coping-with-negative-thoughts

Coping with Negative Thoughts

Last month on the blog, I opened up about my negative internal narrative and its impact on my life since childhood. If you are managing a chronic illness, chances are you’ve been plagued with moments of self-doubt and negative thinking. Understand this: having negative thoughts is normal, so there is no shame to be associated with them. But they can be overwhelming and therefore necessary to find a way to cope with them.

Like Gary John Bishop says in Unf*ck Yourself, negative thinking doesn’t necessarily prevent you from taking action. Plenty of successful people are also self-destructive. But those of us negative thoughts impact, it can obstruct any personal progress to the point where we give up.

I slumped into periods of deep depression exacerbated by my negative thoughts. I am not always in control of these thoughts, but I had moments where I could see where I could alter my thinking and actively chose not to do it.

The dark thoughts fueled my resistance to change because I repeated the following excuse: I can’t work on making changes right now because I don’t feel good. When I feel better, I’ll make the necessary internal changes. Needless to say, it doesn’t work that way. If I wanted to feel better, I had to choose to feel better. The choice could include wellness changes or go to a therapist.

Please note: what follows is my experience and what worked for me. I am sharing my experience in case it provides help or comfort for you. Please do not expect the same results. You may find this does not work, it kinda works, or surpasses my results. Everyone is unique and in a different starting place.

Additional note: if you are dealing with depression, not everyone can halt negative thoughts. This post is not for those moments. If you are experiencing dark thoughts out of your control, please seek help. You are loved and wanted.

Soothing the Negativity

I found that when I personify my negative thoughts, I can cope with them. Often these thoughts sound and behave like a needy toddler, so I imagine that’s what they are. Toddlers are persistent, repetitive, demanding, loud, and sometimes won’t take “no” for an answer.

As are these thoughts.

When literally dealing with an out-of-control toddler, I find the most success when I speak in a calm and soothing voice. Reacting sharply, or in an emotionally charged tone, can exacerbate an already tense situation. When I take a moment to stop, figure out what is bothering Jai, and speak to him calmly, the episode ends a lot faster.

My “toddler” thoughts respond similarly. When I react to negative thoughts about myself, what I am doing, or memories in a harsh way; these thoughts fester and continue on for hours or days at a time.

But when I respond to these thoughts by taking a moment to figure out what is bothering me, speaking to myself calmly and lovingly, my own episode ends faster. It may still pop up throughout the day, but I continue to talk in kind words.

It’s funny. I am incapable of speaking kindly to myself when I don’t personify my thoughts as a toddler. I get in this mode of, “I am an adult, so why can’t my thoughts behave like an adult?” I look at the thoughts as though a toddler is living in my head, and suddenly, I am sensitive to my needs.

Having negative thoughts isn’t shameful. It’s healthy, so please do not feel like you have to drive them out of your head as soon as they pop in. Take a moment to validate them. Validation does not mean you agree with these thoughts, you are merely acknowledging their existence and what they are trying to say, no matter how badly they are saying it

You are giving your thoughts what they need: a moment to be heard.

Coping with Negative Thoughts

Try to figure out the “age” of your negative thoughts. While I am treating my thoughts like a toddler, the age of my thoughts is probably closer to twelve or thirteen. That’s when I can point to personal stunting of my emotional growth.

Pre-teens/teenagers often behave like toddlers, so it isn’t unreasonable to use a similar approach. I think it has everything to do with me raising a toddler, so I am already in a particular mindset.

Your thoughts may behave like a toddler, an older child, a teenager, or a young adult, depending on your age. Try to self-assess the behavior and tone of your thoughts to get an idea of the age, and then figure out how you would speak to someone within that age range.

Speaking to your negative voice like it’s a young child may not be as effective as talking to it like it’s an older teenager. It will take some time to get it right, but you’ll figure out what works best for you.

