When we’re in a negative thought spiral, it can feel like there’s no way out.
“No one’s going to read this. Why am I bothering to write it?”
If you find yourself stuck in negative thinking, know that you’re not alone. Almost everyone struggles with negative thoughts and self-doubt, almost all the time. We compare ourselves to others and come up short, at least in our minds. We see good numbers in our Google Analytics and tell ourselves it’s just spam bots. We get new clients or customers and decide it’s only a matter of time before we let them down.
We’re better than that. But the more we get stuck in our spiral of negative thoughts, the truer they become. If you constantly think you’re going to let your customers down, you will. Negative thinking and constant self-doubt lead to blocked creativity and insane stress.
And here’s the thing: according to psychotherapist Bryan Robinson, negativity has a longer shelf life than positivity. It takes three positive thoughts to overcome just one negative one. So we need to learn to rejig our thinking patterns, identify our bad thought behaviour and feed ourselves some positivity.
If you’re feeling stuck and like there’s no way out, here’s some small, actionable ways you can start to shift your negative thoughts.
Look for the positive takeaways
When you receive a lot of revisions on a project, it can feel a little deflating. I’ve seen and heard people getting so bogged down in feedback that they either decide they’re useless and can’t do the job, or they palm it off on the client as being “too difficult”. But in reality, feedback is amazing. Embrace it!
Feedback and revisions on a project gives you something new to learn. Maybe there’s a different way of doing things. Maybe you’re getting insight into a new audience or industry. And maybe you can take all of that feedback and develop a new skill to build into your portfolio.
And this is true of real life as well. Maybe you had a terrible date, but you found a wonderful new café.
Learning is key to life – it makes us stronger and wiser.
Focus on the solution
When things get tough, it’s so easy to get caught up in the problem.
I recently had a couple of sizeable invoices fall overdue. I emailed the clients and kept getting the good old “I’ll let you know when I have an update”. They were getting stressed by my emails, I was getting frustrated by theirs. Rent was nearing due… It would have been so easy to get caught up in the problem.
But focusing on the problem, doesn’t solve anything. It simply increases our stress and frustration, and delivers spiralling negative thinking patterns. Fun times! (So not!)
Instead, focus on the solution. Step back and craft a new plan of attack.
In my case, I reached out to someone else I knew in the organisation – not even related to the project – and voila! Things are moving and I now know when that payment’s coming in.
Identify the opportunity
You know that fear that encompasses you when you’re asked to pitch on a project a little outside your comfort zone? Or when you’re asked to get up on stage and you’re so not comfortable with public speaking. Or maybe you even need to get in front of the camera when you’re far happier behind it. That’s your brain protecting you. It’s a fabulous physiological reaction (known as “fight or flight”) developed to encourage us to get the hell out of there when a lion has decided to snack on our legs, but it’s not so useful in everyday life now.
Recognise the feeling for what it is, then look back to the challenge at hand. Instead of thinking about it as a whole, break it down into tiny little pieces. If you’re giving a presentation, for example, look at all the individual pieces of that – the idea, the slides, the design, the promotion, the goal, and the presentation itself – and create a plan of attack. And check in on what opportunities you have to learn along the way. By focusing on learning instead, you’ll strengthen your skills and resilience, and get through it fabulously. (Invite me! I want to hear you speak!)
My old boss used to say to me “Change is the only constant”. I hated that saying. For me, change meant a desk move, a reorg or a change to my job’s scope. And looking back, it wasn’t the change that was a problem for me (except for desk moves – that always broke me), it was the unknowns – what’s going to happen, when and why?
So when change starts staring you in the face and you’re feeling the tension, step back and examine what the problem really is. Is it that you don’t like learning new things (which, let’s be honest, is a problem), or that you don’t know what’s on the other side of the impending change?
If there’s no way you can see into the future or be a part of the decisions, like I couldn’t when my boss was repeating her favourite saying, look to other ways to manage your stress and stay relaxed. Practice positive affirmations (you can cope with anything life throws at you – you’re still here, aren’t you?), meditation or mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation or take a quiet coffee break in the sun to find a piece of calm each day.
Befriend the positive people
Years ago I worked with a guy who smiled so much and so widely it was creepy. If he loved you, he smiled. If he hated you, he smiled. If he was happy, if he was angry, if he was homicidal, he smiled.
He’s not what I mean by the positive people.
I’ve spoken about the importance of finding your tribe – people who life you up, challenge you to up your game, and celebrate your wins with you. These are the people you need. If you’re constantly finding yourself feeling negative after a catch up with someone, consider that maybe they don’t belong in your tribe.
Here’s a trick my friend shared with me the other day: Say you haven’t seen someone for a month. How do you feel? “OMG! I must see them soon!”, “Ehh, whatever” or “Thank goodness!”. It’s the OMG people you want in your life.
Haven’t found your tribe yet? Join some online communities. Hit up Facebook and do a search for your interests. Check out meetup for opportunities. Look for your local community centre or join a class. I promise you, there are more like-minded people out there than you could ever imagine.
Replace one negative with three positives
Shit day? Feel like everyone’s against you? They aren’t.
Once we’re in a negative thought spiral, we look at everything negatively. It’s like the anti-rose-tinted lenses. And that just makes everything worse and causes us to blow things way out of proportion – whether in our own heads or by taking things out on those around us.
Keep an eye out for when your mood shifts to try to avoid getting into that negative spiral in the first place, practicing replacing each negative thought with three positive ones.
Change “I’m no good at this” into
- “I’ve done related things very well before”,
- “I’ve proven I can succeed at new tasks” and
- “I love that I have the opportunity to learn something new”
Recognise other people are human too
Never forget that other people are human too. Just as you have negative thoughts, so do they. Just as you go through life’s ups and downs, so do they. Take that into account when you have negative thoughts about someone’s behaviour.
If a colleague you usually get along with was short and abrupt with you, don’t let your brain jump to thoughts about how you may have offended or upset them. Instead, remember they’re human. They’re probably under a lot of pressure or just having a really shit day.
If you’re regularly finding yourself struggling with negative thinking, please go and speak with your GP and consider connecting with a psychologist. I do, and it helps. And if you want some further support, I highly recommend Change Your Thinking by Sydney clinical psychologist Sarah Edelman.