Imagine for a moment that the negative thoughts running wild in your brain played like a country song on repeat. Would any of the songs have titles like these?
- “She Don’t Think My Beard Is Sexy”
- “All Alone Again (In My Truck)”
- “My Guitar Only Has Three Strings”
- “My Love (and My Tractor’s) Tank Are Outta Gas”
- “The Short End of the Stick (Life Ain’t Fair)”
- “Failing Like Roadkill”
- “Little Doggie, I’m So Miserable Without You”
- “Stuck in This Here Town”
- “Like Me Please, ‘Cuz I Don’t Like Myself”
- “What I Want Don’t Matter (All I Want Is a New Rig)”
- “Stop Feeling That Feeling I Feel”
- “Gotta Be Perfect (Hat, Boots, and All)”
- “Can’t Slow Down This Fast Train”
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how much you like/dislike country music), negative thoughts don’t sound twangy, musical, or even remotely playful when they’re happening. Instead, they tend to evoke anxiety, sadness, disappointment, guilt, anger, or shame.
Like a good country song, however, our negative thoughts tend to have a repetitive “hook”–a chorus (or negative theme) that plays over and over again on repeat. Most of us aren’t super creative with our negative thoughts. They tend to be the same variations of ten (often much fewer) repetitious themes.
THE REALITY IS: We don’t have as much control over our thinking as some would like to believe. Most of us do not on-purpose sit there thinking, “Man, now would be a good time to think really crappy things about myself.” No, the thoughts just happen, all on their own. Often, the thoughts are on autopilot, automatic responses born out of habit, not intention.
What then can be done with negative thoughts? Here are two practical solutions:
- ENGAGE IN A FULL-ON RAP BATTLE WITH THE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Some of the negative thoughts we experience are not fully accurate, truthful, or likely. It can be confusing, because in the moment, most of negative thoughts sound true and feel true. However, feeling something is true does not make that thought true. Emotionally-laden thoughts can be skewed toward the negative similar to how a fun-house mirror that takes the image of a person and distorts it grotesquely.
Listen to the lyrics of one verse of Hank Williams’ classic country song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry:”
“I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry”
Most of our negative thoughts are not nearly so poetic; however, they do often apply similar distorted tactics– Generalization and Magnification. The feeling of loneliness is real, raw, and genuine. Though the feeling grows to new proportions when the thought is amplified to include something much broader; in this case–the whole world seems lonely (time, the moon, etc.). Do your negative thoughts do something like this? Do they:
- Overgeneralize: “always” or “never”
- Make Things Personal
- Magnify or Catastrophize
- Label: “stupid”, “lazy,” “ugly”
- Attempt to foresee the future (except in an apocalyptic, pessimistic way)
- Filter out the Positive
- Shame you for what you SHOULD be doing, but you’re NOT
If so, it might be time to sass those thoughts back with thoughts that are more true, balanced, or at least neutral.
TIP: Don’t just let that negative thought on repeat have its way with you. Talk back! Engage those thoughts in a RAP BATTLE.
In a traditional rap battle (if something like that can be called “traditional”), rappers will take turns taking jabs at each other (in a rhyming fashion). You don’t need to be quite so creative. You can also hold back from belittling the negative thought like a rapper would. Instead, talk back to your negative thoughts with more accurate statements. Battle back with TRUTH. You might not be able to control the first thought that comes into your mind, but you do have some say over the second thought.
If you’d like help talking back to your chorus of negative thoughts, a counselor trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help. There are also great books that can guide you, including “Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger and “Feeling Good” by David Burns.
2. THINK OF NEGATIVE THOUGHTS LIKE FAMILIAR ELEVATOR MUSIC & RELEGATE THEM TO THE BACKGROUND
Here’s another approach to handling negative thoughts that comes from a therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
What if we were to think of thoughts like music playing in the background of an elevator. Just like with elevator music, you are not always the DJ controlling the content or volume of your thoughts. If you were the DJ, certainly you’d flip the “off” switch and opt for some silence! If your thoughts aren’t responding to the RAP BATTLE APPROACH described above, perhaps this next idea might be for you.
Try it: Write out a list of your most frequent negative thoughts. Group similar ones together. Is there as much variety as you were expecting? I bet you could make a playlist of your own that would be shorter than your average country music album.
If you experience the same negative thoughts, over and over, some of the best things you can do are:
- Recognize them (“Oh I’m having that thought again”)
- Name them (“That’s the ‘I’m a failure’ thought.”)
- Simply acknowledge that this is “a thing” your brain does in response to certain triggers.
- Allow the thought to just be a thought. Don’t give it power by digging deeper. Digging deeper = Looking for further evidence that the thoughts is true, wise, actionable, real.
- Don’t allow the thought to dictate your actions. You can hear the music playing in the background and still move forward toward your goals and act according to your values. Sometimes the volume of the negative thoughts is loud and distracting, sometimes attempting to demand your full attention. Nonetheless, negative thoughts do not have to define a person or their behaviors.
If you’d like help with your intrusive negative thoughts, a professional therapist may be able to help. The counselors at Star Meadow Counseling are trained in helping clients shift out of negative thought patterns. You don’t have to stay stuck on repeat.