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What is negative thinking?


What is negative thinking?  Is there really such a thing?

This little post was inspired by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo and my study of mindfulness. Hopefully it provides some more understanding of how mindfulness can help us navigate a busy world.

Thinking about all the things that can go wrong in the future is not necessarily negative.  In fact it’s essential.  We need to be aware of the things that could go wrong so that we can take steps to mitigate the chances of the event happening. Similarly thinking about the things that have “gone  wrong” in our life is not necessarily negative.  In fact that too is essential.  If we reflect on past mistakes then we may be less likely to repeat them.

Negative is not necessarily detrimental.  It is an enabler and a source of growth.  We can learn from mistakes and then let them go.

But beware there are two great thinking traps

The first trap is the negative spiral trap.  One minute you may be aware that you are choosing to focus on what may go wrong.  You’re happy exploring this possible future.  And then all of a sudden you find yourself wallowing and suddenly lost in your thoughts.  Spiralling downwards.  Consumed by dark waves.  Your body shrinks and your mind turns in.

As that happens we have lost awareness of our thoughts.  Mindfulness helps pull us back from sinking.  It pulls us back to the moment so that we can then attend to what can go right in the future and what opportunities we have to mitigate threats.

Similarly we can reflect on what has “gone wrong in the past” in order to learn from the past.   But once again we can sink and wallow without mindfulness tools.  By drawing ourselves back to the moment we can choose to deliberately attend to the people who love us and have supported us and how strong we have been in the past.

Mindfulness gives us the tools to navigate between thinking “positively” and “negatively” about the past and the future.  Mindfulness helps us dip into our rich library of experience without sinking.

We need to venture deep into the forest of our minds to extract meaning and learning, however there are wolves in the forest and mindfulness is a guide, which is always with us.  With mindfulness we always have a tool to draw us back to a warm safe place.   And gradually as we learn to explore the forest it becomes known to us.  Rather than a dark a fearful place it becomes a place of calm reflection and light.  The things in the forest that once scared us become our guides and our friends.

The second great trap is the awareness trap.  We are so wired to autopilot thinking that we are often not aware of what we were just thinking, feeling or even doing.

A recent Harvard study estimates we are in this state maybe 60% of the time.  And in that state the wolves are free to roam wild.  We may not even be aware that we are churning about old hurts.  Over and over in our mind the old hurts or fresh fears prowl.  As they prowl they are nipping at us.  They attack us from the inside.  Physiologically fight flight chemicals cascade around our body as we prepare for action.  It’s an internal battle that we may not even be aware of.

Mindfulness draws us back.  We reflect on the moment.  Calm returns.  The wolves leave. Or rather we befriend the wolves.  We learn to live with our frailties and gain strength from exploring and understanding our fears.

Going deep into the forest

As you begin to observe your patterns of thinking and behaving simply do that.  Observe them with loving kindness.  Remember the definition of mindfulness is to observe whatever arises in a non-judgmental way.  Similarly when you observe behaviours in other people get into the habit of letting things play out.  Obviously we need to keep helping people and being kind and compassionate but try not to get to entangled in other people’s dramas and also don’t think you always need to be “the fixer” of other peoples problems.

There are many wolves that walk the forest.  We can name them and befriend them.  Some of the labels could include:

  • Always personalising things
  • Being rigid and trying to impose values through “should statements”
  • Catastrophy thinking
  • Showing off and grand standing to make ourselves feel appreciated
  • Negative filtering – only attending to negative feedback or filtering out positive futures
  • Mind reading – always trying to second guess other people without double checking

There are so many thinking traps.  But as you label them and observe them they loose their potency.

'If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.- "Yogi Bhajan