If you were to observe the quality of your thoughts for one day, would you say your thoughts skewed more positive or negative? The answer matters because the quality of our thoughts determine the quality of our experiences. As the logic goes: if we think positive, or helpful thoughts, we will manifest more positive outcomes. Conversely, if we think negative, or unhelpful thoughts, we are more likely to attract negative results. Our beliefs, in essence, create our reality.
I’m sure this philosophy of positive thinking is nothing new to you. To grasp the concept intellectually, and to put it to practice, however, are two different matters. For most of us positive thinking isn’t the way our minds seem to naturally fire. We know it’s probably good for us, but the truth is no one taught us how to do it! There is good news here: no matter how stubborn our mind may be, it is possible to overcome negative thought patterns, and adopt positive ones that will help us achieve our goals and aspirations. It’s a process* that is both effective and lasting, and one which we will detail in this article.
Let’s get to it.
Negative thinking is a learned behavior, therefore it can be unlearned
For as long as we’ve lived, our beliefs have been shaped by our surroundings and culture, family and friends, and what we consume through our media choices (news, TV, music, entertainment, etc). Over time, the constant repetition of certain ideas etched into our mind a certain set of thoughts that govern how we view the world, and the choices we make.
Our minds are like computers: our thought inputs determine our life outputs. For instance, if we don’t hold a certain title or make a certain amount of money, our confidence takes a hit and we limit our achievements as a result. If we don’t look like the model on the magazine cover, we feel less attractive and act out in insecure ways. If we’re not settled or married by a certain age, we think we’re undeserving of our true desires and settle for Mr. or Ms. “good enough”.
Society may hold certain beliefs, but that doesn't necessarily make them right for us. It’s time to drop the unhealthy thoughts that arise from fear of not measuring up to others’ expectations, and adopt healthy ones that work for us. The process is a simple one, and like all lasting solutions, it takes our commitment for it to work.
Step 1: Identify the problem
The first step in bettering any situation is to identify the problem. For the next week, make a commitment to yourself: Anytime you catch yourself having a negative, fearful, or worrisome thought (otherwise known as unhelpful thoughts), jot it down. Most of us are always within arms length of our cell phones these days, so when an unhelpful thought arises, take note of it in your note-taking app of choice.
If it takes more than one week to arrive at a good list, that’s okay. At first, you may simply forget to record your unhelpful thoughts. This is a normal part of the process. Developing an awareness to catch your thoughts can take some practice. It’s like growing an awareness muscle - the more you tune in and notice the quality of your thoughts, the easier it will become. Your list will accomplish two milestones:
- It will strengthen your ability to catch and stop yourself from going down negative thought spirals
- It will yield a mental blue-print of the kind of thoughts that are holding you back. You’ll be surprised what comes up.
Step 2: Reframe your reality
Once you have a good list going in your phone (or wherever you’ve jotted them down), take out a piece of paper and draw a T-chart, like the example below. On the left side of the chart, write out your list of unhelpful thoughts you have accumulated (it can be a dozen, or a few dozen, it’s up to you).
On the top of this list, write out the word “Lies”. Why? These thoughts are are not taking you to where you want to go. They are not in alignment with your highest aspirations. Any thought that holds you back from recognizing your highest potential is an untruth, therefor we treat it as a lie.
Now, on the top of the right side list, write the words, “My Truth”, as what will follow in this section will be more in line with the truth of who you are. Under this header, write out three positive affirmations starting with “I” that reflect the positive version of the unhelpful thoughts to its left (i.e. its opposite, empowering sentiment). So for example, if you have written on the left-side, “I am afraid to speak my mind”, then three positive affirmation statements that reflect your higher-self can be: I speak my mind with courage and ease; I am clear, confident, and kind in my communication; I say what I mean, and mean what I say.
