004B. A Conversation on Reframing Negative Thoughts

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Key Quotes

• “The responsibility lies on our shoulders to better ourselves and reframe our negative thoughts.” – Wesley Jackson
• “I think there’s a misconception that everyone but you is happy. We don’t have access to each others’ thoughts, so we tend to think that everyone is happier than we are.” – Andrew Gilley

Episode Summary

In the quiet corners of the mind, a subtle struggle unfolds as negative thought patterns threaten to hold us back. In this intriguing episode, we explore the practice of reframing these thoughts – a powerful tool to break free from self-doubt and foster self-compassion and love.

These unhelpful thought patterns, stemming from ancient survival mechanisms, now hinder our modern lives. Their impact is intensified by social media, which often encourages comparison with others. If ignored, these thoughts can manifest as illness, increasing the risk of health issues like heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

For those grappling with past traumas or low self-esteem, these thoughts can be particularly challenging, magnified by the fear of social rejection. Reframing these thoughts is essential for personal growth, building meaningful connections, and promoting mental well-being.

Discover the techniques of cognitive diffusion and cognitive restructuring, which offer the potential to reshape negativity. Learn about the insightful deck of cards concept from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the benefits of gratitude journaling for achieving mental shifts.

Finally, explore mindfulness meditation and affirmation statements, as we discuss their ability to cater to each individual’s unique needs. Join us on this journey into the mind and emerge with newfound mastery over your thoughts.

Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Wesley Jackson: How do you think reframing negative thoughts is related to mindshifts?

In today’s self-help podcast episode, we explore why reframing negative thoughts is worth revisiting today in the context of mindshifts, we then examine the nature of reframing negative thoughts and how it’s an important factor in our lives.

Lastly, we share insights we’ve compiled on how to effectively handle the difficulties that we all may encounter with reframing negative thoughts.

Welcome to Surviving Humanity: A Self-Help Podcast, where we shift your perspective to help you overcome the obstacles in your life.

We are Wesley Jackson and Andrew Gilley, and we hope to foster a sense of community and connection over our common struggles while providing you with tools to overcome them.

As always, our FacebookSubreddit, and Twitter are the best places to go for community, connection, and support. Links to these are in the show notes.

Let’s get started.

So, Andrew, what exactly is reframing negative thoughts?

[00:00:51] Andrew Gilley: Negative thoughts themselves are thoughts that are harmful or destructive in some way. These usually take the form of unwarranted self-criticism when directed internally. Or, you can also have negative thoughts about the world, which hammer your ability to function out there. The process is reframing those thoughts as a survival tool to ensure they don’t pull you under and prevent you from living your best life.

You take these thoughts and you shift the way that you approach them in order to make them less harmful. What do you think Wes?

[00:01:15] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, I think that describes it pretty accurately and gives a nice broad perspective to it too. I think reframing negative thoughts is the practice of noticing thought patterns that don’t serve your best interests, evaluating the evidence that there actually is for having said thought, and then applying self-compassion so that you ultimately become more forgiving and loving of yourself.

And I want to emphasize here the word practice in the beginning too, because this is something that needs to be done on a very consistent basis.

[00:01:43] Andrew Gilley: Right. This isn’t a “one and done” deal. It’s a constant readjusting of your mental frame in order to keep yourself functioning the best you can and dealing with negative thoughts as they arise.

So, why are we talking about this today of all days? Why is it relevant today specifically?

[00:01:59] Wesley Jackson: I think the most helpful way to put this in a concise perspective here is the total suicide rate in the United States alone increased by 35.2% from 2000 to 2018. And this is according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The road to suicide is one that is paved with negative thoughts, obviously, and while suicide is a very extreme case here, negative thought patterns create an endless feedback loop in your brain. And this holds you back from fully living your life and it holds you back ultimately from fully being yourself.

[00:02:33] Andrew Gilley: Right. You start to identify with those negative thoughts, and they’re just thoughts. They aren’t who you are, but when you start to really believe these negative thoughts – and it’s tempting to, because they can repeat over and over again – they really do hold you back. I think in general there’s a misconception that everybody around you but you is happy and having a good life.

We don’t have access to each other’s thoughts, so we tend to think that everyone is happier than we are. This is just exacerbated by social media, another one of our go-to points on the show. But, you’ve got this comparison looking around, you’re scrolling through endless, beautiful people and good times; you’re seeing all the highlight reels.

