An Easy Guide to Clearer Thinking

Dr. Lisa Garmezy
Dr. Lisa Garmezy

The inner critic is a beast. Negative thoughts sabotage our happiness: “I’m terrible at this;” “I’m a lousy friend,” or, “I’m sooo fat.” Officers are quick to spot weakness—especially in themselves. Many of us, cops and civilians, choose to tell ourselves exactly what we would say if we were trying to upset ourselves.

Why not offer yourself some support instead?

Recently, after a funeral, a friend shared her regrets with me. Her visits with her mother seemed enough, until the day she passed away. Then my friend felt horribly negligent. She beat herself up about being a terrible daughter.

Does anyone need that kind of self-criticism? Granted, there’s a lesson here about keeping priorities straight. But she had been a devoted caretaker, and it wasn’t good for her to sincerely tell herself she failed in her duty.

Negative thoughts are destructive, and not just because we’d like the world to be filled with sunshine and kittens. They screw up your moods and block you from your goals.

Better Thoughts, Better Results

Consider two officers who decide to shed a few greasy-burrito pounds. The first one tells himself, “I’m starving! I can’t get through my shift on rabbit food.” The second one tells himself, “I’m a little bit hungry, but that means I’m losing weight.”

You know which one will succeed.

Or, take another all too familiar example. After years of fights, promises to change, and a couple of stabs at counseling, the wife leaves. It’s over. But you share a couple of great kids whose welfare means everything.

So what does the unfortunate ex-husband tell himself? He’s typically mentally muttering that his former love is aggressive, deceitful, ice-cold and all the rest. That monologue amps up his negative emotions, creating tension when he’s around his exe that spills over to the children, raising their anxiety levels.

I’ve seen a lot of marriages fall apart, and except for addiction and abuse, 99 percent of the time both parties bore some blame. The unprecedented thoughts “It wasn’t all her,” and “The kids are what matters now,” would help our newly divorced friend toward a needed end to hostilities.

Therapy in Short Form

Let’s summarize the psychological wisdom on this subject. Call it, “Thinking Straight for Dummies.”

  1. Strong negative emotions are part of life. Unfortunately, they can trigger problems (think alcohol) and jeopardize our health and peace of mind.
  2. Telling ourselves to FEEL SOMETHING DIFFERENT does absolutely no good.
  3. But monitoring and changing our thoughts CAN bring results.
  4. Different thoughts lead to different feelings and different behaviors. That’s why en route to a job interview, you’d push away pessimistic thoughts so that the interviewer wouldn’t sense any lack of confidence.
  5. Swapping helpful positive thoughts for negative ones helps you reach your goals. It never hurts to think, “I’ve got this!”

Here’s the kicker: You probably form positive thoughts automatically when talking to others. If you had spoken to my bereaved friend, you would have reassured her, as I did, that she was always there for her mom, who definitely knew how very much she was loved. We just forget to give ourselves the same compassionate pep talks.

The next time you’re mentally condemning yourself, stop and think about what you would tell a good friend in the same situation. Focus on those new, constructive thoughts. Try writing one down on a Post-it—for example, “She knew I loved her”—and sticking it where you’ll see it frequently. Be your own wise friend.

Hushing the Private Chatter

In some cases, negative thinking helps us own our mistakes and clean up our act. A lot of it, however, is as hurtful and discouraging as if it came from a real enemy. Try fact-checking your negative thoughts. Most people who do find a collection of exaggerations and some outright falsehoods.

In therapy we teach people to correct untrue inner thoughts—and clients become happier and more productive. “I totally screwed up” usually means, “My game was a little off” or “This wasn’t my finest hour,” or it may mean nothing at all. Substitute a thought that tells the story more honestly.

Check whether your thoughts pass the helpfulness test. Maybe your exe actually was an unfaithful, cheating, you-know-what. Perhaps it’s 100 percent true and your wisest friends would say the same. It’s still not helpful to ruminate on that. The thought won’t take you where you want to go unless you prefer bitterness to calm.

Another “thinking error” officers have been warned about is seeing everything in black and white: bad people and good people, cooperative witnesses and time-wasters or liars. Don’t apply this misguided logic to yourself. As a son, a spouse, or a friend, you’re not all bad or all good. Your loved ones aren’t either. Ignoring shades of grey may mean quitting on important relationships.

Last, avoid comparisons, a major source of negativity. We tend to think others have it better than we do. Social media certainly tells us so. Please remember that we know our own warts-and-all reality far more completely than that of other people. The writer Anne Lamont says, “Try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.”

To inspire you to actually use these techniques, consider a story Rev. Billy Graham told. A Cherokee grandfather explained to his grandson that we all carry inside of us two wolves locked in combat. The first is Evil. It barks out anger, envy, jealousy, self-pity, guilt, conceit and so on. The second wolf is Good, and its message is love, hopefulness, humility, and kindness. The grandson absorbs this, thinks, and asks, “Which one wins?” Sagely, his grandfather answers, “The one you feed.”

Dr. Catherine Sanderson’s The Positive Shift has more on changing your thoughts. The wolf story and Lamont quote come from her book.