June 23, 2014

Letting Go of Negative Thoughts and Feelings

image: someecards
By Crabby McSlacker

So does that cartoon seem sexist?  Yeah, well, it's an overgeneralization, but I gotta say I think we women tend to a bit more prone to hanging on to emotionally upsetting stuff than guys are, and mulling it over in our heads and perhaps making it bigger and uglier and more devastating than it needs to be.

As you may have guessed, this is a continuation of the “Catch and Release” post, in which I was talking about the benefits of tuning in more to your inner psychological world, “catching” and “releasing” dumb and counterproductive thoughts and emotions that can drag you down.

And actually, "releasing" or "letting go" is just one way of looking at it. You could use more active, confrontive terminology and be all kick-ass, and talk about fighting negative thoughts and feelings, or heck obliterating or pulverizing or exterminating them.

It's just that I started with the whole "catch and release" theme, and put up a bunch of fishing pictures... and beating the crap out of some poor fish you just caught seems kinda mean, doesn't it?

Another problem? I realized there are so many ways of working with negative thoughts and emotions, and I have so freakin’ many opinions and weird ideas, that I’m just going to start with one basic aspect of it and follow up with more later.

Because while it sucks to feel bad about stuff, there really are tons of helpful tools out there than can help.

But first off:

What is a "Negative" Thought or Feeling?

Well, they kinda feel like this, right?

The “negatives,” in my mind, come in variations of three main categories, depending on what thoughts they're riding in on:

  • Fear (worry, panic, stress, guilt, lack of confidence, pressure etc);
  • Anger (impatience, jealousy, frustration, etc) and
  • Sadness (hopelessness, grief, regret, worthlessness)

Sometimes these are inevitable: if someone you love dies, you're gonna feel pretty overwhelmed with grief.

Sometimes, they're helpful:  A car veers out of control heading right at you as you walk down the sidewalk: total panic helps you get the f--ck out of the way a lot faster than, say, mild curiosity would.

But I'm of the opinion that most of the negative emotions we experience are just a self-defeating waste of mental energy leading to misery and ineffectiveness. If they aren't motivating you to DO something productive, what's the point?

Not that I've banished negative thoughts and feelings myself! This all much easier said than done, and takes years of practice and you gotta keep at it.

I'm a congenital worrywart, and I still stress over stupid stuff.  I also still get good and pissy about certain frustrations. But I'm probably about 90-95% less reactive than I used to be.  And if I notice a pattern of flare ups, it's a good sign that I haven't been putting in the effort to keep the neurons in my brain firing up the right paths rather than the stupid-ass ones.

Choose Your Weapon: Shifting Negative Thoughts and Feelings

Just for example, to banish negative thoughts or feelings you can:

  • work cognitively to change the kind of thoughts you have;
  • explore and manipulate how emotions feel in your body;
  • stop thinking so damn much and experiment with different actions and behaviors;
  • take mind-altering substances, either the prescription kind or the fun kind;
  • use your imagination or guided visualizations or hypnosis or meditation;
  • try light therapy, music therapy, art therapy, massage therapy, chromotherapy, aromatherapy, or hell, sex therapy;
  • exercise;
  • explore or rediscover spiritual practices
  • seek refuge in beautiful places in nature; or
  • take a lime and a coconut and drink ‘em both up.

Anyway the list is pretty long.

Tried chocolate therapy yet?

And it's best if you combine them, because this is a tough thing to learn to do and the more methods you use the better. But today we're just talking about the first one:

Changing Negative Thoughts to Reduce Negative Feelings

So this is mostly stuff you know already, borrowed from old half-remembered psychology texts and other personal development resources, and perverted by my own weird mental processes and experiences. And of course totally oversimplified.

But even though we think we know this stuff, most people don't spend much time actually doing it, so screw it, I'm going to dump it all out there anyway.

And again, this is the boring basic cognitive approach, the more "out there" but fun stuff I'll write about later.

