Table of Contents
- Who Has Negative Thoughts?
- Why Do We Have Negative Thoughts?
- How The Inner Critic is Good
- How The Inner Critic is Bad
- What To Do with Negative Thoughts?
Who Has Negative Thoughts?
I am going to guess that everybody has negative thoughts, at some point or another. I’m guessing because studies are fuzzy on the details. There is a widely quoted study, supposedly from the National Science Foundation, suggesting that we humans have 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, with 80% of these negative, and 95 % the same thoughts as we had the day before.
Another author claims there is no such study and that even Deepak Chopra took these statistics down from his site. Turns out I could not find the National Science Foundation either, but did find a Cleveland Clinic website putting it at 70,000 thoughts per day, and a relatively recent consensus across the internet at ~6,000 thoughts per day.
So let’s just say we have a lot of thoughts per day, and that just about everyone is doing it, e.g., 93.6% of participants in one study reported experiencing negative (“intrusive”) thoughts — some more than others for sure.
Not all unwanted thoughts are negative. Even something as neutral or even pleasant as what to put on your grocery list, yum, can be unwanted/intrusive if we are trying to take a timed exam or to focus on a task that we have to get done.
The negative thoughts are not just a distraction because they can affect our moods and our lives, and are thereby a central feature in mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and eating disorders.
But a lot of people are troubled by negative thinking even without a full-blown disorder. Why is that? Why is negative thinking so common? Why do have them at all?
Why Do We Have Negative Thoughts?
We have them because back in the day when the modern human brain was forming negativity helped us to survive and to thrive. If something pleasant came down the pike and we missed it, like a food opportunity, oh well there will be another. But if it was a predator and we missed it then we would be lunch.
So, our ancestors who were best at looking out for danger (negative thinking) were more likely to live to fight and procreate another day, and here we are all wired up with radar for negative people, places, and things to occur, even if they don’t.
That’s the evolutionary psychology point of view in a nutshell on what is called the “negativity bias,” well-known and well-used even by the 2023 World Economic Forum (WEF):
There is currently a “permacrisis” of disruption on every conceivable front, fueled by volcanic eruptions that have simmered beneath the surface for years. From human-induced trauma such as war, inflation and recession; to cybercrime and real-world malfeasance, they all coalesce into a cacophony of negativity…. Negativity bias is universal.
One recommendation from the WEF is that we try to replace ‘prediction’ about how terrible things are and are going to be with ‘conviction’ that hings can and will be better. Pointing out that some of the greatest companies were built during a recession, they add:
…this idea of conviction, of knowing what we are here to do, where we find our zest for life and how we get to apply that. As leaders, it’s our job to help marry individual purpose with institutional purpose — what you’re good at versus what the world needs — so people can find the right balance for themselves. This is what the ancient tradition of ikigai is really all about.
Change your mindset; change your life. Easier said than done because often enough there is a negative voice inside the head that is hard to get out. From an earlier post on The Inner Critic:
How The Inner Critic is Good
The Inner Critic (we’ll call it TIC) is the voice inside of your head that tells you, no matter how well you did, it was not good enough. In that way it motivates you always to do better. People say it spurred them on and got them where they are today.
On the other hand, it also tells you what you can’t do. It sees danger, failure, potential for humiliation…everywhere. So, it also protects you from making a complete fool, or failure, out of yourself.
Okay, so far so good. It spurs you on and keeps you out of harm’s way. Why would we want to give that up — even if we could, which we can’t because the negativity bias, which has helped us to survive and to thrive, is hardwired in.
How The Inner Critic is Bad
Yeah but, left to its own devices, it can become so loud in your life that you can begin to trust it more than you trust yourself. Or, worse, you get to where you don’t even know the difference between it and yourself. This is how and when the suffering really sets in. And it is bad.
The voice may have started up outside of you. Maybe it was an overbearing parent who meant well but overshot. Too much of a good thing, we could say. Or maybe a teacher.
But now it is in you, and yours to have and to hold forever more. If it is in charge of you, instead of the other way around, it can fill you with shame — the very thing it meant to prevent. And shame-filled people tend not to grow, not the way the inner voice thinks it wants you to anyway. In the words of Jena Pincott in Psychology Today,“All too often it sends us back to a zone where we find ourselves safe, but also stuck.” Therefore what?
What To Do with Negative Thoughts?
- Professional Help: Negative thoughts are normal and natural, to an extent. But if they are messing with your sleep and day-to-day functioning in an ongoing way then by all means get support from a mental health professional to help you get the troublesome thoughts dialed down.
- Acceptance: For a while now many if not most helping professionals were advising that “what we resist persists.” Accordingly, it is better to let the thoughts come, and then let them pass like clouds in the sky. And they will pass if we don’t pick them up like a dog with a bone, hanging onto the negative thoughts for a day, a week, a month, a year, sometimes for all the rest of our lives. Note: I always like to ask “Is there something to be done here” before I let the thoughts go. After all, there might be something useful in the thought that we don’t just want to dismiss. Get what you need, then let it go.
- Suppression: There is a new study in contrast to the acceptance approach. This study found that participants who learned how to outright block the negative thoughts and images showed significant lowering of negative and an increase in positive mental health indices scores. Here is a link for the report on the study with details on how the thoughts and images were blocked.
- Breathe: Excessive negativity can be a fight, flight, freeze stress response, and there is evidence that a calm and relaxed mind races less. I once had a client with a pretty good life, despite a racing mind filled with worry that was driving him nuts. The first time he did what I call Power Breathe, a 30-second mindset reset, all he could say was “Wow,” and that said it all. Here is the link for a short and simple instruction for the Power Breathe exercise on my website.
Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens. For help with this or something else, Contact Me at email@example.com