It's easier to recall negative thoughts and memories than positive ones. And the more we recall those negative thoughts, the more they stick with us. Suppose you feel like an idiot because of a dumb mistake at work. You keep telling yourself you're an idiot. Soon you start to believe it's the truth.
This is obviously an unproductive way of thinking. Convincing yourself you're an idiot does nothing to help you tackle your next hurdle. Now for the good news. There's a way to snap out of it and train your brain to stop doubting yourself.
It's called cognitive reappraisal. It's not necessarily about replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones. It's about doing a reality check so your brain starts to understand those nagging negative thoughts have no ground to stand on. Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein wrote about the science behind this flavor of mindfulness.
"People who do this have better mental health and more life satisfaction, and even better-functioning hearts, research shows," Bernstein writes. "The result will be stronger neural networks devoted to positive thoughts, or a happier brain." For her WSJ piece, Bernstein consulted neuroscientists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and brain researchers for their best cognitive reappraisal tips. These are their recommended try-it-at-home techniques you can put into practice right now.
1. Put it in writing.
This is an exercise in awareness. By writing down the negative thoughts you're thinking, you'll be forced to articulate and acknowledge them. Be sure to identify what triggered the negative thinking. Writing down what you're thinking and exactly why will be a cathartic brain dump.
2. Question reality.
Flip the thought into a question, then try to answer it. Back to the idiot thing. Instead of repeating to yourself, "I'm an idiot," ask yourself, "Am I an idiot?" Look for the answer.
Bernstein writes that you likely won't find supporting evidence, because negative thoughts are not based on reality. Next, look for answers that prove the question wrong. You'll likely find plenty of examples that prove you're not an idiot. Build yourself up with reinforcing evidence that everything you do is not idiotic.
3. Keep at it.
Feel like steps one and two just aren't working? Keep practicing. If you feel consumed by a negative thought, write it down. Then challenge it. Do it again and again.
Just as you need to train your body for a big race, you need to train your mind to channel your negative thoughts in a new and more productive way.
4. Pretend you're someone else.
We are our own biggest critics. To distance yourself from the negativity, pretend you're a good friend. This friend is exactly the same as you, with the same day-to-day challenges and negative thoughts. But she is looking for some affirmation.
You wouldn't tell this friend she's failing at all aspects of life. You'd find affirmations to dispute the negativity. Whatever you'd tell that friend, tell yourself.
5. Take it to the extreme.
What's the most extreme example of this particular negative thought? Blow things totally out of proportion and you'll gain some perspective.
Bernstein's suggestion is a humorous one: "If there was a loser Olympics, you'd win 10 gold medals. Time magazine would put your face on the cover, under the headline: 'Biggest Loser on Earth.'" Exaggerating helps you realize how pointless the negative thought is in the first place.
6. Distract yourself.
Still can't shake the negativity? Channel your energy into doing something else completely unrelated to this thought or situation. Switch gears to a different project or even get up and move to a different room. Force yourself to think about something else entirely.
Your brain won't be able to focus on the negative thought once it's wrapped up in a new task.