Intervene Early and Often

When you are in the middle of a hissy fit, a bleak depression, or a total shitstorm of panic, you may still be able to talk yourself down a little bit--but it's almost impossible if you haven't laid the groundwork first and practiced with less upsetting situations.

So before your next emotional freak out, you gotta:

1. Catch and identify the negative thought patterns that often go through your head in response to common triggers.

Note: You don't have to discard useful negative thoughts! Just the ones that are counter-productive.  An example of a useful negative thought?

"Oh crap, look at the time! If I don't hurry up and get my ass out the door, I'll miss my bus and be late for work and have to listen to my butt-head boss lecture me!"

Whereas a non-useful negative thought might be: "Oh crap, look at the time! I am such an idiot! Why can't I do anything right, ever?"

2. Decide what thoughts and feelings you'd rather have running through your head instead. What would be more useful and motivating and reassuring? Generate alternative perspectives that are more helpful to confidence and motivation, and could possibly be true, even if you're not entirely sure you believe them. If you are negative thinker, you are probably overconfident that your gloomy version of reality is the "truth," and while it may be uncomfortable to admit possible bias, it yields huge dividends in not feeling like crap.

3. Summarize into simple catchphrases or mantras, because you will not be able to go back and do all the step-by-step convincing necessary when you are upset.

These can be ridiculous oversimplifications: "All I can do is the best I can and then just let it go."  "Things always turn out much better than I imagine they will."  "That person who is being a total asshat? It's not about me, it's about them. I don't have to take it on."

4.  Experiment to discover which catchphrases resonate and lead you to calmer reflective responses, at least when you're only mildly upset.  Some ideas are perfectly logical and yet they are no help; others oddly enough can calm you much better even sometimes if they don't make as much sense to your rational mind.

5. Practice the hell out of these new responses over and over, every time you catch yourself going down the Wrong Road. Eventually you will even be able to get more perspective when you are totally riled if this way of thinking has become a habit.

6. Combine with other mind/body approaches.  More on that later, but changing your thinking patterns may still not be enough to feel better, especially if you are sensitive and easily upset.  But that doesn't mean it doesn't help!

7. Consider getting professional help.  If you are depressed, or if anxiety and anger are interfering with your life in more than minor ways, it's really worth working with someone who specializes in dealing with these issues.  Sometimes it's just too hard to get an objective perspective on your own problems.

What are Some More Useful Ways to Think?

Many "better" thoughts depend entirely on the situation you're in, but there are some general approaches:

Take responsibility for your feelings: acknowledge that upsetting things happen in life, some people are gonna be assholes, and some things are going to be dangerous or unpleasant, but that YOU are choosing your thoughts and your emotional reaction to whatever is going on. And YOU are the only one who can change them.  What would happen if you simply decided not to be upset in the face of upsetting situations?

Remind yourself of your own past tendency to overreact, leaving open the possibility that the current situation may be less awful than you think;

Generate alternative explanations and outcomes other than the most awful ones; whether you are ready to believe them or not. Look in particular for more positive possibilities;

Look at the big picture to gain perspective: Imagining you have just barely survived a much worse life or death situation, or that life has been as unfair to you as it has been to someone who has grown up in a poverty stricken war-torn country and has been tortured, starved, enslaved, or terribly ill most of their life, and see if the specific fear or irritant is really all that bad.

Stop giving so much of a crap what other people think of you. Many negative emotions come from overblown fears of other's opinions, or defensive anger at blows to our egos. "How awful, people will think I'm so lame! ... And they'd be wrong, and if they're people you care about they'll won't judge you by one incident, and even if they do you'll survive it.

And on a related theme: Realize that perfectionism is your enemy. It's tempting to think if you just comply with all the "shoulds" and "musts" that the world proposes and that you buy into, that you can prevent anyone from every being unhappy with you, or never feel like you have failed. You can try to keep the illusion that you are flaw-free by working your butt off, by doing what everyone else expects of you, and playing it safe all the time, but that's a costly way to try to buy piece of mind.

Because (a) it still doesn't always work; and (b) developing more realistic expectations, and resilience in the face of fuckups and failures and criticism, buys you SO much less day-to day-stress than trying to do everything "right" all the time.

