The Henry Ford quote: “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right” is not just a nice idea. It is steeped in truth.
Although there is speculation as to exactly how many thoughts the average person has a day, it is safe to say, us humans, think a lot.
Of course, it depends on how we define thought. When thought is defined as any possible brain pattern, estimates in the tens of thousands actually aren't so unreasonable (1). I personally have heard estimates that we have between 50,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day (2).
What's more is that many of our thoughts are habitual and negative. Again, a clear cut number is not agreed on universally, but roughly 70% – 80% of most people's thoughts are negative (3), with many thoughts (up to 90%) getting stuck on replay in our minds for days, months, or even years.
Now, this wouldn't be so bad if our repetitive thoughts were inspiring and supported us in improving our competence. Or if they led us to inspired ideas and inspired actions.
But they don't.
Repetitive, negative thinking does nothing more than to make us feel like crap. It often demotivates us, paralyzes us from taking action, and sabotages our personal relationships.
Look at it this way:
How we think about ourselves informs how we feel about ourselves which informs the actions we take in the world.
Yet, what if we can drastically reduce the impact our negative thoughts have on us, without trying to control them or change them?
You can heal your relationship with yourself and naturally evolve from being your own worst critic to your own best cheerleader. How inspiring would that be?!
Consider these three mindsets.
1. If my thoughts aren't all positive, THAT IS OK.
Repeat after me. “If my thoughts are not all positive, that is ok.”
This may make your head spin a little bit because at first glance it looks counterintuitive, but hear me out on this.
The most important thing you can do for yourself is be authentic to yourself.
The importance of this for health outcomes was documented eloquently in Anita Moorjani's books Dying To Be Me and What If This Is Heaven?
Before you dive into those books though, here is a quick real-world example of why this is the first step to taking better care of yourself.
In a study of breast cancer patients, those participants who had high levels of perceived support and low anxiety were hypothesized to live longer. But they didn't. That category of participants shockingly predicted higher mortality rates. The researchers hypothesized that this may be due to patients restricting their negative emotions. (4)
This speaks to the value of allowing yourself to feel your emotions fully. For, when we place less meaning (avoidance, focus, or importance) on our negative emotions, they actually have the propensity to pass quicker.
For instance, I once had a client who was so fearful of what thinking negatively would do to her and her life, she didn't even use the word “no.”
Needless to say, she became exhausted from constantly trying to micromanage her experience and the constant need to reframe, avoid, or bottle up negativity.
After some time, she realized she couldn't actually prevent herself from experiencing negative thoughts, no matter how hard she tried. That is because she was going against the nature of being human. It is natural and healthy to experience a variety of thought and emotion.
2. Having an open mind & heart for transformation.
With that, I am not saying that it is not absolutely worthwhile to challenge one's thoughts from time to time or investigate how to be more optimistic and loving.
Affirmations, gratitude journaling, and kindness and loving meditations are fantastic and do really work.
What I want to highlight is how often I see people who secretly believe they are not good enough, feel worse because they “failed” to think positively.
Usually, this manifests itself in two ways:
1. People use this “failure” as further proof that there is something wrong with them. They say things like: “See, I really am not like other people.” (When actually, the opposite is being proven because everyone has negative thoughts from time to time).
2. The person is so fearful of the effects that thinking negatively will have on their life, that they are actually living subconsciously in fear (i.e. a negative emotion)…which totally defeats the purpose!
What can be a helpful exercise is to ask oneself: What do I really think I am achieving with all this negative self-talk?
Many of us have a tainted history with others. Invariably, there was a time where someone criticized us. So negative self-talk (both in our heads and spoken out loud) has actually become a defensive mechanism for many of us where we attempt to avoid the pain of social rejection by putting ourselves down before others get the chance to.
Amateur singers and performers can be notorious for this! But apologizing on-stage for a missed note or downplaying praises after a good performance doesn't help us improve our craft, it just fuels the unhealthy relationship we have with ourselves.
Secondly, people use negative self-talk as a way to motivate themselves. But if we look into the research of authoritarian parents…you know those drill sergeant kind of parents who say things like “it's my way or the highway” and attempt to influence behavior with the threat of punishment…their children are often less resourceful, less socially competent, and more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety (5).
So why would we continue to be “authoritarian parents” to ourselves with our inner mental chatter?
There are much more constructive and effective ways to improve our skill sets, namely realistically assessing which areas need improvement and then setting to work on improving that with a coach or mentor…without all the drama of how we suck.
All of that mental noise just gets in our way. It is completely irrelevant to the task at hand!
And the good news is we don't have to get rid of the negative mental chatter, we just have to pay less attention to it.
Here is how…
3. Realizing it's all “made-up” anyways.
“Our belief system is just like a mirror that only shows us what we believe.” -Don Miguel Ruiz
At the end of the day, we are making it all up anyways. Meaning, we determine what is important to us individually with our thoughts, yet we are not our thoughts.
Our thoughts, conscious or unconscious, are merely momentary bursts of energy that we use to interpret the world around us. They can appear very persuasive and accompany strong feelings yes, but this doesn't make some thoughts more objectively true than others. It is all interpretation of what is going on around us.
And interpretation can evolve. Just like a screenwriter typing out the second draft of her current movie assignment, we are free to edit, rewrite, or delete certain parts that don't work with the plot anymore.
For instance, isn't it ironic that we use thought to label which thoughts are positive and negative?
We then forget that we were the ones who created the dichotomy of good and bad in the first place. When we see we are the creator, it doesn't make sense anymore to attempt to avoid or be frightened by our own creations (i.e. negative thoughts).
Why is this important to improving your relationship with yourself?
Well, thoughts have a direct affect how you feel. And thoughts aren't set in stone!
You are only one thought away from seeing yourself in a different light. To having an a-ha moment where you see for yourself all the unnecessary patterns of self-criticism that you have lived with for so long.
You do have the power to release thoughts. Not all the time, but there are some moments where you do have greater conscious awareness around your thinking. In those moments of bigger perspective, you can decide how much attention and importance you put on certain thoughts over others.
And over time, this will result in naturally more positive, helpful thoughts. And when those negative little buggers come around again (because they will), you can politely watch the negative thoughts walk through the house of your mind, moving from the front door and exiting through the back garden door quickly, instead of always inviting them to sit down for tea.
At the end of the day, it is ourselves we spend the most time with. Isn't it time we ease up a little bit on the tyranny of our egos?
Call to action: Which one of these mindset shifts resonated with you the most? Which one could you set an intention to more deeply explore?