Many people get stuck in negative thoughts, rumination and worry. When we think angry, anxious and bitter thoughts, we may find ourselves acting in ways that only make our problems worse. For example, you may find yourself in a pattern of self-recrimination, repetitive conflict or unhealthy eating in reaction to negative thinking.
Each of us makes sense of the world through our past experiences, internal expectations and beliefs about the world. We think about the events that occur in our lives and interpret their meaning based on our history, past learning and our own personal tendencies. Sometimes our thoughts about our lives serve us well. They help us maintain our moral compass, weather adversity, form strong relationships and find happiness.
When your thinking is making your life worse, rather than better, shifting how you view events in your life can have a big impact on changing how you feel.
Strategies to improve how you feel by changing how you think:
- Don’t approach interactions with the goal of explaining or convincing someone of your point-of-view. When you disagree with someone, instead of attempting to prove your viewpoint as “right,” attempt to see how both viewpoints may exist and hold truth.
- Try to find commonalities in seeming opposites. Although some things may appear to be mutually exclusive, search for how they are in fact a part of a whole. This might mean that you are both materialistic (interested in having new things) and at the same time concerned for the environment. It could mean that you are light hearted and serious, forgiving and angry, doing your best and needing to do better. On the surface these may appear to contradictory, but they are all part of a whole.
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- Give up on a search for one final indisputable truth. Think of all the times in history when we believed we knew the truth—that the world was flat, that Vikings wore horns on their helmets, that Crisco was a healthy alternative to butter, that women don’t have the intellectual capacity to vote, that the earth was the center of the universe. Acknowledge that our sense of “truth” evolves over time. Allow yourself to loosen your hold on any “truths” that may change with time and circumstances.
- Let go of extreme language. The words that we use have an impact on how we feel. Using words such as never, always, must, should, shouldn’t, fair, unfair, ideal –increases the emotional intensity of your thoughts and narrows your attention, making it more likely that you will have faulty or exaggerated views. Think, instead in terms of sometimes, often, helpful, unhelpful, effective, mistake, and interest. Allow yourself to think about what works, rather than how things “should be.”
- Remember that all interactions occur in a social world. We have personal control over what we do, but we are influenced by our past experiences and our current life circumstances. Someone who grew up in poverty might have very different views of money, for example, than someone who grew up with great wealth. Each person’s view developed based on these very different experiences are neither right nor wrong. Rather they are different based on each person’s history. When you interact with others, don’t assume that their social context and therefore their beliefs developed in the same way that yours did. Focus on accepting that despite our ability to think and act rationally, we are all influenced by our environments. When you interpret someone’s behavior remember that it occurs in a context and that you can never fully know that context. Although it’s different from yours, other viewpoints can hold personal truth.
If you feel stuck in a narrow set of beliefs or expectations, find yourself in repetitive patterns of conflict with others or find that you are stressed, anxious or fearful much of the time, changing your thoughts might have a big impact on changing how you feel.