Difficult people get their own comeuppance, it's not worth making yourself miserable over: Rather than suffer rage at assholes, remind yourself that people who are hostile, insensitive, entitled, irrational, etc may get their way a little more often, but...just think what their world looks like and how wretched it must be. Because their perspective is so screwed up, they ALWAYS feel they are getting mistreated, and that people are mysteriously disrespectful and mean to them for no reason they can fathom. While it's awful to have run-ins with them, it's even worse to be someone who lacks empathy, perspective, or the ability to see their own faults. They can't fix the fundamental problem in their lives making them unhappy--because it's their own selfishness and they are unable to see or accept that.

Stuff that sucks can be reframed as an emotional learning experience: try thinking of a random crappy thing you have to cope with as a challenge, or an opportunity to hone your thinking and emotional skills. The “ordeal” you are going through then becomes more about mastering your process than about whatever the stressful thing itself is. Because ultimately, gaining control over your own emotional experience is way more important to your happiness than the outcome of any particular life event.

You won't feel this shitty forever: Feelings are just feelings and they come and go. Sometimes there's going to be a disconnect between how you'd like to think and feel and what you're actually experiencing. Don't panic!  Keep telling yourself the stuff that makes sense, but know that you may feel better about it soon anyway, as life rolls on, throwing out shiny new experiences and distractions.

Again, more later! (Sorry!)

Anyone have any helpful go-to thoughts that help with difficult situations and emotions?


  1. Reading down your lists there I realize HOW much my life would be improved by getting enough sleep. Any kind of stress feels better when well-rested! (Last night's total: about four hours, plus an hour and a half of drowsiness.)
    Difficult people: in my profession the difficult people are making life difficult for their animals, more than for me. Losing my temper when they won't listen would be counterproductive, but sometimes you just have to go in the back and rant about the stupidity.
    Also, you should so start a chocolate therapy practice!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Sleep! OMG Mary Anne, so true.

      And yeah, great point, you just brought up one of the hardest things not to lose one's cool over: when people are cruel to others who can't fight back. Figuring out what you can do that's constructive but not taking on too much emotional angst? Easier said than done!

  2. Excellent suggestions, Crabby. From it I paraphrase for my new philosophy, 'Do not suffer rage at assholes.'

  3. Succinctly put Leah, thanks!

  4. Great post! I think I have tried all of the solutions, but the only thing that has *ever* worked for me when it comes to being upset with idiots is the last one--just wait. I try to tamp down the bad feelings so they don't control me, but only time makes them go away. Life can be too busy and complex to hold on to anger at any one person for too long. I just let it go away on its own.... Until of course the next encounter with an idiot.

    1. Good for you Peggy for knowing that waiting works! I'll be curious to see if any of the weirder things I've been trying lately are any use to others when thinky techniques fail, sometimes they actually help me! But I thought I should approach it "first things first."

  5. I was really looking for a magic suppository that would let me flush all the negative out.
    If I have to deal with an idiot long term I do tend to just immerse myself in it so I can suck on all the bitterness and frustration. I'm just too stubborn to let go of it. Luckily I don't know that many jerks that I can't get away from.

    1. Ooh Cindy, great idea, but could we make it a magic cupcake instead of a suppository? And since it's magic it would have no calories? But cracks me up about sucking on the bitterness and frustration--sometimes it feels strangely addictive to be pissed off.

  6. About dealing with the difficult people, or being concerned about other people's judgments of you, my kids take the perspective that "Hater's gonna hate!" They write off the person's bad attitude, and don't stress over it. It's a good lesson for me to emulate.

    1. Love the "haters gonna hate" catchphrase! I use that one myself sometimes messymimi!

  7. Death Ride GrandmaJune 23, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    I have two little phrases I think of when I am frustrated or annoyed: for the difficult people, I think of the old purple cow, and remind myself "I'd rather see than be one;" for putting stuff in perspective (what about the people in poverty stricken, war torn countries?), I say to myself, wouldn't it be amazing, wonderful, if this was the worst thing that happened in the world today?