When you speak, try to do and keep the following in mind:

  • Validate the feelings. Validate the thoughts you are thinking about. Reflect them back: “I hear that you are upset about what you said earlier today.”
  • Speak as you wish an adult spoke to you at that particular age. You may not have a positive example in your life, so this will take some work. But imagine how you wished adults treated you at that stage. Rather than screaming and spanking you; you might have wanted, they sat down and talked you through the source of your outburst.
  • Provide an outlet for the feelings in a healthy way. Sometimes we still have to physical our thoughts to get them out of our head. Consider taking up an exercise or hobby that will allow you to channel that extra emotional energy bothering you.
  • Look for a way to manage similar thoughts in the future. Consider ways to address the thoughts you might have in the future, so you are prepared. You won’t be able to account for all possibilities, but you might know what might trigger a thought in the future.
  • Commit to loving this hurt inner voice, despite what it says. This is one of the more difficult steps. Committing to love this voice that works so hard to hurt you. It is asking for your love, but going about it in a very ineffective way. Listen to it as a desire to be loved, and you may find it helps soothe it more and more in the future

As stated above, taking these steps may not be as useful for you, but it might give you an idea of how to break your negative thought cycle and help cope with those negative internal thoughts.


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Listening to our Self-Doubt

How often have you listened to your self-doubt? Listened to the point that it affects a decision you want to make?

You may not even know you are allowing your self-doubt to affect your decisions. It’s okay. We’ve often done things without realizing the where’s and why’s. But next time you want to make an important decision, and you feel yourself freezing, ask yourself: is this coming from a place of self-doubt?

Listen to the voice that pipes up. What is the tone of the internal conversation? Do you hear encouragement or discouragement? Is the rationale reasonable, or is it unfairly assessing your capabilities?

What Does it Mean?

Self-doubt is the belief we are incapable of doing something. We might compare ourself to others, be obsessively goal-oriented, or feel like an impostor. The end result is feeling like we aren’t able to do something, so why bother trying?

There may be an appearance of logic to our reasoning, i.e., why should we attempt something new that might be dangerous if we’ve never done it before? But that itself is dangerous thinking. It keeps us within our comfort zones and does not allow for growth of any kind.

We have to look at why our self-doubt wants to keep us within an unhealthy dynamic and what it’s trying to tell us.

Often, self-doubt follows moments of deep self-reflection because we are now acutely aware of our limitations. I find that I get frustrated by my anxiety after some self-reflection, which heightens my anxiety and can cause me to freeze. Self-doubt is the voice I hear that encourages me to engage in the unhealthy behavior of staying frozen.

What helps me is figuring out the root of my self-doubt.

Origin of Doubt

Like many of our internal beliefs and behaviors, doubt comes from childhood. It may come from grownups in our lives teaching us to doubt ourselves, or it may come from our experiences. Think back when you did something dangerous on the playground. You may have really hurt yourself to the point of never wanting to take the same risk again. Now you have an aversion towards tasks and opportunities that remind you of the incident.

The self-doubt does not come from a bad place as much as it comes from a place of personal protection. You may want to protect your ego, body, or relationships because you are worried about the pain.

We may no longer be running from other apex predators, but humans still (for the most part) try to avoid painful experiences emotionally and physically. We find ways to protect ourselves from feeling that pain. We may blame others for our own failings, project our deepest thoughts onto others, and we engage in our self-doubt to not even attempt to make changes or do something new.

But it’s about pushing through that pain, embracing it, getting back on that horse and not worrying about the consequences.

But let’s take a moment and talk about those…

The Consequences

When we give into our self-doubt and say “it’s not worth making a lifestyle change;” or “I don’t do diets because they never work;” or “why try finding a way to adapt to my chronic illness, I am never going to be cured;” we accept the severe consequences. Sorry to be melodramatic about it, but the consequences are what keeps us in an unhealthy mindset, body, and approach to our chronic illness.

When we give into our self-doubt, we say it’s okay to be unhealthy.

There are moments, to be sure, when we engage in self-doubt and those are okay provided we find a way to move beyond them. I am talking about refusing to make any changes when you recognize the problem.

A moment of self-doubt that I am still working through is written communication. I love writing my blog posts, but when it comes time to write and email or text message, I freeze. It comes from a place of fear, mostly of the other party expressing frustration or anger at my delay in responding.

So I don’t send the communication. I don’t even write it most times. Which gets me more anxious over how much time has passed…it becomes a vicious cycle.

This unhealthy way of thinking and behaving causes me to lose out on meaningful connections and opportunities because I am so caught up in my self-doubt. It took me years to get healthy because I doubted I could.

You may find yourself in a similar space where your self-doubt stops you. There may be something you really want to do, but because of your chronic illness you don’t want to try because you don’t think you can.

I am here to tell you that you can. You can always try and do something. It may not look exactly the way you want because you don’t have the means to match your mind’s eye, but you can always make an attempt.

At this moment, the only person stopping you from figuring out how you can do it is yourself.


