validly ours rather than a random idea that bubbled out of our mouth. If we don’t quickly recognize that we don’t really believe an idea or position, we may accept it as ours and defend it. Any belief we defend becomes more rooted in our minds and seems to belong there, even if it diverges from what we believed before. Caution is needed to prevent talking ourselves into a position that is not beneficial.

For both methods, there may be a tiny, fleeting moment when we perceive that something we said was not part of our previous thinking. If we catch it, we can correct it before it takes root.

I believe writing is better for personal change than talking because we can review what we wrote and evaluate it, and writing encourages looking at deeper layers of thoughts, motives, and emotions. Writing doesn’t create social expectations that we will have the same belief in a later conversation or pressure to conform to other’s beliefs. However, not everyone likes writing, so use whatever method works for you.

Beneficial vs. harmful thoughts
All harmful thoughts need to be eliminated, even if doing so requires a lot of work. Harmful thoughts include those putting ourselves or anyone else down, that is an ANT (automatic negative thought, discussed last month), or that does not support becoming healthier and stronger. Although all negative thoughts should ultimately be removed, it’s best to begin by attacking the easiest one(s).

What is the difference between a harmful negative thought and one that might prevent pain? ACTION. Rather than feeling self-pity or fear about what happens if change does not, a constructive negative thought drives creating a PLAN for beneficial change, dividing the work of change into TINY, achievable steps that build on each other. For example, saying “I am afraid of ending my days alone” may really mean “relationships and social contact are important to me but my behavior drives people away.” This awareness enables identifying behaviors that drive people away and look for ways to change them to build lasting relationships. (Other roots of such statements are possible so the correct one must be found.)

Evaluating negative thoughts requires considering four elements:

         - truth           - meaning            - value        - impact

Negative thoughts are usually not factually true or are so exaggerated that truth is lost. An example used before is the statement “I am a failure.” Aside from the reality that no one is a failure as long as they are still alive, this thought is incomplete – in what area of life (social, career, political, financial, romantic, or other) do you consider yourself a failure? Failing at all of them is unlikely. And failure how? Not achieving the level or kind of success you desired, or not having any success at all? Do others agree with your self-assessment?

People with low self-esteem typically discount their real successes and consider any achievement short of what they wanted or what others have done as failure. As an example, a common negative thought is “I can’t get anything done – I’m hopelessly disorganized.” This thought is false because it discounts everything you do that wasn’t living up to your expectations for what you “should” do. People apply many other negative thoughts to themselves, but none prove true when closely examined.

Figuring out the factual truth of our thoughts is essential, but emotions confuse our sense of reality and make evaluation difficult – a friend or service provider (therapist, nurse, or social worker) may be able to help figure out whether a thought is true or not. If there is no one available to discuss such painful matters with, be as objective as possible to stop useless negative thoughts from owning your mind.

The most difficult aspect of evaluating negative thoughts is that once they are accepted as true, the need to re-think whether they are actually true becomes invisible. We easily convict ourselves of failings we don’t have, sometimes ones that can’t possibly be true. (Alas, the reverse is also true – we are often blind to our real shortcomings.)

Words often don’t have the meaning we expect. For example, the word procrastination doesn’t describe a specific mental state or condition. It labels a behavior that results from a deeper condition. Whether the original condition was depression, fear, perfectionism, or some other problem, the word inflicts unnecessary pain without explaining anything. The word lazy also explains nothing. What causes the behavior?

Thoughts or statements putting yourself or others down have no value because they convey no benefit. No one’s life is improved by them. Negative statements that aren’t harmful are rare. Negative thoughts are a form of self-torture – self-inflicted wounds that don’t need to exist.

Evaluating the impact of these thoughts on your life is essential to feel motivated to work on fighting them. Negative thoughts about yourself cause reduced self-esteem which leads to depression, which reduces efforts to improve life. Low self-esteem can lead to hoarding and/or other addictions. Negative thoughts about others can lead to a sour outlook on life and impaired relationships. 

Choosing your thoughts requires challenging every negative thought that arises in your mind every time it pops up. Quickly applying as many strategies as are needed the instant a negative thought reaches your awareness will prevent it from taking over, developing justifications, or sounding more plausible every time it runs through your mind. Stopping harmful thoughts gets easier with practice.

Below are some techniques to gain control:
* Pay attention to your thoughts to catch when they start becoming negative so you can institute protective measures immediately.

* Evaluate negative thoughts to see how they are untruthful, if the words are correct and meaningful, if they have value, and how they impact your life. Writing out this evaluation will keep it available whenever you need it.

* Write about your thoughts: what caused them, what keeps them going, and how your life will change when your thoughts change.

* Prepare in advance to challenge negative thoughts you commonly have – if you wait until the thought takes over, you are less likely to beat it. Work out coping strategies for each negative thought you often have and practice using these strategies enough to be able to implement them on a moment’s notice.

* Keep your expectations realistic and be patient. Expecting change faster than is likely possible will undermine your determination to keep working. 

* These methods will help:

Neglecting sleep, healthy food, water, exercise, or deep relaxation makes preventing negative thoughts harder. Our bodies have limited ways of talking to us and their messages are often derailed by emotional distress, and the resulting physical discomfort causes further stress which makes us more susceptible to even more stress. Break this vicious circle by increasing self-care when you are under stress of any kind.  


The many benefits of choosing your thoughts are only available if you apply techniques of squashing negative thoughts every time they arise. In the words of the I Ching, “Even a single passion lurking in the heart has the power to destroy reason.” The passions are our demons, the negative thoughts and emotions that want to be in charge of our lives. Letting demons run your life will destroy happiness, peace of mind, and ability to fulfill your dreams. Working to control your thoughts is a small price for the benefits you will get and the pain you will prevent.


Previous | Next

© Gloria Valoris, 2015

Articles Index

Home | Newsletters and Articles | Services | Workshops | Resources | Contact

Office Organization | Time Management | File Systems | Hoarding