Many people struggle with negative thinking, without even realizing it. It’s not good for your mental or emotional health, and it doesn’t lead you toward the loving relationship God wants with you. Negative thoughts can lead you down a road toward helplessness, increase stress chemicals, and contribute to depression and anxiety. At the same time, I’m not here today to convince you to just pray those thoughts away. Trying to will yourself to be more positive doesn’t often help. In fact, it might make you feel even worse.
Instead, I’d like to propose that you consider meeting negative thoughts with prayerful compassion. It’s a subtle difference, but important to understand. There’s a reason those thoughts are there; they’ve likely blazed pathways in your brain. We want to heal those pathways, not shame ourselves for having them.
What are negative thoughts?
Negative thoughts show up in a lot of different ways. Some of the most common categories of negative thinking include beliefs about failure, rejection, worth, and helplessness. Here are some examples:
- No one has my back.
- Things never go my way.
- I’m a failure.
- I mess up everything I touch.
- I’ll never get it right.
- I’m too old. I missed my chance.
- I’m unlovable.
Negative thinking is typically a way you’ve learned to cope. As a child, when something hard or confusing happened, you told yourself a story to help you understand. For example, if your parents got divorced, you might have told yourself that you are unlucky or that it was all your fault. If you were bullied, you might have told yourself that you’re too much or not worthy of love. These stories are not true. But, in the absence of an alternative explanation, they lodge themselves deep inside, where they take hold and provide a filter for other hard events going forward.
The good news is that if you’re aware of your negative thought patterns, you are on the right track. In fact, negative thoughts become a bigger problem when they operate at a subconscious level, when you do not realize they are there. So, my answer to how to stop negative thoughts might sound counterintuitive. Instead of trying to shove them aside or pray them away, here’s what I want you to consider:
Practice getting curious about your negative thoughts.
It’s a paradox. The way to stop negative thinking is to pay attention when it shows up.
I know that may not sound like the answer you want to hear. You want those thoughts GONE. But, hear me out. . .
It is a well-researched fact that becoming more aware of your thought patterns is the first step toward change. How can you heal what you don’t first observe and name?
Negative thinking is often a cue to a story you’ve told yourself that likely goes way back. Simply telling yourself to “be more positive” or trying to “pray it away” is only a band aid, especially at first. These negative thoughts belong to a part of you that needs your understanding, patience, and care in order to heal and create another, truer story.
Action Steps to Stop Negative Thoughts
1.) Start observing your negative thoughts.
Start by becoming more aware of when and how they show up. For example, when you feel crummy, ask yourself: “What am I thinking about right now?” Then notice where your mind is going.
In fact, it’s helpful to make a habit of checking in on what you are thinking about each day. You can do this in the shower, while you get ready in the morning, or as you’re cooking dinner.
Observing negative thoughts helps you get distance from them. When you observe your thoughts, you are accessing another part of your brain, which gives you more ability to create change. This process is what psychologists call becoming conscious, or self-aware. In the Bible, it’s what Paul describes as “taking every thought captive.” (2 Cor. 10:5)
2.) Show compassion toward negative thoughts.
Often, our negative thoughts are accompanied by our own inner critic. We start to beat ourselves up for feeling down on ourselves, which increases the feeling of chaos and overwhelm in our heads. So, try to become more aware of that extra layer of shame.
- Are you beating yourself up?
- Are you shaming yourself for feeling shame?
Imagine what it would be like to speak to yourself as you would a young child who is feeling down. For instance, what would you say to a child who comes home crying, “No one likes me!” after kids were mean to her at school? Would you first hold her close and say comforting things? Or, would you berate her for her negative reaction?
The answer is obvious. You would first soothe a child by holding her close and helping her feel safe. Once she is comforted, then you can work with her to understand what happened and empower her to get the help she needs.
The same truth applies to adults. When negative thoughts surface, your brain is blazing down well-traveled pathways from the past. You’re on auto-pilot. Thus, the first thing to do is not to beat yourself up. It’s to show yourself compassion: “I see you there, negativity. I know you’re feeling badly. I’m here with you now. I want to understand and gently help you grow and change.”
3.) Write them down.
Next, try to log the content of your negative thoughts. Writing down your negative thoughts can be challenging at first. You might be so used to going down that pathway, that it’s hard to slow yourself down enough to unpack what you are thinking. But, that effort is so important, as you’re becoming more aware.
If you’re having trouble, start by asking yourself:
What do I feel inside? For example, you might write down, “I feel like a failure, like no one cares about me.” or “I feel lousy.”
Then move to try to understand the thinking behind this feeling:
Why do I feel that way? For example, you might write down, “If I don’t hear from that person today, a part of me believes that means I’m a nobody, a loser, not worthy of their time.”
Much of you might understand that this thinking is entirely irrational. But a part of you is stuck somewhere in the past, where this belief feels very real. This part of you needs your understanding now. Don’t censor yourself in this process. Just notice what comes out.
4.) Test your negative thoughts against the fruit of God’s Spirit.
Now, invite God into your inventory. Ask him to give you his perspective, to shine his light on who you really are. Remember, we know God’s presence by the fruit of his Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, etc. (Gal. 5:22-23) Is the way you’re thinking matching up with what you know about God’s love?
