Although some of us have to face it more than others, we can all find ourselves struggling with negative self-talk. It might be the inner voice telling you that you're not smart or successful enough, a nagging feeling that you need to be more like someone else, or my personal favourite, calling myself a dumbass or a useless $%&£ and generally berating myself and treating myself worse than I would anyone else.
Attempting to deny or run away from negativity wastes a lot of energy. If you grapple with them too much, you can end up in a war of attrition with those thoughts, desperately rationalising them away, pretending they’re not there, only to have them come back even stronger.
If this has happened to you, here's another strategy... Employ a bit of mental jiu jitsu and instead of confronting negativity directly, use its own force against it to flip it on its head. The key, in a single word, is Gratitude.
This isn’t a new concept: variations of this have been around since humankind has been able to record history at least and it is very powerful. In fact, major research has shown that a Gratitude practice results in the following effects on well-being:
This is really just the tip of the iceberg when describing the benefits of gratitude. In my own work in personal and leadership development, I've seen dramatic shifts in mood and narrative as the result of a simple Gratitude intervention.
Like most things though, it does take practice and commitment to create a new habit and way of being, especially when you have been used to one way of treating yourself for so long.
Also – full disclosure here – as an Alcoholic and an Addict of 20 years from start to finish, I’ve wrestled with plenty of negative self-talk and the friends that seem to come along for the party. As recovery practice and part of that journey, I have dedicated lots of time to actively experimenting with and learning to adopt mental and emotional balance practices that can help. I know from personal experience that this one does. I may not always get it right either. But it works well enough for me to keep trying.
Gratitude trains us to use attention in a very specific way. For example, you can focus on what’s wrong or missing in your life, and endlessly compare yourself to others. Or, you can turn your awareness toward noticing the good, decent and beautiful things around you at this moment.
Why does this matter? By noticing what you could be grateful for, you cultivate a different attitude about your situation. This not only changes how you think and behave at the moment, but also helps to develop a supportive and life-affirming habit for the future.
Gratitude is a proactive means of engaging in the here and now. We spend a lot of time as life spectators—scrolling through other people’s achievements and opinions on our computers, watching sports and entertainment on TV. Gratitude catapults us into the present moment because it encourages participation.
In other words, in order to feel gratitude, you need to be present. And when you are, you’re ready to act on your gratitude and flip the negative into the positive.
Remember that negative thoughts will happen. That’s OK. Let them come and then let them go - and every time they pitch up, when you realise them, gently shift yourself back to a different track.
One easy way to go about this is to begin by setting some time aside as often as you can - at least twice a week to start, even for just 10 minutes - and write a list of things you are grateful for. Keep this up and it will become effortless and habit and the results you feel will speak for themselves.
Another more meditative and slightly more ‘advanced’ method is to trigger your awareness. Disengage from distractions and focus on the world around you. This helps you to become more present: that coffee machine or engine noise that might normally annoy you can also bring you back very quickly to a present moment. Now, focus on something that you are grateful for. Perhaps a colleague was actually nice to you a few moments ago. Or there’s someone who has always cared for you. Or it isn’t even about you, but you’re grateful you live in a place where good people do kind things. Or it’s just – right here and now - that the birds are singing and the sun is shining.
Music can also be a great trigger for gratitude and feeling good.
Think about what makes you feel grateful and why that is. Remember that for the next time you’re tempted to listen to negative self-talk. And instead of listening, tell yourself about the other things. The things about which you felt gratitude last time. And some new things that make you feel gratitude this time.
Keep going. Keep practising Gratitude. Keep flipping f***ing negativity! And remember: the only way we can know what positive feels like is if we’ve known what negative felt like. So, maybe thank the negativity too... it may just have done you more of a favour than you realised.