    And then I go right ahead and grumble and feel sorry for myself, but I do think those feelings are a little milder once I remind myself how out of proportion my initial reaction has been.

    1. Purple cow? Excellent DRG! And I think I might have to frame "wouldn't it be amazing, wonderful, if this was the worst thing that happened in the world today?" Because what a great way of get ones head into a broader perspective. And wouldn't it be cool if by enduring our own frustrations gracefully we could somehow lessen the suffering for others?

  8. So this pretty much addresses my little post today about being judged!! I work on letting all that negative stuff go all the time - some days much more successfully than others!! One thing you mentioned in here that hit home - the 3 ways that negative thoughts come in. I think that for me it is usually in the form of anger and I have to work on getting that out fast because it takes up way too much energy to be angry!!!
    And, I tell myself daily that there will be a time when certain difficult people will completely regret all the things they have done and said!!!

    1. So identifying that anger is the tough one for you is a great start Kim! Uncovering the thoughts that fuel it and coming up with ones that work better to calm you down and free your energy might really be worthwhile. Doesn't mean you can't use the anger as a trigger to ACT, if there's something you can do to make the situation better, but then the rest of the riled-upness is just a distraction and I've found it's so freeing to learn to let it gof. Good luck!

  9. Oooo... I'm going to once again have to print this post out as a reminder! Just recognizing which of those 3 categories of crappiness I'm dealing with is a terrific tool! And the whole post is a treasure trove of tips and generally just terrifically useful.

    Except - dang!... now I totally wanna go buy an ACME Disintegrating Pistol! Hey - wasn't it, in fact, Marvin Martian who employed this? Or was it Daffy Duck using against HIM? Ah well - one of the famous Marvin quotes was "Oh!! You make me so very, very angry!!" So. whatever the case - kudos on tying it all together with a visual!

    1. Maybe a squirt gun would work. Every time you have a negative thought you squirt yourself in the face? Nah people would think you were odd. Right not supposed to care what people think!

    2. Janonymous, you are always so kind about my feeble self-evident tips! And I'm impressed with your pistol-identification skills, all those cartoons are kind of a blur to me.

      Cindy, I think the water pistol idea shows promise! Works to keep cats off kitchen counters anyway, and cats are even tougher to train than humans.

  10. I am going to let go of the fact that my comment was eaten.

  11. There I let it go and am now reposting it.

    This was a great read, Crabby! Thanks for all the effort you put into your fantastic posts.

    My current catchphrase (found on Facebook), is "not my circus, not my monkeys." I think it often.

    1. So sorry about the eaten comment Kimberley I HATE that!!!

      ""not my circus, not my monkeys?" Now that I LOVE!!

      And thanks so much Kimberley!

  12. I certainly can not add anything to your excellent discussion of a difficult issue, Crabby!

    I work with this also and it can be hard. Time is usually my best friend here.

  13. Wow. I feel like I've just been through therapy. Feelin' like I can finally forgive my husband for forcing me to marry him. I feel empowered!!

  14. I am thrilled to report that, I am really NOT a negative person AT ALL! I might have my moods, but they are typically caused by me being hungry as hell! LOL! And that can EASILY be cured!!!

  15. I fight this crap every single day. Some of it is negativity from assholes, some of it is my own negative thinking. You're right; you really do have to stay on top of catching your thoughts and rerouting them. I'm learning to do this by focusing my attention on my breath and repeating a mantra. I need to work on finding good mantras, though.

  16. I resemble Toni here - I have been bad about this & constantly a work in progress... during tough times like now, it is harder & I have to try harder for sure....

    Great post!

  17. Great article, helps me remember how to keep everything level. Its so easy to become entangled in problems with daily life. Sometimes I just need to breathe, take a step back from the situation and think to myself, really? is this really worth getting crossed up about? There are way worse things in life than what i'm experiencing right now so just relax and deal with it as best as I can to prove that I am a better person.


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