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Recognizing Self-Doubt

In my most profound moments of self-reflection, I find that I am riddled with self-doubt that stops me from achieving personal goals. Self-doubt tells us that we are incapable of doing something and serves as discouragement disguised as good-intentions. When making significant life changes, we must recognize self-doubt for what it is, a possible road block, and find a way to cope with it.

We define self-doubt as a lack of confidence in ourselves and what we are capable of doing. It isn’t always an accurate assessment of our abilities but meant as a form of self-handicapping to protect our egos from possible failure. This is reductionist, as there are other reasons why people fall into self-doubt, but that’s what we’ll be focusing on.

We engage in self-doubt as an excuse to prevent us from moving forward in life. It’s important to recognize when this happens because sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Self-Doubt after Self-Reflection

I have a voice in the back of my head that pipes up after I’ve reflected on a situation. The situation may have ended unfavorably, where I behaved in a way I am not proud of, so I’ll start to reflect on what I could do in the future. The voice comes in after I decide my next steps and tells me that I won’t achieve it. It loudly proclaims that I still haven’t made the positive changes, so why would I begin now?

Obviously, it ignores all the times when I succeed in making positive changes in similar scenarios.

I think this self-doubt voice comes in after an emotional self-reflection because I am vulnerable. Vulnerability isn’t a negative trait to possess, but my self-doubt comes in to take advantage of it. It works to sabotage all my hard work.

I believe self-doubt is our unconscious form of self-preservation. In our minds, we’ve created a specific persona for ourselves. It’s how we see ourselves interacting with the world and how the world interacts with us. It doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, but it’s the reality we’ve created ourselves.

When we start to change this persona and bring our perspective in line with reality, self-doubt seeps in because often the gap between our reality and actual reality is painful. Many years ago, I thought about how I was in High School. I had a brief thought that I was a difficult person to get along with, which was completely counter to the fantasy I created about being bullied.

The moment I had this thought it was so painful that my self-doubt and denial quickly flooded in to soothe the wound I gave my ego. I have since taken more time to self-reflect and found that while I was bullied, it had a lot to do with me painting a target on my back. I was unnecessarily confrontational, so the “bullying” was a response to that.

When we see something we don’t like about ourselves, we are working in direct defiance of the persona we’ve built up over a lifetime of experiences. Self-doubt works to preserve that personal for our emotional well-being. It’s well-intentioned, but it can keep us from moving beyond what keeps us stuck.

Self-doubt only serves to keep us within an unhealthy comfort zone.

The Danger of Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is the motivation killer.

We have many motivational killers out there, but self-doubt is one of the greatest ones. It’s the voice we listen to when we think we’re not good enough for something, or try and eat healthy, or what keeps us from striving for more.

Self-doubt is a voice that we listen to because it is always with us. I believed my self-doubt was some otherworldly voice responding to my requests for help on something. I thought it was an inspired voice speaking to me with omniscient wisdom, so when it said for me not to do something, it clearly knew what it was saying.

No, it was my self-doubt masquerading as the supernatural to keep me from trying harder or stepping outside of my comfort zone.

You may not have an otherworldly voice speaking to you, but there’s a good chance you have some internal voice telling you what you can’t do. When you engage with this voice, it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Looking Ahead

This month will be working to address the moments of self-doubt directly. Those times where we want just to give up and not move forward because we don’t think we can. This will be last month we focus on negative things in our self-improvement journey for this year. Stick through it so we can take a couple of months of appreciating ourselves and celebrating ourselves. It will be worth it in the end.


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Reflecting on Life Before a Diagnosis

My MS diagnosis was one of the best things to happen to me. I hate admitting this because it means I needed a chronic illness to shake me out of complacency. I am one of those people that needs to be smacked in the face, hard, to get an important message. I know this because I’ve reflected a lot on my life prior to my diagnosis.

Hopefully, I learned the lesson to listen more closely to life before it needs to hit me with another big smack.

I think it’s important to acknowledge and honor our life before the diagnosis. It’s so hard to look back at that time: seeing how capable we were, what we could do, what we took for granted…

I wanted to highlight some of the thoughts I’ve had while I’ve self-reflected on my life before my MS diagnosis. Towards the end of the post, you’ll find some of the same questions I asked myself to get you started.

Unhealthy Before the Diagnosis

To say that I was unhealthy prior to my diagnosis is an understatement.

