The 1 Question That Helps Me Combat Negative Thinking
I like to think I'm an unofficial expert on negative thinking. It's not unusual for me to start and finish the day ruminating on something that could go wrong—but most likely won't. And I typically take my lunch with a side of worry, too.
I'm far from alone in experiencing negative thoughts: The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Of those thoughts: 95 percent repeat each day, and, on average, 80 percent of repeated thoughts are negative.
I've tried numerous tactics to cut the negativity, including but not limited to: Shouting "STOP" in my head when a negative thought appears, softly singing "Oops!…I Did It Again" to drown out the thoughts (thanks, BritBrit!), writing down all my negative thoughts to see my irriational thinking, and meditating.
Today, thanks to a variety of tactics and professional help, I've learned to better manage my anxiety. But that doesn't mean I'm "negative thought-free." I'm still human—so I'm always on the lookout for new strategies to check my negativity. Recently, I found an easy trick that's helped. It doesn't involve a 10-minute meditation or setting aside time to journal—all it involves is asking yourself one simple question: "Is this useful?"
You control which thoughts matter
I learned about this mindfulness hack from popular self-help blogger Eric Barker, who runs the blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree. In a recent post about emotional strength, Barker explains that we can't control which thoughts "bounce around" in our mind. What we can control: the thoughts we focus on. "You’re the thing that decides which thoughts are useful and should be taken seriously," he writes. And he shared a perfect analogy to better explain this:
"You’re not your brain; you’re the CEO of your brain. You can’t control everything that goes on in 'Mind, Inc.' But you can decide which projects get funded with your attention and action." - Eric Barker
Ask yourself: 'Is this useful?'
So, how do you decide which "projects" get funded? Barker says to ask yourself, "Is this useful?" It's a tactic Barker learned from Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist mindfulness expert. It's designed to help you assess if a thought is serving you or others—or if it's just irrational.
"If the worry is reasonable, do something about it," Barker writes. "If it’s irrational or out of your control, recognize that. Neuroscience shows that merely making a decision like this can reduce worry and anxiety."
This past week, I decided to put the strategy to the test. When negative thoughts (unsurprisingly) popped into my head, I challenged them with a peaceful, "Is this useful?" Pausing to ask that question did a few things: First, it forced me to climb out of my thoughts and see them from a new perspective. I became CEO of Haley's Mind, Inc. My mission: To make sure thoughts bettered the company. Adopting that point of view made me more curious than concerned about what went on in my head.
Second, asking "Is this useful?" made me more intentional when I challenged my thoughts. Unlike desperately shouting at my thoughts to "STOP", I calmly faced them head-on and assessed them. I quickly decided if the thoughts served me, and I let those that didn't fall to the wayside.
I started viewing my thoughts like a Tinder scenario: I swiped left for those that didn't prove beneficial to me, and right for those that I could actually act on. I was making my thoughts work for me, not against me—and it felt good.
Take back your power
I'm definitely sticking with the "Is this useful?" tactic—and I'd recommend people with negative thoughts give it a try. But one thing I've learned as a "negative thought expert": What works for one person might not work for everyone. Mindfulness, journaling, a classic early 2000s jam—there are lots of ways to combat negative thinking. It's all about what works best for you.
However you manage your Mind, Inc., just know that you are in charge. And any unfriendly "employees"—a.k.a. negative thoughts—are yours to dismiss.
Read next: Stuck in Negative Thinking? Here's What to Do
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