How to Avoid Negative Thoughts: 2 Steps to Positivity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Soundtracks" by Jon Acuff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you doubt yourself often? What are two ways to avoid negative thoughts?

Negative thoughts can prevent you from working toward your goals. Thankfully, Soundtracks by Jon Acuff has strategies you can use to interrupt negative thoughts and stop them from holding you back.

Continue reading to learn how to avoid negative thoughts and become the best person you can be.

1. Question Negative Thoughts

To learn how to avoid negative thoughts, Acuff recommends that you take a moment to critically examine negative thoughts when they come up. When a thought gets stuck in your head, there are three criteria you can use to determine whether it’s counterproductive.

(Shortform note: While Acuff’s strategies for combating your negative thoughts are useful, sometimes you might not be able to overcome those thoughts on your own. If you’re having difficulty working through negative thoughts, it can help to turn to a partner, friend, or family member for support. Turning to loved ones can provide a healthy dose of perspective whenever you need a little help wrangling your internal monologue.)

The first factor to consider is whether the thought is true. Many negative thoughts are simply false, and taking a moment to recognize this can help you escape the cycle of negative thoughts. This can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with negative thoughts that tell you you’re inadequate or underqualified. 

For example, suppose your boss offers you a promotion that includes increased responsibility. Negative thoughts could tell you you’re not ready for such a role, and you’ll fail if you accept the promotion. However, if you take a moment to ask if these thoughts are true, you’ll realize that you are qualified for the new position—otherwise, your boss wouldn’t have considered you for the role in the first place.

(Shortform note: Experts note that because your brain is constantly thinking, it naturally generates many thoughts that have no basis in reality. Especially unpleasant random thoughts are known as intrusive thoughts, which tend to be more common in individuals with OCD and other disorders. Experts recommend that when these thoughts occur, it’s best to simply ignore them and wait for them to pass, as your brain will quickly move on to the next thing.)

Next, assess whether a given thought will help you accomplish your goals. If a thought doesn’t help you move forward, or actively hinders your productivity, that thought probably isn’t worth dwelling on. Recognizing that a negative thought is unhelpful can help you be less affected by it.

For example, imagine you have a deadline coming up at work, and you can’t stop thinking about how you could be fired if you fail to meet it. Instead of working on the now-stressful project, you’re inclined to completely avoid it due to anxiety. However, by taking a moment to think about it, you realize that by focusing on a hypothetical negative outcome, you’re making it more difficult to get anything done. Instead, you choose to focus more positively on the acclaim you’ll receive when the project is completed, which motivates you to keep pushing forward.

(Shortform note: Experts suggest that humor can be an effective strategy for overcoming counterproductive thoughts. If you’re able to find a way to laugh about a difficult situation, you’ll feel less stressed, which will make it easier for you to reapproach the situation from a more positive perspective.)

Finally, when dealing with a negative thought, take note of whether the thought makes you feel good. It can be easy to think mean-spirited, negative things about yourself. However, these kinds of thoughts can lower your confidence and prevent you from striving for your goals.

(Shortform note: If you’re struggling with an especially mean-spirited inner critic, experts recommend mentally referring to yourself in the third person in order to distance yourself from that inner critic. By referring to yourself by name, you distinguish between your conscious, positive thoughts about yourself and your inner critic’s negative thoughts. Once you’ve created that distance, it’s easier to disregard the negative voice in your head in favor of creating your own positive narrative.)

To identify unkind thoughts, Acuff suggests you consider how you’d feel if the thought was directed at one of your friends. For example, suppose you can’t stop thinking that you’re not smart enough to get into medical school. On reflection, you realize that if someone said something like that about one of your friends, you’d dismiss that person and their statement entirely. Reflecting further, you decide not to listen to such a patently unkind thought and return to working on your medical school applications with renewed faith in yourself.

(Shortform note: Acuff’s recommendation to view thoughts about yourself through the lens of friendship echoes a mindfulness concept known as self-compassion. Self-compassion is the practice of learning to treat yourself with kindness, in much the same way you would treat a friend. Part of that practice involves recognizing that you aren’t weak or isolated if you’re struggling in difficult situations. Recognizing that it’s natural for you to struggle sometimes can help you feel less frustrated and negative toward yourself when in a difficult situation.)

2. Relax and Refocus

Acuff notes that assessing your thoughts may not always be enough to interrupt them. It’s possible to recognize that a thought is untrue, unhelpful, and unkind, and still remain fixated on it anyway. When dealing with these kinds of persistent negative thoughts, Acuff recommends that you step away from whatever you’re working on and take a moment to engage in a relaxing activity to help refresh your mind before going back to work. 

(Shortform note: Stepping away from intense work and re-engaging later may help you solve problems more creatively, writes Daniel J. Levitin in The Organized Mind. By stepping away from a task, you switch your brain out of central executive mode and into mind-wandering mode. In mind-wandering mode, you’re able to consider information from a variety of sources that you may not consider while in the narrow, intense focus of central executive mode.)

How to Avoid Negative Thoughts: 2 Steps to Positivity

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jon Acuff's "Soundtracks" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Soundtracks summary:

  • A guide to stop overthinking and start chasing your goals
  • Why human brains are wired for overthinking
  • How to repeat positive thoughts until they become patterns

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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