If you are on a path to fitness, mental fitness is a critical pillar. You can only fix so much on the outside. The negativity you experience on the inside can sabotage years of efforts and weigh you down, literally. It is a proven fact that positive thinking and weight loss success are interrelated. Not only that, but mastering the art of guarding your mind can lead to better job success, relationships, and overall health. On the flip side, a negative mindset is associated with depression, weight gain, and disease.
It is not as simple as flipping a switch to become this positive, happy, fit person you want to become. This article will examine what is getting in the way between you and that positive person – your brain, the liar.
It’s not you, it’s your brain
First, the important thing to realize is that we are pre-programmed to think negatively. Our reaction to people and situations is usually based on our brain processing incomplete information. We can’t read minds or accurately predict the future, but our brain sure likes to fill in the blanks. And usually, it is with tabloid-grade fiction.
Another way our brain tricks us is that it filters out the positive information, leaving us to only focus on the negative. . Do you ever notice that no matter how much someone may compliment your work, it can only take one piece of criticism to totally make you down on yourself? This is part of that filtering process in your brain that is gaslighting you into thinking that you are going to get fired.
By detaching your being from your brain, you are recognizing that you are not your thoughts. The act of dissociating ourselves from the deceptive thoughts in our brains is the first step towards overcoming these automatic negative thoughts.
The next step is identifying the common types of negative thoughts, so we can recognize and take steps to separate ourselves from them.
What kinds of negative thoughts?
Before you read this section, I encourage you to watch this funny and short video where you can see cartoon enactments of the types of automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that we encounter.
Not everyone has the same thought patterns, and therefore, not everyone has the same type of negative thoughts. As this helpful youtube video explains, there are 4 types of these “automatic” negative thoughts that come like a knee-jerk reaction to situations:
- Assuming – In some regards, we have to make assumptions to live our lives. If someone puts a call on our calendar at 9am, we assume, without needing further confirmation, that this person will be there. Or, we assume if we leave our house during rush hour there will be a lot of traffic, so we should give ourselves extra times. Those assumptions are fine – it is the assumptions we make about other people’s opinions of us that really are the lying enemies we need to confront. This person didn’t email me back, they must not like me. My boss didn’t like my awesome idea for a product – he has it in for me. My significant other seems preoccupied – it definitely is something I did.
- Should musts and oughts – These thoughts are the insane demands we make upon ourselves and other people in our relentless pursuit of perfection. That saying only belongs in a Lexus ad. Thoughts like, I must lose 10 pounds immediately. My kid should be getting an A in every class. My co-worker ought to have double-checked the calculation before sending it to the client.
- Fairy tale fantasy – where we have a certain vision of how our lives should be and what things we should have, and anything short of that is unfair. Especially when we see other people who have those things and compare ourselves. Like, why am I not Kate Middleton?
- People pleasing – This kind of thought generates from the primal desire that we all have to seek validation. Validation makes us feel safe. Any senses of insecurity in relationships usually comes from a lack of validation we are seeing from the other person. The irony is even if that person tells us we are fantastic all the time, that primal need for validation is insatiable, and we will feel insecure anyway.
- Overgeneralizing – very similar to assuming, but this is when we take a conclusion based on one event and make that an across the board truth. Like, I messed up a presentation, therefore I suck at my job. I struggled during my morning run – I am so out of shape Or, everything is always your fault. Or, someone else is always to blame. This is a common pattern that people with a victim complex often fall into.
- Polarizing – . A close cousin of overgeneralizing is polarized thinking. These are black and white, all-or-nothing type of thoughts. Someone is either for you or against you. You are either first or you’re last . I call this the “Ricky Bobby thinking”
- Catastrophizing – this is my favorite. Because I do it ALL the time. You take a molehill and you make it Mt Vesuvius. Like you get some abnormal medical test results back, and you are convinced that the doctor will tell you have cancer during your follow-up visit that you have cancer. Or if you don’t nail that job interview, your entire career will be over and you will be slinging fries at the local burger joint.Or believing that just because a plane recently crashed, now you can’t get on a plane. https://positivepsychology.com/catastrophizing/
How to stop these thoughts
You can’t. Have you tried? That’s like trying to stop a runaway train, or a sneeze. The key here is not to jump on and let them take you for a ride. Instead, we can train ourselves to see that train from a distance, while it’s coming, and slow the train down, then let it keep going to the next station. But,you CAN stop the self-gaslighting and self-sabatoge.
The three steps to untangling yourself from your brain
Here are the steps I have learned from cognitive behavioral therapy to deal with these automatic thoughts. Generally, the resources have similar themes, and give a series of steps to deal with the thoughts. I am listing my own version of the steps in a way that I think is simplest to process:
- Label. . By identifying the thought and giving it a name, i.e., catastrophizing, you are taking away its power. By doing so, it’s easier to distance yourself from the thought and recognize that this thought is probably not based in reality. Sometimes I even personify it, to highlight its ridiculousness. “There’s that catastrophizer again!”
- Challenge – I learned this technique from a cognitive behavioral therapy session. The therapist taught me a two-part inquiry that is designed to make your more logical brain win out. First, ask yourself what core belief is captured by the thought you just labeled. Let’s go back to the example I gave earlier – you believe, based on what negative piece of feedback, that you are getting fired. The second step is to challenge this by asking, “What evidence do I have that this is true?” Usually, the evidence is pretty pathetic. As a lawyer, I like to ask a third question – “Would my case get thrown out of court?” The answer is usually yes.
- Redirect – As Dr. Mahboubi points out in his article, “where focus goes, energy flows. What you focus on and your pattern of focus, shape your whole life.” Refocus your thoughts in the direction of gratitude. For example, if you are upset with a co-worker who is perpetually late, try to focus on their good qualities, like how they always help you on your assignments even if that means they stay later. If you feel down about yourself, remember one of the greatest accomplishments or moments in your life. Something even as simple as redirecting your attention to the present moment can help clea the clutter. That’s why meditation is so important to clearing our mental clutter. Read my post on meditation to find out why it is an excellent fitness habit. The more you meditate, the better you will get at identifying and detaching from your thoughts.
You are not your brain, by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. I would highly recommend reading the book and its four step approach for ending unhealthy thinking.
The author would like to thank Dr. Artin Mahboubi for his contribution to this content.