Until just recently, negative thoughts were considered a good thing. You had to be on high alert— one eye open type of living to ensure your survival. Whether the enemy was a pack of wolves, a snow storm, an opposing klan, the black plaque, it just made more sense to hope for survival at best! Nowadays most of us aren’t facing such dire threats. In fact, most people live long and relatively comfortable lives these days (avg. life expectancy is 78 according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Thanks to modern shelter, urbanization, modern medicine, among other factors, our negative thoughts just don’t hold the same utility they used to. Not only are they (mostly) obsolete, often times, negative thoughts are counterproductive to our wellbeing and act as a roadblock in our lives. Unfortunately for us, evolution is a slow and tedious process— meaning these thoughts aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
On the bright side, we can counterattack our negative thoughts and train ourselves to be more optimistic. One of my absolute favorites— the person who reinvigorated my love for Buddhism, mindfulness, and meditation— Dan Harris, talks about this strategic reprograming in his book, 10% Happier. In his podcast, of the same name, he dives deeper into this by interviewing master meditators, healers, scientists, professors, and others alike. This is where I stumbled upon the legendary Joseph Goldstein. Goldstein is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and a master meditation teacher since 1974. A nasal-y voiced, original “JewBu,” Goldstein has taught countless meditation students countless lessons— here is the one that stood out.
Is this Useful?
“Is this useful?” is the question that Goldstein asks himself whenever he is having a negative thought. It is a very simple question, nothing revolutionary, and yet it’s a complete game changer. Think about it. Two paragraphs ago I explained the uselessness of most of our negative thoughts AND, most importantly, how we will continue to have them because they have been deeply infused into our DNA. So why wouldn’t the remedy be as simple as reminding ourself that they are no longer useful? Wouldn’t you stop using the microwave if you realized it didn’t work anymore? Wouldn’t you get a new bike if you couldn’t ride your old one anymore? Of course you would. The difference is that it is blatantly obvious when the microwave is broken or our bike chain is rusted. It’s not so obvious when our thoughts are working again us and that it way we need the reminder.
We cannot reply on intuition to tell us these things because in this case our intuition is working against us. Remember, there was a long stretch of time when negative thoughts were very useful and our evolution as a species has not caught up to the fact that we do not need to rely so heavily on these negative thoughts to survive. Using a gentle reminder, such as asking ourselves “Is this useful?” can help us regain perspective. Here is an example; It is five o’clock on Tuesday and you get told by your boss that you were selected to make a presentation to a client next Thursday. You start thinking about the presentation on your way home and all the anxious, negative thoughts start to swirl, “What if I tank?” “What if the client isn’t happy?” “I’ve never done a presentation, I don’t know what to do.” “I can’t do this.” and on and on. At some point you realize you are exhausted just from thinking and ask yourself, “How useful is freaking out about this presentation to me right now?” The answer is, not at all! The presentation is next Thursday, today is Tuesday so there is nothing benefiting you right now by worrying about a presentation for next Thursday. It is arguably more reasonable to worry about the presentation on the presentation day, especially if it will make you more alert and ready to present. It may even be useful to worry next Tuesday, again if it will make you prepare and practice for the presentation. However, today, at this moment, it is completely useless to worry about next Thursday.
Again, the trick is to make a judgement call on how useful your negative thoughts are. How are they serving you? In the example above I made the point that the negative thoughts may be useful on the day of, if they help you perform better during the presentation. Another example; you signed up for a swimming club but you start to think to yourself that you aren’t that great of a swimmer. This propels you to practice before the first meeting. In this case, the thought was useful because it activated your motivation to become better. Now you are at the swim club meeting and you still think you aren’t as good a swimmer. This is causing you to make silly mistakes and further dampen your mood. Now the thought is counterproductive— it is no longer useful. If you can notice this, you might see the thought as counterproductive and let it go.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that negative thoughts are an integral part of our fight or flight response system. Their basic function is to warn us of danger and help us make survival decisions accordingly. The dilemma lies in that our response is more or less automatic making it difficult for us to tell the difference between an actually life threatening situation and a situation that brings up negative emotions for other reasons. Fear is always a great example because we can fear public speaking (not inherently life threatening) as much as we can fear grizzly bears (arguably life threatening). It is up to us to recognize what is objectively a danger and what we have labeled dangerous in our minds.
Cat Marte is a Career and Success Coach who helps success driven people grow their careers or launch and grow their online businesses. Book your free introductory call today to learn more.