A helpful way to arrive at your truth affirmations would be to replace the negative adjective on the left side with its antonym on the right right side. You can use the thesaurus website to arrive at a powerful list of antonyms to incorporate. In our example, we used the unhelpful-word “afraid” to arrive at helpful words like courage, ease, confident, and so forth. Here are some additional examples of how you can use the “lies” to arrive at your truth:
Step 3: Retrain your brain
It’s time to replace the unhelpful mental scripts with the positive affirmations you’ve come up with. Take a pair of scissors and cut your T-chart lengthwise down the middle (see image below). Take the half comprised of the unhelpful thoughts/lies, tear them up, and throw them in the trash.
These thoughts may have helped you survive up until this point, but they are no longer serving where you want to go. They have served their purpose by helping you arrive at your new affirmations. Now, it’s time for a software upgrade; to re-program your mind with a set of beliefs that will help manifest the outcomes you desire. The remaining right-side truth-list will now become your new mental script.
In the same way that constant repetition of old and unhelpful ideas contributed to your existing beliefs, focused repetition of your new positive affirmations will help unlock possibilities previously unconsidered, and fertilize your mind to achieve the kind of life you want to live. Spend a few minutes, twice a day to this task.
It may feel strange at first to repeat aspirational words as truth. The more you affirm, the more they will become natural to you. To be successful at this, visualize the impact of the words as you say them out loud. Savor each message and its meaning as you internalize it. Speak each affirmation with belief, conviction, and emotion. Feel yourself embrace the truth of these words as you repeat them. When affirmed in this way, you will feel yourself become more energized and empowered. You may feel increased confidence and harmony within you. This elevated energy puts you in alignment with your higher goals and aspirations. In this way, like will attract like.
Here are some helpful tips to keep your list accessible and top of mind: You can take pictures of your list and keep them saved in your phone for quick access, or you can keep it folded in your pocket as a physical reminder (I did this until the list disintegrated from frequency of use!). Another helpful step is to record yourself saying the affirmations out loud into your phone’s voice-recording app. It’s an effective way to get your affirmations in as you walk, use the metro, or drive into work.
You may also set an alarm or a daily calendar notification as a reminder to honor your commitment to yourself. The most helpful times of day are in the morning and afternoon. This way you can start the day with a success-oriented mind-set; and give yourself an afternoon boost of confidence to finish the day strong.
Step 4: Interrupt and replace
The reason that most of our minds don’t naturally fire positive is because it’s been conditioned with a certain set of limiting beliefs that have played out in constant loop over many years. There is also an evolutionary reason: our minds have the tendency to pick up habits of worry and fear faster than optimism and positivity because of the way our brains formed to help us survive.
Back when our cave-dwelling ancestors lived in a far more dangerous world, they couldn’t afford to make the same mistake twice. To worry and fear was an evolutionary advantage; a survival response that prevented them from taking unnecessary risks that could cost them their lives. Flash forward to the 21st century and we still carry the same brain, but live in a vastly different world — one that requires new ways of thinking to succeed. As a result, we can all benefit from strategies that uproot stubborn old thought patterns, and replace them with new ones that serve our goals.
Here’s how to do just that: Every time you catch yourself forming an unhelpful thought, interrupt it (as soon as you become aware of it), and replace it by repeating the positive affirmation associated with it. If you’ve been repeating your affirmations daily, this translation from negative to positive will come readily to you.
Let’s say, for example, you wake up to the morning alarm with a sense of apprehension and worry. Immediately interrupt the thought and replace it with the positive affirmation from your list: I awaken to the wonderful possibilities this day has in store for me! Or perhaps you have an important conversation with a colleague that you feel anxious about it. Interrupt it with an empowering thought: I know our conversation will result in a harmonious and productive outcome.
Each time you interrupt the unhelpful thought and replace it with a positive affirmation, your brain responds by re-shaping its neural network to support healthier psychological, physiological, and behavioral outcomes. The more you do it, the more naturally it will come for your brain to fire positive first.
Dr. Rick Hanson, neuroscientist and author of Hardwired for Happiness illustrates how — through the remarkable process of neuroplasticity — it becomes possible to take ownership over your mental state, and thereby, the outcomes in your life:
If you keep resting your mind upon self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt.