So, when you see that, you’re gonna compare yourself, have more negative thoughts, and then it becomes even more important to reframe them.

[00:03:12] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, exactly. And so how important is this though, to our lives, do you think?

[00:03:17] Andrew Gilley: Negative thought patterns could literally ruin your life. I still struggle with them, but they were really problematic for me for years and years on end. Leaves you stuck wallowing in depression and fear, and they feel like they represent something true.

They often don’t, but that doesn’t really stop it for feeling real to us, and they’re hard to control. It often feels like there’s no way out, which is itself another negative thought that just stacks on top of them. So, reframing our thoughts more accurately here can give us a greater sense of peace, instead of sinking down further into that negativity.

[00:03:45] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, it really is like a feeling of sinking. It’s like this bottomless pit and you just the light gets further and further away from you, right?

[00:03:53] Andrew Gilley: Absolutely.

[00:03:54] Wesley Jackson: I think it’s important because if these negative thought patterns are not effectively reframed, they will only continue to circulate endlessly in our heads and ultimately will manifest as well somatically within our bodies.

So, if something’s not done about it, it’s not just going to magically get better on its own, unfortunately; it’s only going to get worse. And like I mentioned, it will manifest somatically in a variety of physical health problems and illnesses in addition to the initial mental issues.

It’s important to not let these negative thoughts run the show that’s your life.

[00:04:27] Andrew Gilley: Absolutely. So, we’ve talked about why it’s relevant, but why is it urgent?

[00:04:32] Wesley Jackson: With the way things are going on in the world, it looks like things are going to continue to get worse, and it may be quite a while before they do get better. Either way, things are going to change for most of us pretty significantly. And adapting to this change is going to require a lot of resilience.

If we hope to weather future storms, so to speak, we’re going to need our minds to be in their best shape and we will need more hope and strength. Negative thought patterns do not serve us in this regard, so, it’s really hard to accumulate hope and strength if your mind is constantly shitting on you for all of your past mistakes, embarrassing moments, what have you.

[00:05:10] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, on an individual level, stress kills, literally, even mild anxiety can reduce your lifespan. Looking at a study from the journal, BMJ, in 2011, even mild anxiety increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

And this just gets worse if you’ve been struggling with it for a long time, the risk gets even higher. So, it’s important to get that kind of stress under control and that kind of depression under control; though You can’t really ever get away from these things entirely.

Reframing your negative thoughts and approaching them differently is a key way to reduce that kind of stress on you and ultimately help yourself become healthier.

[00:05:44] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, it has a direct physical effect on you if you’re able to effectively reframe these negative thoughts.

So, where do you feel this problem comes from, exactly, Andrew?

[00:05:54] Andrew Gilley: Well, a lot of negative thinking patterns stem from maladaptive survival mechanisms.

So, Russ Harris in his great book, the Happiness Trap, notes that our brain is constantly dredging up the past and future. In primitive times, this is useful for evaluating threats. Let’s say you get attacked by a tiger or something and you think back, “What did you hear? Did it get close? How are you gonna prepare next time? Is it gonna storm? Are shelters solid enough? Do we need to make more?”

These things are great in a survival context of early humans where you’re really only looking out for yourself and the immediate group of people around you, and it’s really helpful then, because it improves the longevity of the group.

But, this doesn’t really apply today, especially in light of social media. I’m quoting Harris directly here, “A hundred thousand years ago, we only had the few members of our immediate clan to go compare ourselves to, but these days you can open any newspaper magazine, switch on any television, tune into any radio, and instantly find a whole host of people who are smarter, richer, taller, slimmer sexier, stronger, more powerful, more famous, more successful, or more admired than we are.

[00:06:46] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, you got that right. It’s really hard to not feel negatively about yourself in that case, huh?

[00:06:51] Andrew Gilley: Yep, it definitely all kind of stacks on top of each other.

[00:06:54] Wesley Jackson: Yeah. Just increasing this burden on your mind.

[00:06:57] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, what’s your take?

[00:06:58] Wesley Jackson: When something – I’m gonna take the chemical, physical approach here.

[00:07:02] Andrew Gilley: Okay.

