self improvement tips

5-Step Process for Dealing with Negative Thoughts

Like most aspiring NBA basketball players, I had an ear for doubters. When I heard anything indirectly or directly regarding the low probability of making it into the NBA, I would quickly dismiss such buffoonery.

“I work too hard not to make it! You think Kobe Bryant works hard at his game? Larry Bird? Michael Jordon? Think again! You haven’t spent a day with me! I’ll show you!”

I remembered the doubters because I wanted to prove them wrong. I remembered the believers because I wanted to prove them right.
However if I thought, “I don’t know if I’m good enough to make the NBA?”

I would give the thought credence. I would think that maybe it’s true? Maybe I wouldn’t make it to the NBA? I wouldn’t dismiss it, instead I would let the doubt settle within me and allow it to impact my game – I would pass up open shots, I would traverse
the court worried about making a mistake. I would simply play terrible basketball. Well below my capabilities.

I didn’t make the NBA. I didn’t make it for many reasons. One of those reasons was my inability to deal with negative thoughts. It was a struggle in high school and it continued through college and after.

My coach, parents and friends would tell me that I can’t think that way and I have to be positive to make it to where I want to go. The NBA, college, graduate school and wherever else I wanted to make it.

I would nod and accept their useless advice but be screaming internally, “But I’m not thinking positive! I’m thinking negative! I can’t just shut it off. Thoughts don’t just go away because I want them to! What am I supposed to do?”

Negative thoughts are not a physical injury, so why are they treated as such? If you have a broken leg, you rest it. You avoid putting weight on it for a while, you get a cast, you go through physical therapy and then you gradually put weight on it until weeks or months later, your leg is no longer broken.

But with negative thoughts, there is no cure. Psychiatrists pretend to have the cure, but there isn’t one. Negative thoughts aren’t going anywhere. There is no ridged set of exercises that will eventually rid your mind of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts will persist and that’s not a bad thing.

Your Thoughts are a Gift

Negative thoughts are a warning. They are our primitive protective instincts being verbalized. They are not some abnormality that needs a remedy. When we feel nervous our mind will put our nervousness into words, and then we have the opportunity with our human higher executive functioning, to act how we choose.

Instead of sprinting in the opposite direction of a pretty girl, I have the opportunity to rationalize my emotions. I think about how pretty she looks, I worry about saying something stupid or being rejected, and then I either talk to her or I don’t. I don’t sprint or start punching random people around me. I realize that the increase in adrenalin is not a sign of danger. It’s just
me responding to someone I find attractive.

This is the gift and to some (including myself at times) look at it as a curse. It would be nice if I could approach every pretty girl or every big presentation without the worrisome thoughts – What if my voice cracks? I don’t know what I’m talking about. Everyone in this room hates me or thinks I’m stupid. Or both!

It would be nice but it’s not realistic. It’s the give and take of being a living breathing human being. We can rationalize, read, write and make conscious purposeful decisions; however the gift that allows us to do these wonderful things can be a curse that limits our potential.

5 Step Process to Utilizing your Gift

Thoughts do NOT have to be connected to behavior, nor should they be. There are times when you want to act in the opposite direction of your thoughts. This process will help you utilize the gift that is your thoughts.

  1. “I can’t walk”. Simply walk around wherever you are, and say, “I can’t walk”. You can say it out loud or to yourself. Do this for a minute – walking and saying, “I can’t walk” and notice how your mind and body change over the course of one minute.
  2. Choose two simple tasks. In addition to walking, try a few more easy tasks like brushing your teeth or picking up a pillow and say I can’t ________. Over the next week, take a minute or so a day and do these exercises.
  3. Increase the difficulty. After one week, increase the difficulty on the tasks. Instead of walking, try jogging for ten seconds. Instead of picking up a pillow, pick up two pillows or a 10-pound weight, while saying, “I can’t ______.” Notice the separation. After a while you will begin to notice real life examples where you have negative thoughts. Recognize these thoughts for what they are and realize that they don’t have to impact your behavior.
  4. Accept it. Thoughts and feelings occur in numerous ways throughout the day and they aren’t out to get you. In fact they are trying to help you but they aren’t perfect. Sometimes you have to let a thought occur and act in opposition to it.

You can give a great presentation, when you think you won’t. You can be smooth, when you feel awkward. You can say the right thing, when you think the wrong thing. You can act positive in the face of negative thoughts.



Guido Saltarelli blogs at Adept Mind where he shares his insights on self-improvement, dealing with a hypercritical mind and writing. Follow him on Twitter and say hi.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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