When Negative Thoughts Resurface – Psychology Today
Your thoughts always matter because they are what set the foundation for how you feel about yourself and others. Often we refer to it as our ‘self-talk’ and it can make us or break us. What’s important to understand is that we have full control over the way we think and exactly what we think about.
Those who seem to always be positive and radiate energy toward others likely have their thoughts in check. They have developed their ability over time to mostly dwell on thoughts that will serve them and to block out the others. When our thoughts of the past and of our mistakes start to impede with what we are doing now in the present, it’s dangerous – dangerous to our future self.
Even as we’ve tried to block negative thoughts out, they do exist and they keep popping up from time to time, as if to remind us that we should listen to them. It can make us feel trapped in our mind as a sort of prisoner.
You might feel like there is nothing you can do about your thoughts, but I promise you there is. Anything that is counterproductive, causes pain to you or makes you fearful can and will be blocked out – trust me on that one – we just need to work on some strategies and tools.
So how can we learn to direct our thoughts better if we’re unsure how to control them? Let’s start with an example;
A man was playing basketball down at the park with his two children. It so happened that the man accidentally tripped and landed on his son, causing him to fracture his leg. He felt terrible about it, but it was an accident.
He rushed his son to the doctor where his worst predictions were confirmed - his son's leg was in fact fractured. The doctor placed a cast on his son's leg and ensured that the injury would heal quickly - remarkably his son did not seem to be in too much pain, which helped to put the man at ease.
By the time they arrived home, his son was happy - enjoying his bowl of ice-cream. Once the young son lay calm on the couch, the father took some time to himself to reflect on what had happened. He just felt, really really bad that he had hurt is son. He sobbed a little. As tough as it is to see your child hurt, it becomes a bit tougher when you know that you contributed to the cause of it.
The father understood that accidents happen and it made him feel a bit better. He needed to realise though, that dwelling on what happened would not bring him any good. The next day, his son was happy and cheerful once again, but the father still felt a sense of anguish. As time passed the father would cycle through negative thoughts of guilt, anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He couldn't enjoy spending time with his children because his thoughts were beginning to overrule everything. Even though his son was on the mend, he couldn't express the joy you would think he'd have.
The issue he was having was that memories kept popping up and he couldn't stop replaying the events that had happened. He knew he was going to feel awful unless he could free himself from these unwanted thoughts. He needed the block them out.
There is a theory known as ironic monitoring theory. What it highlights is that, when attempting to block out a thought, (for example thinking about a “red balloon”) part of your brain is scoping out if any thoughts of a red balloon already exist, so it can throw them in the trash.
Ironically, this scoping out of thoughts of a “red balloon” actually makes thoughts of a red balloon more accessible. You start thinking about red balloons even more. Once you let down your guard, all these thoughts that were generated when suppressing these thoughts start to resurface again at different times. All you can think about is red balloons.
So what this indicates is that blocking out a thought does not require you to “find” the thoughts already exist in your mind as such and then get rid of them. You don’t need to believe that your brain has some sort of hidden agenda against you, you need to trust your brain. The key is to just stop thinking about these thoughts altogether, the ones that already exist will diminish over time as we stop calling on them. We need to accept that blocking out thoughts is difficult, but we don’t need to re-explore negative thoughts to get them out, we just need to replace them with positive thoughts.
If we want to stop thinking about the red balloon, we shouldn’t try to get the red balloon thought out of our head (we don’t need to). Instead, we should start thinking about a black panther, for example. The black panther will direct our thoughts to something else, something better. The same goes for positive and negative thoughts. We don’t need to “find” the negative thoughts and remove them, we just need to replace them with positive thoughts.
The second thing we need to consider is that sometimes these thoughts will resurface from time to time and we need to create a plan for responding to them. Some people are happy to just ignore the thoughts, while others will need to replace them with more positive ones – plan ahead with what works for you. For example, “If I am afraid of something, I will remember all the times when I was courageous.” These things work, just make sure you have them ready in your tool box so you can call on them when needed.
In saying all this, we shouldn’t just block out ALL negative thoughts IMMEDIATELY. Sometimes reflection over time on these thoughts is what helps us to learn and grow. However, when there is nothing left to be gained through this reflection time, that’s when we need to block the thought/s out.
I hope you’re pleased to know that you now have more awareness about controlling your thoughts – it will serve you well.
~ Adam, 2019