Are you undermining your own well-being? If you’re stuck in a pattern of self-defeating thinking, the answer is an emphatic yes! Thoughts like I’m not good enough or I’ll never be happy can run so deep we scarcely notice them. Yet our thoughts are the invisible hand that shapes our world. Our choices, actions, emotions, the way we see ourselves and others – everything comes from our thoughts.
When our internal monologue is habitually negative, we harm our well-being and stunt personal growth. One research review, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, reported that a pattern of negative thinking is consistently linked with “impaired functioning, lower satisfaction and well-being, and various forms of pathological functioning, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive syndromes.”
Far from helping us solve problems or achieve the changes we wish to make, habitual self-criticism keeps us stuck in an endless loop of negative messages and self-defeating behaviors. So what can we do to break the negative self-talk habit? We can choose to develop new thought patterns that promote personal growth. Here are four mindful ways to do just that.
1. Start each day with a positive thought. Before you check your messages or jump into your morning routine, treat yourself to a moment of positive thinking. Either seated or lying down, close your eyes, breathe slowly and steadily, and softly repeat an affirmative phrase such as “Today I will be kind to myself” or “Today I will be calm and courageous.” Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn suggests a mantra that’s especially effective at banishing negative thoughts: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.”
Whatever words you choose, repeat them with intention and awareness for at least three complete breaths. This simple practice is surprisingly effective at setting a positive tone for the entire day.
2. Recognize that thoughts are just thoughts. It’s easy to confuse thoughts with reality. We do it all the time: “I’m sure she doesn’t like me, so I won’t bother talking to her.” “I know I can’t do that, so I won’t even try.” But when we routinely mistake our thoughts for reality, we follow a narrow script based on faulty information. Other, possibly more fulfilling paths, go unexplored.
The first step in changing the script is to become aware of our thoughts. As meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein notes, “Every time we become aware of a thought, as opposed to being lost in a thought, we experience that opening of the mind.” Then, we can step back and ask ourselves, “Is this really true, or is this just a story I’m telling myself?” As we learn to recognize that thoughts are not reality, our self-defeating thought patterns begin to lose their power.
3. Ask yourself if a thought is helpful or hurtful. Research has shown that most of us have far more negative thoughts than positive ones. Maybe it’s a survival thing, an evolutionary tool meant to alert us to danger. Whatever their source, we can manage our negative thoughts by asking ourselves a simple question: “Is this thought helping or hurting me?”
It’s worth remembering that not every distressing thought is self-defeating. Some, like “My life sucks” or “I behaved rudely,” can serve a helpful purpose by nudging us toward self-reflection and meaningful change. But sweeping self-condemnations like “I’m an idiot” or “I’m a horrible person” are nothing more than a mental cudgel. They damage our self-worth and weaken our ability to move forward. When these self-defeating thoughts rear their nasty little heads, we can label them unhelpful and choose to let them go.
4. Practice self-compassion. Many of us go through life believing that we’re not okay just as we are. We tell ourselves things like, “I’ll be lovable when I make more money” or “when I lose some weight” or “when I . . . (fill in the blank).” We fixate on our shortcomings and conclude that we can’t be worthy of love or happiness until we’ve achieved perfection. Of course, human perfection is not possible. So when we postpone feeling good about ourselves until some vague, unachievable future, we consign ourselves to a lifetime of discontent.
The remedy is to accept and love ourselves just as we are. Yes, there are things we could do better. Yes, there are things we have yet to learn. But growth and happiness never flourish in the harsh environment of self-criticism. They blossom from the fertile soil of self-acceptance and self-compassion. As psychologist Stephen C. Hayes notes: “[W]e all have self-doubt, we all suffer, we all fail from time to time, but none of that means we can’t live a life of meaning, purpose, and compassion for ourselves and others.”
Self-compassion allows us to see that human imperfections are inevitable – but they in no way diminish our worth or our ability to fulfill our potential.
Breaking a self-defeating thought pattern is never easy or straightforward (think progress, not perfection). But by with intention, awareness, self-reflection, and self-compassion, we can nurture the kind of thoughts that help us achieve our goals and live a happier, healthier life.