Stop Negative Thoughts: Treat Yourself Like A Friend


The Marathon Story.

Let’s start with a scenario. You’ve had the goal to run a marathon for a few months now. You’ve been training each day, slowly improving. On the day of the race you’re feeling pretty good! You get there, line up and start running. The first mile goes down easily, then the second, and so on.

At about the 10 mile mark, something doesn’t feel right. Waves of nausea wash over you. A few seconds later you have to pull into the bushes to vomit. Not ideal in the middle of your run, but you’re determined to keep going. You wipe your mouth off and start running again. Within a few yards, your legs give out and you fall to the ground.

You try several times to get up and keep running but only make it a few more feet before accepting that you’re not going to make it. You lay there, disappointed and dejected waiting for help to come. There’s no way to say exactly what caused the problem, but there’s no way you’re finishing the race.

Negativity After Being Disappointed In Ourselves.

Fast forward a few days. The incident would crushed many of us, replaying it over and over again in our heads. I failed. Why didn’t I train harder? Maybe I’ll never be able to run a marathon. I don’t know why I even tried in the first place. Before long, we’re making attacks against our character, weaving a narrative of incompetence. I never follow through on any of my goals. I’m a total failure.

Not achieving your goals or feeling like you’ve made a mistake can be devastating. We start looking for past actions which were also failures or creating dismal potential future outcomes. Once the negative thoughts gain momentum, it can be hard to escape the habit. It can take weeks or months before these thoughts start to trail off, and they may only increase in strength over time. Especially if you hit another disappointing roadblock.

Reframing The Situation As A Friend.

Instead of waiting for the negative thoughts to disappear on their own, you can try a reframing exercise. I want you to take that situation and imagine a close friend just told you that same story. Would you feel like they were a failure? Or would you be more likely to reframe it as a one-off instance? What advice would you give them?

For our marathon example, I’d be much more inclined to tell them it was probably an unfortunate chain of events. Luckily, they came out of the experience safe and they have the opportunity to continue training for the next marathon. It’s ok it didn’t work out the first time, think about all the progress they made to even get that far! Next time will be even easier.

By reframing your situation as that of a friend’s, it becomes easier to step back and look at the big picture. Many of us treat ourselves much worse than we would treat anyone else because we’re intimately and emotionally involved in the details. When we catch these thoughts and bring them into perspective, we can often create a more fair and rational evaluation of the situation.

Just One More Mindset Tool.

Let’s be honest, this strategy will only work if you naturally care about others and can give them slack around their shortcomings. Most of us tend to do this, but if you find yourself constantly criticizing others for their mistakes, this strategy probably won’t help much (and you might want to look at some skills for building relationships) Not to fear, there are plenty of other mental strategies you can add to your arsenal. Stay tuned, the ideas will keep coming!

Exercise: Identify one problem in your life and look at it from the perspective of a friend coming to you for advice about the same thing. What’s the problem and what advice would you give them?

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