Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy.
The negative thoughts that we let gnaw away at our self-esteem and convince us we’re something we’re not can wreak havoc on our mental health.
These ongoing scripts, as Erin Schaefer, director of operations at Catalyst Life Services, called them, could stem from comments made by others.
“What's interesting is sometimes when we go back to that person, they may not even remember saying that, but we, for whatever reason, hang onto this thing that somebody has said,” she said.
According to Dr. Blake Wagner Jr., clinical psychologist and president of New Directions Counseling Center, scientists estimate that in a typical day we may experience 70,000 thoughts, many of which are negative.
“Our minds invariably drift toward the negative,” Wagner said. “We may find ourselves replaying a setback that occurred at work, or focusing on some perceived shortcoming or mistake. Moreover, we worry about current problems and potential ones.”
Behavioral scientists refer to this tendency of dwelling on what’s wrong in our lives as the “negativity bias.”
“Negative experiences have a much greater impact on our moods than positive experiences; for example, in a job review, our boss may praise us in nine areas of performance but suggest improvement in a tenth area. Of course, many of us will dismiss the praise and find ourselves ruminating about that one area of suggested improvement. As a result we often become stuck in a loop of unconstructive negativity,” Wagner said.
One way to combat and overcome the negativity bias is through techniques such as gratitude practices.
“However, to do so we need to deliberately and consciously shift our attention away from the negative and toward the good,” Wagner said.
If you’re bogged down in self-criticism, consider what you’d say to a friend struggling with the same issue.
“If they're having a struggle, what would you say to them? Would you say all of these negative things to that person? Chances are good, we would never say that to somebody that we care about,” Schaefer said.
It’s important to remember that the way we speak to ourselves matters.
“The brain can't distinguish between whether what you’re saying is real or not, so if you tell yourself something enough, that's what your brain will believe,” Schaefer said.
“It makes sense then that we should tell it positive things.”
Perhaps you’re dealing with a difficulty that’s causing you to think negatively. Schaefer recommends reflecting upon past victories over hard times. By remembering those experiences, it can help you realize that you’re stronger than you think you are and that you can get through this, she said.
Or maybe a friend or loved one is facing a hardship.
“Sometimes it helps just having somebody who says, ‘You know what? This does suck. This really is bad, and I'm just going to be here with you,’” she said.
Even if you’re at a loss for words, just being there next to the person can help.
“Having somebody who's willing to be with a person in that discomfort can help them recognize that somebody does care,” Schaefer said. “Instead of talking somebody out of it, being able to just walk alongside them can make a big difference.”
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, some people may start treating others poorly, only to reinforce the negative perception that they’re unwanted or unloved, Schaefer said.
“Sometimes it just takes a person saying, ‘You can be a jerk to me all you want. I'm just going to sit here with you. We'll sit here in silence if we have to,’” Schaefer said.
Note: In addition to these suggestions, there are several local organizations and agencies that can help. See the list below. (Click to see full list)