How to Change Negative Thinking

Dr. Larry Cohen (856) 352-5428


Our thoughts can impact us in two ways. Positive thoughts contributes to self-esteem and an overall sense of well-being. All is right with yourself, and with the world. Negative thoughts lead to low self-worth and overgeneralizations about how bad our life is. Which thoughts would you rather have? Most would choose the latter, but being able to have positive thoughts can sometimes be a challenge.

To be able to work on changing your negative thoughts, you need to be able to recognize when you are having them. As your thoughts lead to your emotions, knowing what emotions you feel is a must. How in tune with your emotional self are you? Do you pay attention to your emotions? Are you even capable of recognizing your emotions when you are experiencing them? If the answer is ‘no’, then it’s time to work on emotional recognition. Author, researcher, and clinician Pia Mellody has distilled our emotions down to eight. They are:

1.      Anger (resentment, irritation, and frustration)

2.      Fear (apprehension, overwhelmed, threatened)

3.      Pain (hurt, pity, sad, lonely)

4.      Joy (happy, elated, hopeful)

5.      Passion (enthusiasm, desire, zest)

6.      Love (affection, tenderness, compassion, warmth)

7.      Shame (embarrassment, humble, exposed)

8.      Guilt (regretful, contrite, remorseful)

If you struggle with emotional recognition, a useful exercise is to keep this list in your pocket, set the alarm on your phone to go off every half-hour, and when it goes off, study the list and try to identify how you are feeling at that moment. I’ve done it, and it works.

Once you begin to recognize your emotions, you can move on to recognizing your thoughts. This is being self-aware. For example, you recognize that you are feeling anger - you feel heat rising in your chest, your face begins to flush, and you experience intense frustration and irritation. Now, try to take a step back to analyze why you are angry. What thoughts were you having prior to becoming angry? You recognize that your anger was caused by having to wait for over an hour to see your doctor. You had a 3 o’clock appointment, and it’s now 4 o’clock. What a jerk. This doctor obviously has no respect for me or my time.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that you should never feel anger. I agree with Pia Mellody, who teaches that anger has gifts, such as assertiveness, strength, and energy. Anger is a problem when it becomes overwhelming or has a negative impact on your life. Is your anger helping you to live the life you imagine, or is your anger detracting from your happiness and peace of mind? Decide. Which direction do you want to go in? If you decide that angry feelings are not adding anything positive to your life – that these feelings are impacting your mood negatively - or leading to negative behavior, such as taking your anger out on someone else – then you must decide to act and do something about it. This applies to all negative emotions – anger, fear, pain, shame, and guilt.

What can you do to quell negative thoughts? Cognitive theory teaches us to reframe the problem – to see it from a different perspective. Let’s reframe our example: is the doctor doing something to you personally? Is he aware that you are waiting? Probably not. Anyone who’s visited a doctor has likely experienced what you’re experiencing at that very moment. If you reframe and consider your situation from a different perspective, you might not be so angry. An alternate thought might be “I get so frustrated with doctor visits. But, I am here to address my health, and good health is the most important thing I can have in life. I’m taking care of myself, and that’s a very positive thing to do.” Anger will most likely not be the emotion you will feel following this alternate thought. Happiness and joy seem more likely.

One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that EVENTS ARE NEUTRAL. That is, what comes our way is often out of our control. We can react to life events with anger or fear, but this is often a waste of energy. We are the ones who determine how life events affect us. Nobody’s perfect, and we will struggle to accept life on life’s terms. Although your first thoughts may be negative regarding a situation, be self-aware - recognize your emotions, discover the thoughts that lead to those emotions, reframe the thought, change your perspective, and work hard to accept the situation. As a result, you will begin experiencing more positive emotions, and your relationships with others, and your life, will improve.