A lot of articles talk about the downside of negative thoughts—including how they can shape our outlook, relationships, and potential for success.
But the problem with this general framing is that there are many kinds of negative thoughts. While many of them can cause problems, the best way to fix them depends on exactly what kinds of negative thoughts you’re having.
Here are four kinds of negative thoughts you have probably entertained and what you can do to neutralize their damage—and even make them work for you:
Negative thoughts about yourself
One of the most self-limiting kinds of thoughts involve negative self-talk. Often, you think about traits you have that you don’t like about yourself or reasons why you are not capable of achieving some goal.
Not only does this pattern of thoughts lead you to feel bad, it also reinforces a fixed mindset. The work of Carol Dweck and colleagues suggests that a fixed mindset involves believing that you have a finite degree of ability or talent in a particular area. When you label yourself with a set of traits, that tends to focus you on limitations that you ultimately believe you cannot change.
To change the internal conversation, you can acknowledge limitations you have, but focus on opportunities for improvement. Research on mindset suggests that when you adopt a growth mindset, focusing on ways you can learn to overcome challenges, you are more likely to be energized by difficult situations rather than being sapped by them.
Negative thoughts about a project
Sometimes, the negative thoughts aren’t about you and your abilities, but rather about a particular project you’re working on. Research suggests that the strength of your motivation depends on your belief about whether you can achieve a goal. Facing a task that you believe will yield to your efforts gives you energy. But, facing a task you believe to be impossible dissipates any energy you may have had.
It’s natural to focus on things you have yet to achieve. If you are focused on the scope of a project overall, reframe your thoughts to break the larger task down into some specific and achievable task. That way, you can generate energy to make some progress toward the larger goal.
Negative thoughts reflecting anxiety
When you are anxious (either because there is an upcoming event that is stressful or because you are dealing with more chronic anxiety), you are likely to have a repeating set of thoughts related to the object of your anxiety. This cycle of negative thoughts is called rumination. These negative thoughts tend to make the anxiety worse, because you are focused on bad things that might happen.
It is important to break the cycle of rumination. In the short term, you might consider exercising or taking a walk. The physical activity will often make it hard to concentrate on the pattern of negative thinking. After that, though, you need to have an alternative set of thoughts that you can concentrate on explicitly.
Write down a list of positive things that are going on in your life. When you find yourself starting a cycle of negative thoughts, pull out that list and focus on one of the positive things going on in your life or focus on a person you are grateful for. The aim is to develop habits to focus on positive things when you are tempted to ruminate about the negative.
Negative thoughts about actions and habits
One final set of negative thoughts arises when you have something you do routinely like a habit that you believe you need to stop doing. Chances are, you focus on the action you no longer want to perform. Paradoxically, that may increase your motivation to do the action you want to stop.
A fundamental problem with changing behavior is that the brain is optimized for acting, rather than stopping yourself from acting. When you find yourself needing to stop an action or habit, you have to focus instead on what you are going to do instead of the undesired activity. When you are tempted to do the wrong thing, focus on the alternative action instead. That way, you are not focusing on the negative (“don’t do that”), but rather the positive (“do this instead”).