Practically Positive: How to Change Toxic Thoughts
Combat anxious escalation, self-defeating soundtracks, and other toxic thought patterns by subtly changing the way you think.
Six years ago corporate-speak crept into my life. Problems don’t exist in corp-speak. There are only “challenges” or “opportunities.” Losing a client is an opportunity to refine your sales pitch. Losing your lease is an opportunity to conduct business in a parking lot.
Part of me cringes, but another part appreciates the empowerment that this shift in focus provides.
The 12-step philosophy is not that different. Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Getting dumped is an opportunity to learn how to experience pain.
When rapid, repetitive, negative thoughts overcome me—as in visions of losing my job, my sanity, and my collection of rhinestone earrings—they scream “problem” to me because I know depression looms around the corner.
Yet I can choose to see cataclysmic thoughts as an “opportunity” to take inventory and ask myself whether I need more sleep, more exercise, less busyness, less stimulation, or all those things.
Sometimes catastrophic thinking isn’t my problem, though. Sometimes it’s those “you are such a loser” and “why bother?” thoughts. These days, I can spot self-defeating thinking in the landscape of my head and defuse it with corrective reasoning. I couldn’t always.
During my eighth (and last) hospitalization, the homelessness I had managed to achieve at the age of 26 turned out to be an advantage: It rated me intensive after-care that included weekly visits with a graduate student in psychology.
In the middle of a session with her, I became aware that the cruel, disparaging words of a former guardian were playing a low-volume, nonstop soundtrack in my mind. Once I dredged those words from my subconscious, I could challenge them.
My therapist gave me another useful weapon against negative thoughts: gratitude. During one session while in the throes of depression, I moaned that my company was moving in a few months and I had to find another job. I can still hear her saying, “Don’t focus on what you don’t have. Focus on what you do have. It will make you feel a lot better.”
She continued, “Today you have a place to live. You have a job. You are functioning.” She made me realize that I took those things for granted. I was too busy reminding myself of all that I had lost—a career in journalism, a boyfriend, a clear path to a promising future, and my designer sunglasses.
Now I try to remember Maya Angelou’s words as quoted by Oprah Winfrey, “Say ‘thank you.’ There is always something for which to give thanks.”
Saying “thank you,” if only to the universe, is certainly quicker than kvetching. Considering I only have a few hours a month to spend with adult friends, I hate to waste them reciting a litany of disappointments.
Mentally listing positive things in my life has become a powerful tool for ridding myself of negative thoughts. However, what runs through my mind doesn’t necessarily run out of my mouth, especially when I’m tired.
A year ago, my 12-year-old daughter started charging me a quarter for every complaint. When she chose calculating the percentage of complaints I utter as the theme for her math project, I really got the message.
Sometimes she even calls me on my complaints-to-be.
“You are such a cry baby,” she said when I didn’t immediately leap up and locate the cookbook after she asked to bake brownies—10 minutes before bedtime.
“But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even roll my eyes,” I responded.
“I could feel your negative energy,” she countered.
When all else fails, it’s time for my new mantra: “Don’t think.”
Instead, I concentrate on a task or do something physical—tidy up, wash dishes or take a walk—to break the cycle of escalating, anxious “what ifs.”
Sometimes I simply pray to stop thinking. I pray for faith that I will have the strength to handle whatever comes my way—or at least find a way to laugh at myself.
Printed as “Practically Positive: How I Change My Mind”, Fall 2016