How to Break Negative Thought Patterns

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Big Leap" by Gay Hendricks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you often find yourself falling down the negative thinking spiral? How do you break the habit of negative thinking?

Human beings are creatures of habit. Once you get into the habit of thinking a certain way, it sticks with you. The longer you practice the negative thinking habit—whether consciously or unconsciously—the harder it is to break.

Here’s how to break negative thought patterns once and for all.

How to Deal With Negative Thinking

Negative thinking patterns such as chronic worrying and rumination are common self-sabotaging tendencies that prevent you from being happy and successful. If you want to reach your full potential in life, you must learn to redirect your thoughts to get out of that pattern. When you catch yourself worrying, stop and ask whether it’s useful or not. If it’s not, acknowledge that and redirect your thoughts toward something useful. But ceasing these habits isn’t sufficient in itself. Hendricks points out that you must also determine what positive energy or success you may be trying to block by engaging in this negative thought pattern. Therefore, rather than just redirecting your thoughts, also take the time to look for what triggered it.

(Shortform note: Hendricks takes this idea from the work of psychiatrist Fritz Perls. The idea is that both fear and excitement have similar physiological responses in the body, involving the release of adrenaline and a rapid heartbeat. Breath work can calm this response and make the feeling more positive.) 

The Thinking Mind and the Observing Mind

Distinguishing between what Zen Buddhists call the “thinking mind” and the “observing mind” may help you break negative thought patterns by creating distance from your thoughts, so you can more objectively evaluate them. Essentially, your thinking mind is the internal dialogue that runs continuously in your head, which you’re sometimes consciously directing and sometimes not controlling at all. Your observing mind is the part of you that notices those thoughts. So, for example if you’re daydreaming about your upcoming vacation when you should be working, and then you catch yourself doing that, and redirect yourself back to work, your observing mind is the part of you that caught yourself daydreaming. If you learn to differentiate these two aspects of your mind, through mindfulness techniques, you can exercise better control over your thoughts.

The Happiness Trap  gives advice on how to break negative thought patterns by separating your thinking mind from your observing mind using the mindfulness technique called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This technique could be useful for addressing worry and anxiety-related behaviors.

How to Break Negative Thought Patterns

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  • How to overcome the psychological barriers to success and fulfillment
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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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