You Are What You Think
Simple strategies to combat negative thinking for a brighter, more successful you
By Amanda Garrigus
For as far back as I can remember, my inner voice has been a complete jerk. It criticizes my appearance, jeers at my choices, and laughs at my perceived shortcomings. You might say negative self-talk is my jam. I’m not proud of it. It’s just the truth. After the birth of my first child, when my body was a wreck and my career hung by a thread, things reached a fever pitch and I decided enough was enough. I started to do some research and to reach out in any and all directions to find a more positive way forward. I tried lots of things from acupuncture to antidepressants. Both made a positive impact, but neither felt like a sustainable solution.
After lots of trial and error, I found myself in the office of a very skilled, super laid-back hypnotherapist who turned out to be my Obi-Wan. She was the first person who introduced me to the idea that our reality is built around the way we think, and where we put our focus and attention. That sounded hippy dippy to me at the time (and honestly, given this wacky brain of mine, a little terrifying), until she backed her claim with science. She taught me about the neural pathways in our brains and how I could use neuroscience to create a more positive, productive inner dialogue. Her solutions were disconcertingly simple, but she assured me that with dedication, and a whole lot of time, they would take root. Ever the good student, I accepted the challenge. I’m no brain surgeon, but I did learn a few things during the nearly two years I worked with this learned woman, and now, young Padawans, I’m here to share the skinny with you.
Our brains are good at keeping us alive. If you are alive today, then whatever you’ve been doing, whether it’s starting the day eating chocolate and potato chips, or with a morning run, or with some good old fashioned negative thinking, your brain has learned that this behavior is a successful method to keep those birthdays coming. You’ve effectively created well-traveled roads, aka the neural pathways, in your brain that are the default route for all your thinking and decision making. So, here’s the fix. The solution to changing the way you think and behave is to, well, change the way you think and behave. I know that sounds insufferably obvious, but it’s just the truth. You’ve got to haul yourself off the well-trodden pathways and begin to pave new roads in your mind.
Here’s how. First, you’ve got to come up with a plan. When your impulse is to go left, you’ll need to know which direction you’ll turn instead, then do it. Every time. This means that every time you put on your swimsuit and your brain wants to talk smack, you must grab that steering wheel and counterattack with something like, “wow, you look hot!” The beauty is, you don’t even have to believe it. Just say it, in your head our out loud. If you’re consistent, then slowly but surely, it will take hold. The old neural pathways will be overgrown with weeds and the new, happy trails will become your default route.
Second, you must starve your negative thoughts for attention. Remember, wherever you put your focus is where you will go, so when that nasty inner voice starts a talkin’, don’t give it the satisfaction. Ignore it like you would a crazy person on the subway. Then redirect your focus to something more positive. Let’s say you’re sitting down to write the next great American novel, and your mind starts telling you that you’re a fraud and a certain failure. Stay soft and uninterested. Take a few deep breaths to center yourself, then hit back with a positive uppercut like, “my book’s going to make The New York Times Bestsellers list for sure!” Again, you don’t have to believe it right away, just put it out there. Over and over.
Another powerful tool to combat negative thinking is the mantra. I don’t mean you have to sit cross-legged in a Tibetan monastery chanting for hours a day, I just mean you should come up with a sentence that is short, easy to remember, and encapsulates what you hope to be or achieve. Feel free to have lots of them for different situations. If you’ve got to make an important speech, give yourself a boost with a mantra like, “I’m a great speaker, and I’m going to crush it!” Then repeat it in your mind (or out loud if you’re alone, or if you’re in public and don’t mind looking nuts) ad nauseam. It’s always a good idea to have one all-encompassing go-to mantra like, “I’m talented, successful, and my world is full of joy!” It might sound cheesy, but it’s a helluva lot better than the alternative.
Finally, practice gratitude for the little things. It’s easy to lose sight of the many gifts in our lives when Instagram and the like are only too ready to show us how much better others have it. Take a breath, and a step back, and slowly list five small things for which you are grateful, like the sandwich you had for lunch, the nail polish on your pretty fingers, the breeze on your skin, or the shoes on your feet. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll feel centered and positive about yourself, and your place in the world. If you lean into these strategies with a little persistence and determination, you’ll be on your way to a brighter, more successful you in no time.