It is New Year’s Eve day. I am supposed to be happy and excited. Instead I wake up very agitated. My mind is teeming with negative thoughts. I have been sick for two weeks. I feel behind. I feel unaccomplished. I feel tired even though I just got a full night’s sleep.
Then I catch myself. I realize that, because I have not done much for my soft skills blog lately, the voice in my head is scolding me. Negative thoughts fill my mind. I feel deflated. These feelings had been building up for a few days already. I knew I had to do something to break this pattern. Instead of letting my negative thoughts control me, I decided to go for a run and de-stress a little.
Running was hard. I was coughing. But I told myself I didn’t have to run fast. The fresh air helped a lot. As I ran my mind cleared. The run also gave me some quiet time to investigate what was going on in my head. As I ran I recounted how I was feeling this morning and reviewed my negative thoughts objectively.
Here is what I discovered. There were four categories of unproductive thoughts and behaviors that plagued me in the last week. Can you relate to these?
- Over-planning and under-executing. I like planning certain things in my head, but I noticed that when I don’t act on my plans, I start to build a mental backlog of to-dos. After a while I feel so overwhelmed by my backlog of to-dos that I have no room to think ahead. This has a snowball effect on my ability to accomplish anything. I knew that I had to break this pattern. That is why I sat down to write this article right after my run.
- Avoiding and procrastinating. I realized that once I felt overwhelmed, rather than doing something to get back into control, I would repress any thoughts related to my now daunting to-dos altogether and distract myself with other activities. Earlier this week, I went ice skating with my daughter, napped a lot, shopped a little, and watched TV. All was fun, but I found myself feeling guilty. There was a critical, nagging voice in the back of my head reminding me of what I have NOT done.
- Doubting myself. Without action, my mind started feeding on “what if” questions – What if no one signs up for the Soft Skills Gym after I launch? What if I am still sick next week? Is there something wrong with me? This just made me feel even more miserable.
- Comparing myself to others and being self-critical. To add to this cloud of negativity I also had the occasional feelings of inadequacy. Again I was criticizing myself as I went. Career – What I have accomplished professionally versus others? Fitness – I used to be able to run farther and faster than my friends. What happened? Family – Am I a good mother/wife/daughter? Am I spending enough time with my kids, my parents, my husband? As I write this I realize how ludicrous and unproductive these thoughts are. And yet there they were – all luring me to dwell on the negative.
As I ran I asked myself what I could do to quiet, rather than feed, these self-defeating thoughts. It seemed as though my attempts to repress the thoughts just gave them more power and energy. A good friend once told me, “Don’t fight the dark; just turn on the light.” That wisdom applied here. Telling myself to stop thinking these thoughts was like fighting the dark. No matter how hard I fought, it would still be dark. Instead, I needed to turn on the light and take productive action.
I know I am NOT my thoughts. I can have all kinds of thoughts, but I can consciously choose what I want to focus on and not allow negativity to take over. So, here are the three actions I took to break the pattern:
- Know why I need to change this pattern. Before I can make any change I need to believe that I must change. This morning I reached my tipping point for change. I cried when I woke up on New Year’s Eve day for no apparent reason. Then I declared to myself that I had enough. Regardless of why I might feel miserable, I refuse to feel miserable anymore. I can choose to dwell in my own “pity party” in my head or I can interrupt my pattern by doing something different.
- Take some small action and feel a sense of accomplishment. My first action was going on a run. It got my blood moving and my mind clear. I also immediately felt a sense of accomplishment when I finished. Everyone has their own definition of accomplishment. Mine includes trying new things, learning, and contributing to others. I am also taking action now by writing and publishing this post today. I realized that when I am doing something creative or challenging, my mind has no room to think or dwell on the negative. The more I focus on actions that I can take now or soon, the more I shine a light into the darkness.
- Appreciate myself and others. Gratitude requires active awareness and a shift in thinking. I realized that my negative thoughts all stemmed from a sense of under-achievement. Comparing myself to others never really helped anyone. It only discouraged me and kept me from recognizing and appreciating others’ accomplishments. Just writing this paragraph triggered my active self-awareness. It was time to appreciate what I had been able to accomplish this year. Last January I made a resolution to make this year not about goals but about experiences. I am making a list today to recount all the experiences I have had in 2013 and what I have learned from them.
As I write this I am still sick, but I know I will recover. While I was dwelling on how sick I was earlier this week, my doctor put things in perspective. She said, “Think of what an amazing immune system you have now.” There I was thinking I was so sick and weak compared to others and she made me realize that the exact opposite was true. I am stronger than I think. This is one example of finding the silver lining and appreciating the positive. These two weeks of illness were not wasted. I am healthier than ever because of it and I will recover.
I ran very slowly today and had to walk the last mile. But, I finished my 3 mile run/walk. It was a great start. I am ready for the new year and all that it has to offer. 2014 will be a year of learning and feeling empowered. Are you ready?
Thanks for reading this post. It’s because of readers like you that I write these articles. Writing this post helped me re-focus and I hope reading it helps you feel empowered. Best wishes in 2014.
Your comments: How do you break the pattern of negative thinking? I look forward to your questions and comments below.