Change Your Thinking, Live More Productively

by UB therapist, Aaron Karmin, LCPC

Changing your thinking habits can make many things less disagreeable. If you don’t like your job, for example, you may habitually think about what a chore it is, how much you hate it, and how much you’d rather do something else for a living. You may think negative thoughts about your job from the time you get up to go to work until you get home, and this may keep you miserable all day long. You will feel better about working at a job you dislike if you practice positive thoughts such as: “At least it pays the rent,” “I sure do like my paycheck,” and “I’m going to do the best I can.”

If you are depressed or anxious, think of the opposite. Instead of dwelling on the worst case scenario, imagine the most unlikely best case outcome. Both are equally unlikely, its absurd to predict the future accurately. So at least by imagining the best case scenario you will stop accepting what pops into your mind and believing it to be true. Pick an area in which you are having trouble, then create or invent new memorable, extremely favorable, ridiculously absurd options to deal with that situation. If you are uncomfortable around your supervisor at work or your relatives, imagine positive scenes in which you solve conflicts or make adjustments. If confidence and self-esteem are low, imagine scenes in which your confidence is increased. Imagine being praised for your efforts, being successful, or finally receiving the acceptance or affection from those who have not provided it in the past. If nothing else by thinking of the best possible outcome you can feel more open to the shades of gray rather then the black and white world of all good or bad. It may sound strange, but your brain will think your life is better (it only knows what it’s told!) and will chemically your mood will lift gradually.

Yet, it may not be so simple. For example, you may be fighting low self-esteem because of prior abandonment. To change your self-image, you affirm, “I am good, beautiful, worthy, and strong.” However, your unconscious mind sabotages your efforts to create a new positive identity by releasing the negative counter-thought, “You are an insecure, awkward, homely loser.” This negative thought has had control of your self-image for years. It is a well-established thought circuit that does not give up its power so easily. The negative thought maintains its power unless neutralized by a stronger, positive thought. With practice, eventually the positive thought will grow and associate with other positive thoughts such as, “I am a good person. There are many successes in my life. People actually do like me. I have a lot to offer.” And its up to you. You can choose at any time to deploy an army of positive thoughts that will rapidly and effectively neutralize the negative ones. Then, when the same provocative situation arises to test you, your mind stays positive, poised, and peaceful.

Affirmations may sound (and feel) a little stiff and unnatural at first, but don’t worry — they work anyway. Once you get the feel of affirmations, relax and develop your own style. For example, there’s nothing wrong with saying to yourself, “Girl, you are so cool. Look how you aced that interview!” Below are some sample affirmations that others have found helpful:

Maturity – Replaces feeling immature.

• “I am a grown-up now.”

• “I am not playing a role from childhood.”

Belonging – Replaces feelings of not belonging.

• “I am a member in good standing of the human race.”

• “I belong to myself.”

• “I belong wherever I happen to be.”

Security – Replaces insecurity.

• “My security is not in material things.”

• “My security is not in phony idealism.”

• “I am secure within myself.”

Independence – Replaces feeling dependent.

• “I am competent to live my life on my own terms.”

• “I am free to cooperate with my fellow human beings in an interdependent relationship of equals.”

• “I can validate my own successes.”

• “I can trust my own judgment.”

Accomplishment – Replaces “I can’t win for losing.”

• “I did it! I made it happen in the real world.”

• “I didn’t do it perfectly, I did it well enough.”

• “I am not required to do it only better than that. I was led to believe that I was.”

Confidence – Replaces self-doubt.

• “I did it once, I can do it again.”

• “I have earned the right to feel confident within myself.”

Courage – Replaces discouragement.

• Courage is the willingness to take a risk.

• “I took the risk. I had the courage!”

• “I know that if I don’t succeed, it will hurt. But it won’t hurt as much as it did when I was a child. It won’t be the end of the world. I won’t take it personally.”

Appropriate Responsibility – Replaces too much responsibility or too little.

• “I didn’t assume too much responsibility.”

• “I didn’t cop-out either.

• “I assumed appropriate responsibility for myself.”

Good Enough – Replaces feelings of inferiority.

• “Good enough is as good as I am right now.”

• “I don’t have to be any better than that. If I am better still tomorrow, that is all right, too.”

• “I can have peace of mind in the present.”

You can begin by spending 15 minutes every day capturing your thought process on paper. Looking at your thoughts on paper helps you to identify the exaggerated pessimistic thoughts you have. After identifying your negative thoughts, write several positive statements for each negative one. First, focus on what you can do about the problem. Replace unfulfilled longing with realistic goals or plans for change. When you can’t do anything to change a problem situation, work toward acceptance. Use thoughts like, “I don’t really need it.”

Keep a list of your most common negative thought habits and positive alternatives for each. Refer to this list whenever negative thoughts arise, until you can substitute helpful alternatives from memory or immediately make up new thought alternatives to counter the negative thoughts. When a negative thought arises and circumstances make it impossible to read your list, read it at the next convenient moment.

Affirmations are best stated in the present tense, because, if affirmations are in future tense (“I will…”) your unconscious mind feels no urgency to act NOW. If you feel hypocritical stating affirmations in the present tense (as in “I am slender and healthy”) then state your affirmations as a process (as in “Each day I am”)

You can repeat you affirmations when you are engaged in activities that do not require your full attention such as walking, raking leaves, washing dishes, cooking, shopping, cleaning, or stuck in rush-hour traffic. You can also do this technique when your mind wanders into negativity, when you are upset, or when you want to change the direction of your thoughts for any reason. Affirmations are more effective when the mind is relaxed, opened, and less defensive, such as just before going to sleep or just after awaking.

You can practice affirmations before, during, or after a particular problem surfaces. For example, if you are struggling with anxiety, you can practice affirmations of “I am calm and in control” while you are anxious. But you can also practice when you are feeling at ease, which is a good time to fortify the unconscious for the tests of life that are sure to come.

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