How to Avoid Negative Thoughts and Embrace Positivity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you tend to hold on to negative emotions? How can you lessen the pull of negative thoughts and feelings and take control of your emotional state?

According to spiritual teacher Byron Katie, all negative emotions spring from our thoughts about experiences, not from the experiences themselves. It follows, then, that the only way to accept and feel at peace with your experiences is to release the thoughts you have about those experiences.

Here’s how to release unhelpful thoughts in three steps.

Step #1: Write Down Your Thoughts About Your Situation

The first step toward achieving inner peace involves writing down dysfunctional thoughts about a specific situation. Katie claims that you’ll have more success with her three-step process if you write down your thoughts, rather than if you try to list them mentally. 

This is because your mind doesn’t like change: Once you’ve made a habit of thinking resistant thoughts, your mind becomes so attached to them that it doesn’t want to let go of your negative perspective. To protect this perspective, your mind releases a stream of unfocused defensive thoughts to interrupt any attempts you make to change your feelings. It does this to convince you that you’re right to hold onto your resistant thoughts and the emotional pain that they incur. 

On the other hand, Katie claims, writing down your thoughts will focus your mind only on what you’ve written and reduce these mental interruptions. 

To complete this first step, she suggests that you think about something in your life that you’re unhappy about. This might be related to something that’s happening in your life now, a memory from the past, or a worry about the future. Then, write short simple sentences to honestly express how you feel about the situation.

Example #1: “My children never help with the chores because they don’t respect me.”

Example #2: “I never have enough money and this makes me feel like a failure.”

Step #2: Ask Yourself Four Questions

Once you’ve expressed your thoughts in writing, analyze each of your statements by asking yourself four questions:

Question #1: Is This an Absolute Truth That I Cannot Disprove? The purpose of this question is to search through your memories for at least one piece of evidence that disclaims your statement, revealing it as untrue. According to Katie, your answer should be a simple “yes” or “no.” 

Question #2: How Do I Feel and Behave When I Think This Thought? The purpose of the second question is to list all of the consequences of thinking this thought. This will help you become more conscious of how your thoughts affect your emotions and behaviors. Katie suggests that you consider how thinking this thought influences:

  • Your subsequent thoughts and feelings
  • How you speak to and behave toward others or react to your circumstances

Question #3: How Does This Thought Benefit Me? The purpose of the third question is to reveal that there is no benefit to thinking resistant thoughts. Katie suggests that you consider whether thinking this thought inspires any positive feelings or behaviors that improve your life.

Question #4: How Would I Feel and Behave Without This Thought? The purpose of this question is to imagine how you’d feel about your situation if this thought had never crossed your mind. This will help you understand that it isn’t the situation that’s making you feel bad. Rather, only this thought about the situation is making you feel bad. Katie suggests that you consider how you’d interpret your situation if you didn’t think this thought, and how this might change the way you feel and behave.

Step #3: Reframe Your Thoughts Until You Feel at Peace

According to Katie, once you’ve answered the four questions, you’ll realize three things about your resistant thoughts:

  1. There isn’t any truth to them.
  2. They trigger negative feelings and behaviors that don’t serve you.
  3. There isn’t any good reason to continue thinking them.

Ultimately, these three realizations will help you see that it’s not the situation that’s upsetting you, but your thoughts about the situation. Once you’ve grasped this concept, work on the third step toward achieving inner peace: Reframe your thoughts until you can accept and feel at peace with your situation.

According to Katie, you can reframe your thoughts from resistance to acceptance by exploring other interpretations of your situation. This will help you realize that there’s no single way to think and feel about your experiences—rather, you can always choose how to think and feel about what happens in your life. 

She explains that the reason you feel emotional pain about your situation is that you’re choosing to think resistant thoughts about it. However, you can just as easily choose thoughts that inspire you to accept, and even love the situation exactly as it is—which, in turn, will encourage you to respond in ways that help you benefit from the situation.

Explore Other Interpretations of Your Situation

Katie suggests two thought exercises that will open your mind to other perspectives about your situation and offer insights that shift your thoughts from resistance to acceptance. Play around with these exercises until you land on an interpretation that feels intuitively right to you. She explains that you’ll know that you’ve picked the right interpretation when, instead of viewing the situation as wrong or unwanted, you’re able to accept it and respond to it constructively.

1) State the opposite of your thoughts: Explore if there’s any truth to the inverse of your current perspective. According to Katie, the more you acknowledge that the opposing perspective can also be true for you, the less hold your resistant thoughts will have over you.  

  • Example #1: Change, “My children never help with the chores because they don’t respect me,” to, “My children always help with the chores because they respect me.”
  • Example #2: Change, “I never have enough money and this makes me feel like a failure,” to, “I always have enough money and this makes me feel like a success.”

2) State your role in the situation: Shift your perspective from blaming external circumstances to questioning what role your thoughts and behaviors have played in creating both the situation and your feelings about it. According to Katie, understanding your role in the situation will result in a profound change: Instead of needing the situation to be a specific way before you can accept it, you’ll feel empowered to change the way you think about it so that you can feel at peace, regardless of whether or not the situation changes.

  • Example #1: “My children never help with the chores because I don’t respect myself,” or My children never help with the chores because I don’t respect them,” or, “I never help my children with the chores because I don’t respect them.”
  • Example #2: “I think I’m a failure and that’s why I never have enough money.”
A Step-by-Step Process to Release Dysfunctional Thoughts

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  • How to investigate resistant thoughts that trigger emotional discomfort
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  • How to accept and feel at peace with yourself and others

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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