5.) Tell yourself the truth.
Finally, write out what is true, whether you feel that way or not. If you’re struggling to come up with what’s true, ask yourself: What would I say to a friend or a child I love?
The truth is usually much less binary than what you’ve written down. Here are some examples:
- “I’m such a failure.” becomes “I’m not where I want to be yet. But each day, I’m going to do my best to take the next step.”
- “I’ll never get it right.” becomes “I’ve made mistakes. And I’m also a beautiful soul made in God’s image.”
- “I’ll never be as good as other people.” becomes “No one can take my place.”
- “I can’t be loved.” becomes “I am precious in his sight.”
Read these new words over yourself, as if you were reading them over a dear friend. What is it like to let them linger over you? Can you take them in? It may take some time. Parts of you may be resistant. Well-traveled pathways in the brain don’t change on a dime. That being said, simply becoming aware that there is another possible story to tell about your life is one big step toward leaning into the truth of who you are as a beloved child.
Becoming conscious of negative thoughts with compassion helps you learn to check yourself. It won’t magically take them away. But, it gives you the opportunity to make a different choice. You can create a NEW pathway that is more closely aligned with the reality of who you are, as precious in God’s sight. This process takes effort and does not happen overnight. For helping finding therapist or a supper network, check my resources page, here. You may want to seek the support of a therapist, and you can find more resources here.
For Further Reading:
An Emotional Healing Process Everyone Should Know
What is Healthy Faith vs. Spiritual Bypassing?
Sharon Vasser says
Reading this is so like me!! I won’t admit to others because I just found out. I have got the attitude “Why try?” Now I know where I need help. Thank you.
Alison Cook says
I hear you. Those subtle messages can really hold us back from getting the help we need. So glad it resonated.
Great advice but when I am overtired it is hard to get out of the cycle . I am
partly responsible and I can pray and keep changing . The harm is still there.
Alison Cook says
Hi Jo, thanks for sharing this. It’s so true that when we are overtired it is challenging to go through a reflective process. In those cases, you might try a diverting activity, such as moving your body, deep breathing, play, or listening to music. Those activities help change the pathways in our brain.
Sandy Powers says
This is so helpful! It’s as if God wanted to give me some practice material by allowing a narcissistic, manipulative, mentally ill “friend” (no negative thoughts here, right? Haha 😬) really get to me tonight. I’m going to work on these very steps right now! Thank you!
Alison Cook says
So sorry you’re dealing with that, Sandy, and grateful this post helped! 🙏🏻
Robin L Morehead says
I truly believe you CAN NOT just pray away negative thoughts or thought patterns. Over the years of my journey to renew my mind, God is teaching me that I must recognize the lies and REPLACE those thoughts with the truth of God’s word and what HE says! Your steps are what we need to recognize when we’re believing a lie and to choose a different path or story. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!!
Alison Cook says
You are so right – replacing those thoughts is key. Thanks for this note.
Sharon Hicks says
This article is well-written and well-needed for me. Anxiety is on the rampage now, plus my margin of thinking correctly is very small. For me, knowing I am not alone helps because I am social distancing myself and change will take time.
Thank you for writing this, I too will add this to my work of being a healthy, loved by Christ.
Alison Cook says
I’m grateful it was helpful. Anxiety and negative thinking are really challenging while so many are isolated due to the pandemic. I pray that every part of you will continuing to lean into the truth of your belovedness in Christ.
Craig Parker says
Thank you for this, Alison – wisdom we all need to take to heart. I appreciate the reminder from 2 Cor. 10:5 “Taking EVERY thought captive.” Jesus really meant it when he said, “that your joy may be made full.” And the fruit of the Spirit comes about by careful watering, nurturing, feeding, weeding and pruning…an intentional process that we must attend to.
Thanks for this positive encouragement!
Alison Cook says
Beautifully stated, Craig. I appreciate the image of the careful watering and tending needed to bear fruit. It’s rarely a magical zap of the wand. 🙏🏻
I always thought I was very confident. But my husband confessed 2 months ago he spent the last 2 years becoming ” obsessed “with the neighbor. My confidence has been severely blasted and I am crying alot and anxious. I am thankful he did not have an affair but still I am devastated. I cannot remember having such a hard time controlling emotions and such erratic mood swings. I feel like Im going crazy. I covered up all mirrors until recently. I am much older than the neighbor. Even though my husband completely repented. I do not trust him. I thought that he was such a good Christian man and he has showed me so much love all the time. He was addicted to pornography 30 years ago but has never used since then. How do I break this cycle of self condemnation and hopelessness? It is all very new to me. Im usually very up beat
Alison Cook says
Hi Rene, this is an extremely painful situation and it makes sense that you are struggling with complex emotions. I would encourage both of you to seek the support of a counselor who can walk you through a path toward healing. These types of wounds can heal, but as with a physical wound, healing is aided with the care and support of an expert to help walk you through it. I have several Christian resources listed on my website, many with virtual options: https://www.dralisoncook.com/resources/.
I am my harshest critic but when people try to be affirming my response is to want to self-harm. I don’t understand why I fight against the very things I need most.
Mark Denison says
This is so good. Thank you for moving beyond overly simplistic answers. I look forward to future blogs.