I often find myself distracted by negative thinking.
Like a dark, gray cloud that temporarily blocks light from the sun then falls into the earth as rain, I try my best to observe the thoughts in my mind that temporarily come and go.
But sometimes I fall short. In times of distress and confusion, my negative thoughts tend to escalate and burn me out. My anxiety skyrockets and I lie awake at night catastrophizing.
I know I’m not the only one. We have thousands of thoughts that cross our minds every day, and though most of them are likely to be negative, it’s normal. What’s not normal, however, is when our negative thoughts become toxic and interfere with our emotional and physical health.
We believe them to be true, which often leads to even more toxic thinking.
How do we recognize toxic thinking? It’s usually distorted, which means it encompasses many different facts that are ambiguous, and it’s unhelpful, which means it negatively affects the way we feel and behave without adding anything consequential to our lives. Moreover, we might feel stuck and easily jump to conclusions that aren’t entirely true.
A healthy pattern of thinking, on the other hand, is rational, steady, balanced, and doesn’t discount facts. More importantly, it keeps us emotionally healthy and happy and doesn’t burn us out.
If we want to stop toxic thinking from easily spiraling, we need to identify the thoughts that are stopping us from leading happy, healthy lives.
Here are some of them:
1. Worrying about the future. We often believe that worrying is helpful. We think that if we keep thinking about a problem, two things might happen: we either find a positive solution and put our minds at rest, or imagine the worst-case scenario and brace ourselves for disappointment. The truth is we will never know what a certain outcome will make us feel or do, and whether we like it or not, worrying won’t reduce the emotional and mental impact of an unwanted situation.
2. Expecting too much of ourselves and others. When we constantly set unrealistic expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointment and burnout. We interfere with our and other people’s genuine abilities and gifts. That’s why we have to understand that our expectations shape our reality; we can easily ruin it with a few negative thoughts. That said, stay away from the shoulds and musts and be open to new possibilities.
3. Negative mental filtering. Sometimes we tend to focus on a single negative detail and filter out all of the positive ones so we can make peace with what’s unsatisfying. But we will never find peace through ignoring the good. Mental filtering might trigger depression, anxiety, or burnout because it’s mentally exhausting to keep thinking about what went wrong or could have gone right.
4. Expecting to do everything right. As someone who usually seeks perfectionism, I know how tiring it is to keep setting unrealistic goals for ourselves. While the idea of doing something perfectly might be motivating, the truth is that it leads to stress and anxiety. If we want to be happier, we need to lower our standards so we can do brilliant work.
5. Relying too much on mind reading. Assuming what’s happening in another’s mind and heart can wreak havoc on our happiness and energy. It also leads to miscommunication and misunderstandings that can sabotage our relationships. When we read other people’s minds, we put them into boxes and judge them for something they might have never considered. Instead of thinking you understand someone or something, revert to communication.