[00:07:02] Wesley Jackson: When something negative happens, our body tends to release cortisol, the stress hormone, in response. And so according to John Nash, clinical mental health counselor in Utah, stressful memories actually tend to be stronger than neutral memories, because more areas of the brain are actually getting activated in that case.

So, as a result, our brains tend to focus on the negative more so than the positive, regardless of the situation. And like you mentioned, the tiger, right? One can easily see now how this behavior pattern is not always going to work out because you’re not always running away from a tiger.

Maybe you just got an email from your boss and you automatically assume it’s negative and you’re gonna be berated or criticized for something that you did wrong. This will often cause us to warp reality and preemptively get anxiety about situations that are completely neutral.

And it will cause us to respond inappropriately as a result in a variety of situations if we’re always expecting a negative outcome.

[00:07:59] Andrew Gilley: That’s the flight or fight response, or flight, fight, or freeze, as it sometimes said. That’s useful when you’re facing a tiger, that’s not useful when you’re facing an email.

That email’s not actually going to physically harm you, but it doesn’t matter to the brain. The brain is seeing it the same way.

[00:08:14] Wesley Jackson: I am totally guilty of the avoiding emails.

[00:08:17] Andrew Gilley: So, Wes, who do you think this is a problem in particular for, who’s really suffering under the weight of their negative thoughts?

[00:08:23] Wesley Jackson: I would say anybody who has experienced significant trauma in their lives and has developed PTSD, depression, and/or anxiety as a result. According to the National Center for PTSD, 6% of the population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, and I’m willing to bet that the actual number is much higher due to the fact that mental illnesses are generally vastly underreported.

I’ll use myself actually as a personal example here. On a daily basis, I have to grapple with reframing negative thoughts in my head. The words of these thoughts are ultimately not even my own. They’re actually things that I was told when I was growing up, or even later in life, for example, have led to this general feeling that what I do and who I am as a result is never good enough.

So, if I let these thoughts take over, then they will mentally cripple me, causing me to not get anything done, which will then just continue this negative feedback loop where I feel even worse about myself.

[00:09:20] Andrew Gilley: I experience very similar things here. I’m always constantly getting caught in thought loops, just spiraling. It’s really hard and there’s just a huge amount of weight with these negative thoughts, and it’s a lot of work to keep reframing them, but it’s important.

As for who’s affected, basically anybody with low self-esteem already: abuse victims, like you mentioned, people targeted by ads, people experiencing discrimination, or people who just aren’t where they want to be in life, absorbing the message of what they’re supposed to be.

If you internalize those sorts of messages, it’s going to make you feel bad about yourself, even if you’re not doing anything wrong, because it’s a deviation for what you’re expected to do socially. And this could be very isolating too.

Once you experience the effects of people shutting you out if you’re not doing the right thing, that’s gonna make you feel really bad as well.

[00:10:04] Wesley Jackson: Yeah. Like, this primal fear of ostracization, right?

[00:10:07] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, the early human fear that I was talking about earlier. Again, it’s useful in that context because you need to contribute to the tribe, but here it’s just misfiring all over the place.

[00:10:16] Wesley Jackson: So, why should we care about all this at the end of the day?

[00:10:19] Andrew Gilley: Obviously, in one sense, we should care in a self-interested way. Like I said, negative thought patterns and negative thoughts by definition, are ones that impede our lives, so, they’re destructive in some way. So, it’s good for us to reframe them so we can live better, live with less stress in our lives.

But it’s not only about that. It’s about the misconception that everyone around you is walking around happily all the time, or even most of it. We all have these negative thoughts. If you’ve got depression or anxiety or intrusive thoughts like I do, these things can be really disruptive to your life. But even one really sticky, negative thought pattern could really put you in a funk even if you don’t have those tendencies.

So, it’s important to know how to reframe negative thoughts. You can spot them in others too. This is for two main reasons. First is to help other people reframe their negative thoughts. And then second is to protect yourself from other people’s negative thought patterns influencing you. When you can identify them, you can more easily say, “Okay, this is not about me, this is about their negativity.”

And you can move on from there. So, from a personal perspective, it’s good to reframe your negative thought patterns. It’ll make you get along better in life and thus get along better with your fellow humans.

Wes, why do you think we should care?

[00:11:21] Wesley Jackson: I just wanted to – really quick – touch on that point.

