Mental Health

4 Ways To Break Free From Negative Thinking

Our brains automatically create stories to process our life experiences, but when those subconscious narratives veer into negative thinking, they can dial up worry, fear and self-doubt. The good news: Experts say it’s easy to ‘rewrite’ your inner script to feel more confident and hopeful — in minutes!

You’re enjoying a walk in the park on a beautiful spring day, when an older couple strolls by, holding hands. Touched by the way they look at each other, you smile, only to feel your expression quickly fade.

That’ll never be me, you think. After a difficult divorce, you’re convinced you’re not “meant” to find love. But this story is just that: a false narrative that threatens to “write off” future joy.

“We are born storytellers,” declares psychology professor Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., author of the textbook Family Narratives and the Development of an Autobiographical Self. “The combination of facts and context that create the scripts we tell ourselves is called our ‘narrative identity.’ ” Trouble is, when that subconscious autobiography is distorted by negative thinking, our stress increases and our confidence wanes.

What’s more, larger cultural stories can influence our personal narrative, says Elizabeth Lesser, author of When Cassandra Speaks (Buy on Amazon, $19). “A lot of old stories, from Greek myths to fairy tales, still cling to us,” she says. “Women are often punished for having a voice, while men go on a hero’s journey.”

The solution: By simply asking, Is this really true? when we have a negative belief about ourselves, we can challenge the story that makes us feel we’re not good enough, says Fivush.

Read on for more ways to quickly “edit out” these untruths, melt stress, and start each new chapter with joy.

Do you believe you’re unworthy? Quiet your critical narrator.

After years volunteering at an animal shelter, you’re asked to plan a fundraiser. But you’re sure it will expose you as incompetent. One of the biggest fictions women tell themselves is that they’re a “fraud.” In fact, this story has a title: imposter syndrome. Says Lesser, “So many cultural narratives have eroded our belief in ourselves.”

When you feel unworthy, remind yourself you’re in great company. “My favorite thing to do that’s worked for me is to check out how many other women deal with imposter syndrome,” says Lesser. “Even after writing 12 books, Maya Angelou still struggled with it.” The idea that you can get rid of it completely only makes you feel like a failure when self-doubt starts to creep in, she says. “Instead, tell your critical inner narrator, Oh, there you are again. That’s okay, I’m going to get to work anyway.” Another way to revise your script: “I write lists of the greatest books ever written, not by men, but by women — it reminds me that we can be the heroes we look to.”

Do you dread what’s next? Look to your future self.

In the wake of a layoff, you’re anxious about the future. “In every good story, the hero faces a challenge and we root for them to grow,” says Kim Schneiderman, author of Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life (Buy on Amazon, $11). “Yet we rarely apply that lens to our lives, downplaying our growth, while overestimating obstacles.”

To take your story in a new direction, think of it as a novel. “Jot down eight to 10 sentences summarizing your current chapter and give it a title, like ‘New Start,’” says Schneiderman. Then look ahead to the rest of your story. What do you want your life to look like? Rather than answer in the first person, start with she. “This lets you be more compassionate with yourself.” You might write, She finally makes more time for herself. Picturing your future helps you see each chapter as part of a larger narrative and combat negative thinking. No single setback defines you, because you are constantly writing your story.

Do you feel invisible? Rediscover your purpose.

A recent empty nester, you’re lonely and feel a bit invisible at times. When we don’t feel seen, we can lose sight of our narrative identity, says Daniel Amen, M.D., author of Your Brain Is Always Listening: Tame the Hidden Dragons That Control Your Happiness, Habits, and Hang-Ups (Buy on Amazon, $20). But discovering the purpose, or “plot,” of your story makes you feel happier and more connected.

Boost your sense of self by jotting down five questions, urges Dr. Amen. Start with a no-brainer: What’s my name? It sounds simple, but writing it instantly grounds you. Next, What do I love to do? Instead of a job, answer in terms of how you make people feel. If you’re a teacher, you might write that you help kids feel confident. Then ask, Whom do I do it for? What do they need from me? and finally, How do they change as a result of what I do? “It’s telling that three of these questions are about others,” says Dr. Amen. When your story shifts outward, you’re able to see your impact on the world. “This writing exercise eases loneliness by connecting you to people and your purpose.”

Are you reeling from regret? Uncover redemption.

As you look back on your unfolding life story, you start to regret a few paths not taken. If you think of them as self-fulfilling prophecies (I’ll never succeed; I won’t find love), this negative thinking can contaminate your future, explains Fivush. But if you’re able to look back and find silver linings, they become redemptive narratives, boosting your confidence and restoring your faith in yourself.

Relegate regret to the margins of your story by rewriting the past. “Ask yourself if there’s any meaning you can mine from these events.” urges Fivush. Then journal about them in short bouts, just a few minutes a day, because thinking too much about the past can trigger stress and rumination. “Research shows that we get the most benefits from this kind of expressive writing when we use ‘cognitive process words,’ that show we’re reinterpreting an event in a new way, such as I realize; I understand; I think.” These prompts allow us to create a “reevaluation narrative,” something we can analyze rationally. Once you gain some distance and perspective, you’ll be able to find the meaning in every chapter and write your next one, confident that you are the true author of your story.

This story originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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