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Finding the Positive in the Negative: What’s So Good About Negative Thinking?

Many psychological therapists, counsellors & mental health professionals use the term ‘negative thoughts’ to describe unpleasant patterns of thinking. Such thoughts may include catastrophising type thoughts, thoughts predicting worst-case scenarios, thoughts that disqualify the positives in our lives & thoughts that focus on past negative events. A common approach employed by such mental health professionals is to encourage clients to stop, change or modify ‘negative thoughts’- usually to more ‘positive thoughts’. Such an approach is based on the premise that negative thinking is bad, abnormal & a cause of emotional problems. This premise is communicated to clients in sessions as well as to the lay population through pop psychology meme’s & social media content.

The promotion of negative thoughts as abnormal & faulty, & therefore as something to get rid of, however communicates a wider message to the client & to the population as whole- ‘the experience of negative thoughts is abnormal, therefore there is something wrong with you’. Further to therapy approach communicates that all you have to do is get rid of your negative thoughts & replace them with positive thoughts to feel better.

Understandably, this all seems logical & on the surface appears to makes sense. As humans our external world tells us that if we have problem then we need to find a solution. If we don’t like something then we should get rid of it or change it. For example if we don’t like the song on the radio station then we change the station or turn the radio off. However when we apply these strategies to our inner world they don’t work as well; in fact they can actually be counter-productive. Often the more we try not to think about a thought the more we end up actually thinking about that thought thus creating even more distress. This is called the ‘rebound effect & there’s a very good reason that it exists.

It may not feel like it at times, but our negative thoughts are constantly trying to help & protect us. Thoughts are a crucial part of our survival system; their job is to learn from past dangers & warn us of potential current & future threats. They operate on the principle ‘it is better to be safe than sorry’, erring on the side of caution & generating worst-case scenario principles. Naturally this produces what we refer to as ‘negative thoughts’. However our ancestors would have used this style of thinking when walking through the forest- assuming any rustle in the bushes was a dangerous predator & therefore preparing them to take action to stay safe. This style of thinking was therefore very helpful in terms of ensuring our survival as a human race. Those who did not think in such a way & instead utilised ‘positive thinking’ styles (for example assumed the rustle was a cute fluffy bunny rabbit) would likely have been more vulnerable to predators & would have perished. Therefore ‘positive thinking styles’ would have died out along with those that utilised them.

Therefore negative thinking is not only normal, it is needed!

Everyone has negative thoughts. If they didn’t they would not be alive today. Negative thinking is your brain working well & doing exactly what it is meant to do- look for danger & keep you safe. Telling those who experience negative thoughts to ‘simply’ replace them with positive thoughts or to ‘ignore’ them is not only an ineffective strategy for many leading to exacerbated feelings of failure & abnormality, it is potentially a harmful practice that perpetuates unhelpful cultural discourses that move people away from understanding how our brains are set-up, the survival & protection role of ‘negative’ thoughts & feelings & what contributes to/maintains distress.

Communicating to clients & the wider population that negative thoughts are abnormal is a form of social injustice – promoting the idea that the person is faulty

So if we were to accept that negative thoughts are a normal & needed part of our experience, what would this mean for managing them & their accompanying distress? Well rather than changing them, we focus on changing our relationship to them. First we learn to recognise that a thought is just a thought. It is a mental event, words, bits of language, sentences, images etc. Just because we have the thought it does not mean it is an accurate reflection of reality. We can step out of automatic pilot mode & learn to observe our thoughts as just that- just thoughts.

Second, we learn to make room for them, accept their presence & use them as the messengers they are intended to be. If they provide us with a helpful message then we can listen to the thought & take helpful action. If the thoughts message is unhelpful then we can learn to let it go. Notice the use of the words ‘helpful / unhelpful’ here. Ultimately it does not matter if a thought is positive or negative, what matters is whether it enriches & improves our life. There are many negative thoughts that serve this purpose, for example the thought ‘I know nothing, I am going to fail my exams, I need to revise’ may lead to helpful actions such as studying, revising & passing ones exams. Conversely there are many positive thoughts that are unhelpful. For example the thought ‘I know everything I don’t need to study’ may lead to not revising & failing ones exams. Differentiating helpful from unhelpful thoughts can therefore help us to move forward with our life in meaningful ways, whilst reducing the overwhelming impact of more negative thoughts on our lives.

Learning to relate to thoughts differently, as friendly allies trying to keep us safe, can not only reduce the power they have over us it can help us to use them more effectively

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