It’s so true, how there are other people who have negative thought patterns and it’s really important to not let them influence you and affect your own identity and self-concept.

I didn’t really think about that in this case, but you’re so right. A lot of us out here are depressed, anxious, and/or traumatized, and so a lot of us aren’t getting, or don’t have access to the help that we so desperately need.

So, if that’s the case, then ultimately the responsibility lies on our own shoulders to better ourselves and to reframe our own negative thoughts. The responsibility also lies on our shoulders to be better. And by this I mean that we must be better towards our fellow humans. So, in these cases where someone else is having negative thought patterns and you can feel them to start to affect you, I think it’s really important to respond in cases like this with compassion.

Give these people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t take it personally. None of us can read minds. We don’t know what other people are going through. And even if we do, that’s only just the tip of the iceberg, because you can just imagine what thoughts are circulating in people’s heads, who are acting out in ways such as this, right? More often than not, we are our own worst enemy; so I urge everybody that’s listening right now to keep this in mind and really work on embodying this practice to become more compassionate as a result.

[00:12:41] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, benefit of the doubt is very important. A lot of times you can go online and see people having some kind of mental health episode of some sort. And what happens a lot unfortunately, is they’re usually dragged all over the internet. “Haha, look at this person freaking out in public.”

It’s really just a bad show when that sort of thing happens, it’s people not really being empathetic or not understanding when they see people going through really hard times. You’re right, it’s very important to be compassionate. “Be kind for everybody you know is fighting a hard battle”, as the saying goes.

So, how do we tie this back into larger topics at hand? We’re talking about mindshifts generally. What is a mindshift and how does our discussion about reframing negative thoughts link back up to that?

[00:13:20] Wesley Jackson: So, reframing negative thoughts can be considered one of the most fundamental mindshifts from which everything else may flow.

If we’re able to successfully shift our thought patterns to be more positive, a lot more becomes possible. The process goes something a little bit like this: identify that your current way of thinking is ineffective, realize that there is a better way of thinking, and then let go of the old thinking to adopt the new.

And I know this sounds really simple, but it’s important to know that achieving this requires consistent practice on a daily basis. And so the reframing of negative thoughts must first be executed consciously so often that they (this process) ultimately become subconscious. And at this point, we can probably consider that the mindshift has truly occurred.

What about you, Andrew?

[00:14:07] Andrew Gilley: Reframing negative thoughts is itself a mindshift, but, like you said, it’s fundamental. It opens the doors to other shifts in our thinking. Negative thoughts drag us down and make us unable to see the world clearly. We’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re seeing a tiny slice of the world through our own distorted vision.

By reframing negative thoughts, we can also shift our views about the world. If I’m not so bad or the world isn’t so bad, what’s next? What should we do about conflict? What should our priorities be? What should our values be? This opens the door to so many different questions, and then when you go into a new mindset about these things, everything else adjusts too.

And then you can begin reframing other negative thoughts in light of those adjusted beliefs. This is quite literally the definition of the term personal development. You are developing by changing different parts of your mind that aren’t working for you and shifting yourself into a new paradigm.

[00:14:53] Wesley Jackson: I think it’s a really nice, succinct way to put it.

That is true. It is like personal development in a nutshell, huh? So, what can we then, on the individual level, do about this problem?

[00:15:03] Andrew Gilley: There’s two primary techniques I wanna draw on here. One from acceptance and commitment therapy or ACT, or “act”, and one from cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. I should emphasize, these aren’t the only two techniques.

Not every technique works for everyone all the time. Whenever you’re looking at anything in personal development or self-improvement, treat it like an experiment. We’re all different, so each of us needs different things to get by, so don’t worry if a technique doesn’t work for you, there’s a lot out there.

For ACT, I’d like to talk about cognitive diffusion, or just diffusion. This isn’t about getting rid of negative thoughts. If you try that, you’re only going to make it worse a lot of the time. Rather, it’s about reducing the hold that a negative thought has on you. It’s not about the content of the thought, but it’s about our relationship to us.

We wanna diffuse the hold that negative thoughts have on us. I like Russ Harris’ example, again, great book about this subject, “Whenever an unhelpful or negative thought comes up, just say thanks for that story, brain!”