I was unhealthy in body, mind, and emotionally speaking. I will primarily focus on the negative aspects of my life in this section. As I mentioned last Wednesday, self-reflection takes us down paths we would instead not acknowledge. I have a lot of pain I carry around in my life, and I’ve found what I’ve done up to this point has not worked in effectively managing it. I noticed looking at the origins of the pain helps me begin the process of healing. I am able manage situations differently, in a mature manner, and manage my MS until I am ready to get back on medication.

I broke down each section of my life where I did significant self-reflection.

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The Difficulties in Self-Reflection

A wellness journey is no different from a physical one: the path will get difficult, overgrown, washed out, detoured, and sometimes disappear. Through perseverance, we find the path again or overcome the difficulties encountered in the journey. Self-reflection functions as rocky terrain: it requires heavy emotional lifting that bogs you down and hinders forward movement. If you are training yourself to meet your personal goals, the resistence builds you up to tackles the next stage in your life’s journey.

It’s April, and you may have dropped any idea of completing your New Year’s Resolutions but know that you can still make those goals. The “New Year” is just a date, and it’s always a good time to get started on your life goals. For the sake of your own wellbeing, consider taking the next couple of weeks (in blog posts) to self-reflect even if you’ve decided to completely reject your goals.

What’s Ahead: the Difficulties in Self-Reflection

What should you expect in the next two weeks of posts?

I will be using the lens of self-reflection to review three parts of my life: pre-diagnosis, during the diagnosis process, and post-diagnosis. Within these posts, I will provide exercises for you to reflect on the same moments you encountered in your journey.

The goal will be to see where you were, where you are, and where you are going in your life as it is. Think of it as the famous Christmas story: we’ll be visiting three “ghosts” in our lives to see how we can change our current life’s trajectory.

The tough part is the level of honesty required. When self-reflecting, it’s easy to rationalize certain thoughts and behaviors rather than being honest.

I am not able to get a certain task done because I am too overwhelmed. My illness prevents me from achieving a professional goal. When I am in a better emotional place, I can finally learn that hobby I’m interested in.

The truth is this: you have to be honest about why you are not getting a task done and why you feel overwhelmed. Is it because you don’t actually want to get it done or completing the job makes you feel worse than avoiding it? Is your illness actually preventing you from achieving your professional goal or are you using it as an excuse to justify mediocre work?

I know that sounds harsh, but the truth we avoid is the one that holds us back from achieving our goals. With the next set of posts, I will ask you to be honest with yourself, so let us acknoledge the frustrating nature of self-reflection.

Remember Self-Compassion

Back in February, I discussed the importance of self-compassion. As you reflect, remember to be compassionate with yourself as you begin to uncover your truth.

A quick refresher: self-compassion is being kind to yourself in the same way you would be sympathetic to a friend or loved one. Imagine a friend approaches you with the same fears, concerns, and scenarios you are experiencing. What comfort or advice would you provide them? Take that same advice and apply it to yourself.

Remember to take it easy on yourself, be kind when you hit a roadblock, but find a healthy and workable detour.

Taking a Much Needed Break

While we will be moving forward with working towards our goals, be okay with needing to take a step back. If you need to take a break, there is nothing wrong with giving yourself the time. The process it took to get to your current state didn’t happen overnight, nor will the process to get out of it.

Engage with self-care, go out and do something for yourself. Take yourself out on a date. Honor what your mind and body tell you. Just remember to re-engage with the wellness process, even if you don’t want to. There’s a difference between taking a break and avoiding the issue altogether.

Self-reflection is like any sort of physical exercise. Sometimes you have to push a little harder when it hurts in order to achieve your desired results. Like with exercise, be sure to do it in a safe manner to prevent causing harm.

Consider Outside Help

Because I am not a medical professional, any advice I give in my posts may not fit you. Consider reaching to an outside source if you think your self-reflection will take you down a problematic emotional path. Sometimes the things we discover ourselves are upsetting, or memories/emotions come up that are too much to handle alone.

If you aren’t in therapy but think you need the outside help, consider finding someone. There are many options available, including reputable apps, so finding the right fit is easier no matter the location. While I haven’t tried one for myself, these are ideal if your chronic illness affects your mobility.

If you don’t think therapy will work for you, but you have someone in your life whom you can speak with, approach them to see if they would be willing to help as you self-reflect.

Asking for help is not a weakness, it’s recognizing the current life-load temporarily requires a helping hand. We are social creatures, so doubtless you will find someone who wants to help see you through this journey.

If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my weekly newsletter so you can get more information on this year’s wellness journey.


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