How Negative, Unhelpful Thoughts Set You Back

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 struggle with negative thoughts? How does negative thinking warp your perception of reality?

Negative thoughts provide your brain with false evidence that reality is bad, trapping you in a negative mindset that causes unnecessary suffering. While some negative thoughts may feel warranted, they are ultimately unhelpful thoughts—they won’t help you solve the problem.

Here’s how negative thoughts cause you to misinterpret reality.

Negative Thoughts Cause You to Misinterpret Reality

Negative thoughts keep you mired in a world of possibilities that don’t exist: Instead of focusing your mind on what has happened or is happening, they focus your mind on what should have happened, could have happened, or might happen. 

These unhelpful thoughts keep you locked in an imaginary narrative that has nothing to do with reality. As a result, they cloud your judgment and prevent you from clearly perceiving, interpreting, and responding to the situation as it is. 

According to Katie, the more you let your internal narrative blind you, the more you misperceive and misinterpret reality as bad. This causes you to engage in emotional reactions and behaviors that exacerbate your negative feelings and prolong your emotional pain

Example: It’s your birthday and your partner hasn’t yet mentioned it. You assume that she’s forgotten about you, and this upsets you. Since you’re upset, you can’t think clearly about how much she cares about you—instead, you focus on all the ways she neglects your needs. This exacerbates your negative feelings and causes you to emotionally withdraw from her. As it turns out, your partner didn’t mention your birthday because she’s planning a surprise for you—which means you don’t have a real reason to feel pained by the experience. Only your misinterpretation of her behavior, coupled with your negative internal narrative, creates and prolongs your pain. 

(Shortform note: Psychologists explain that the tendency to dwell on negative interpretations of reality comes from the negativity bias. This bias causes apparently negative experiences to have a greater emotional impact on you than positive ones. Consequently, you’re likely to notice, react to, and remember criticism more than praise, sad memories more than happy memories, bad news more than good news, your mistakes more than your successes, and negative traits in others more than their positive traits.)

Negative Thoughts Can Help You Approach Life More Positively

Katie’s argument that negative thoughts offer no benefit is based on the assumption that these thoughts cannot improve your life. However, psychologists suggest that if you can view these types of thoughts objectively—as Katie’s four questions will help you do—negative thoughts can actually help you approach life more positively. 

According to research, you need negative thoughts and feelings because, without them, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between your experiences and recognize what satisfies you. Additionally, psychologists claim that negative thoughts and feelings benefit you in five ways:

– Motivating you to take action to improve your life
– Keeping you alert to unwanted or dangerous situations
– Helping you anticipate and prevent worst-case scenarios
– Slowing down your decision-making, allowing you to make more conscious choices
– Preventing you from wasting time and energy pursuing unattainable goals

Therefore, you can gain additional insights into your negative thoughts by considering if they offer any of these benefits.
How Negative, Unhelpful Thoughts Set You Back

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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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