Separates the thought from you, reframes the thought, not as a fact, but just as the story that happened to float through your mind.

You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are just things that happen in the brain. It’s always thinking and telling different stories No negative thought, no negative story is necessarily true just because you think it. My other favorite diffusion phrase is, “I am having the thought that…”

This makes it so it’s not true, it’s just the thought you’re having. It may or may not be true. It’s true you’re having the thought, but it’s not that the thought is true. Diffusion helps you limit the power that negative stories about ourselves have. They check the control narratives have over us.

The other technique that’s from cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, is called cognitive restructuring. This one’s about the content of thought. Many negative beliefs are reflexive, you develop ’em in childhood a lot of the time, so you’ve been thinking it so long, it doesn’t even matter if it’s true anymore. So, sometimes these beliefs are irrational, and exposing that irrationality to ourselves can help us reframe our negative thoughts into something more useful.

You might think you’re being watched all the time, or people can read your thoughts, because you’ve been traumatized as a kid; it’s a very common response. But if you enter a dialogue with yourselves, like, “Where do these beliefs come from? Why am I making that assumption? Because people are judging me.”

Sure it’s possible. Some people are. But are you judging everyone? No. You don’t have the time, you’re thinking about everyone judging you. You’re often distorting reality to see the world and see things that aren’t really there. This can help with that.

I personally find diffusion more useful and I think the evidence backs that up. And I also think you have to write out the CBT part, simply thinking it isn’t enough. That’s why a lot of CBT things are workbooks where you do that work. But, everything has its place.

So for reframing, if you focus on these techniques, diffusing the power they have over you, and fact-checking those thoughts, then you’re well on your way to being able to better grapple with negative thoughts. It takes a lot of practice and it’s not a quick fix, but it is the most effective one.

How about you, Wes?

[00:17:32] Wesley Jackson: It’s definitely not a quick fix, like you said, and the work does have to be put in, in order to get this to actually happen, this whole reframing of negative thoughts. I’m gonna also mention acceptance and commitment therapy, because I think it is particularly helpful here, just like you said.

For everyone listening, don’t worry if you don’t have the means for a therapist, or access to one, you’re in luck actually, because this is a tip from my own therapist, in fact. There exists out there on the internet an ACT deck of cards, which is a deck of 55 cards that ask tough questions, encourage meaningful action, and provide new perspectives to help you let go of negative thoughts and ultimately live in the present moment.

I personally have a deep affinity for cards, so I’ve found that this unique format is particularly helpful. And we’ll include a link to the deck in the show notes.

In addition to that, mindfulness meditation helps a lot of people. I myself have practiced it for years, but recently I’ve actually started to shift away from that and start to focus more on affirmation statements, because I was continuing to struggle with the reframing of the negative thought patterns as it was happening in my head. I was only able to stop this runaway train, that is my thoughts, after it’s already crashed through a bunch of tracks, right?

I want to be able to make sure that the train never leaves the station in the first place, ideally, and just doing this meditation was not enough. And I was doing this for a very long time, and so I’ve recently started to integrate affirmation statements into my morning meditation routine.

So, now I’m, instead of committing, 20 whole minutes just to this Zen meditation, essentially, I’m committing half of that now to reciting affirmation statements to myself in the mirror.

If that seems like a little bit too much for people, my number one recommendation is gratitude journaling.

I did this every day and night for years, and it has really helped rewire my brain permanently to think more positively about my life. The best part about this is that it only takes five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening.

[00:19:36] Andrew Gilley: I do wanna point out something interesting here, like even among us two, we’re very good friends. We think a lot alike on certain issues, but I personally do not find affirmations useful at all, and I find that mindfulness meditation extremely useful. So, that’s why you really have to try it out and see what works for you. It’s just that. It’s personal. So, there’s no cookie-cutter way to solve all your problems.

[00:19:56] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, it’s so interesting right, how it’s like, we’re so similar in a lot of ways, but that’s like a very stark difference.

[00:20:02] Andrew Gilley: Yeah. And I do the affirmations and I just – it doesn’t work for me. It’s so interesting.

Well, I think that is a good place to leave it.

Thank you so much for listening.

Tune in next Tuesday, where we’ll have Kate Nguyen on the show to share experience with reframing negative thoughts and through our understanding of it, we may just survive humanity.

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