On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on...good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hard-wired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, positive mood, and a sense of worth.
He concludes, “If you don’t make use of this power yourself, other forces will shape your brain for you, including pressures at work and home, technology and media, pushy people, the lingering effects of painful past experiences, and Mother Nature herself.” By interrupting the negative and replacing it with the positive, we literally shape our brain to experience a better reality.
How will you know it’s working?
The process outlined in this article is an effective way to help rewire your brain to access your full potential. There is a part of you that may resist this process. For as long as you have lived, your mind has been programmed to think a certain way. As a result, the ego will do whatever it can to resist change. This may manifest as frustration or loss of patience. It may tempt you to give up and go back to the old way of doing things. This is, too, is normal. It will take commitment for your gains to internalize and take root.
How will you know it’s working? First, the quality of your thoughts will improve. Your thoughts and actions will carry an increased weight of confidence as you view the world in terms of possibilities, and treat challenges as opportunities for growth. Second, you’ll notice that others will treat you better. People treat others as they allow themselves to be treated. Your improved self-image will be met with increased respect and consideration. Third, the right people and circumstances will align with you and your purpose; while detractors and distractions will fall by the wayside. And finally, you will begin to enjoy the person you are becoming.
For so long, we’ve been servants to the whims of our mind. Now, we’ve learned a practical way to reclaim life’s creative agency. Our happiness and goals, it turns out, are choices we get to make for ourselves. Your dedication to this undertaking is an indication of how determined you are to uplift your circumstances. This article and the instructions within are just the seed. Where you take it from here will determine how it will bear fruit for you.
To recap the process:
- Identity and write down your negative/unphelpful thoughts
- Create three positive affirmations to replace each negative/unhelpful thought
- Repeat your positive affirmations with mindfulness and intention twice a day
- Each time an unhelpful thought enters your mind, immediately interrupt and replace it with its positive affirmation.
Additional inspiration: This principle echoed through time
There is nothing new about the principles we have just covered. They are timeless echoes of ancient wisdom and yet, they remain as relevant as ever today. Below you will find voices from around the world and throughout history, who have lived by this principle to uplift their lives, and the lives of so many around them.
- “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve” — Napoleon Hill
- “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you're right.” — Henry Ford
- “What you think, you become” — Buddha
- “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” — Albert Einstein
- “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.” – Muhammad Ali
- “Each of your habits creates a specific “groove,” or pathway, in the brain. These patterns make you behave in a certain way, often against your wish. Your life follows those grooves that you yourself have created in the brain. In that sense you are not a free person; you are more or less a victim of the habits you have formed. Depending on how set those patterns are, to that degree you are a puppet. But you can neutralize the dictates of those bad habits. How? By creating brain patterns of opposite good habits.” — Paramahansa Yogananda
- “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — William Shakespeare
- “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--His good, pleasing and perfect will.” — Romans 12:2
- “I am what I choose to become.” — Carl Jung
- “Thought is action in rehearsal” — Sigmund Freud
- “There is a power under your control that is greater than poverty, greater than the lack of education, greater than all your fears and superstitions combined. It is the power to take possession of your own mind and direct it to whatever ends you may desire.” — Andrew Carnegie
- “Most people believe the mind to be a mirror, more or less accurately reflecting the world outside them, not realizing on the contrary that the mind is itself the principal element of creation.” — Rabindranath Tagore
- “If you correct your mind the rest of your life will fall into place” — Lao Tzu
- “Verily, God Does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves.” — The Quran 13:11
- “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly. — Marcus Aurelius
- “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.” – William James
- “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” — Proverbs 23:7
- “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor Frankl
- “Within you right now is the power to do things you never dreamed possible. This power becomes available to you just as soon as you can change your beliefs.” — Dr. Maxwell Maltz
- “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.” — Patanjali
- “You are what you think all day long” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” — Steve Jobs
- Tale of the Two Wolves: One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil: it is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good: it is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” — Origin unknown, attributed to a Native American proverb
*This process adapted from The Foundation of Love