Flourishing

Glass half full or glass half empty?

Our Wellbeing Practitioner, Sam, shares an updated reflection on Toxic Thinking…

We have millions of thoughts every day.  Some of them are negative, some positive and most of them are just slightly boring and neutral like “what shall I have for dinner?”.  Thoughts only become toxic when we get stuck in a way of thinking that actively harms us.  They might harm our relationships with other people; prevent us from living a fulfilling, useful life; and they can even lead to mental illness.

Toxic Negativity
We all know someone, don’t we? An Eeyore.  “The sky has finally fallen.  Always knew it would”.  They think the worst, expect the worst and inevitably the worst happens to them.  These people see themselves as victims of life’s circumstances and subconsciously set themselves up for failure.  It makes them rather difficult to be around and unfriending on Facebook might be our preferred option if it didn’t just confirm their miserable opinion that no one likes them.

Of course, there are times in all of our lives when we can fall into these ways of thinking.  There may be underlying issues like low self-esteem where we focus on our failures more than our achievements, and surmise that other people are better at things than us, leading to the conclusion that we are worth less than other people.  We may also have low self-efficacy, meaning we don’t believe we have the ability to achieve our goals or triumph over challenges.  And we may have an external locus of control, which is when we believe that we have little control over the events of our lives, and that external forces like fate play a bigger role in what happens to us than our own decisions and actions.  When we come up against a challenge in life, these underlying beliefs can influence the way we think and lead to a negative state of mind.

Toxic Positivity
Negative emotions don’t feel good, and that’s kind of the point – we have negative emotions to tell us that something is wrong, and to alert us to our need to protect ourselves, grieve, or change our situation in some way. Whether there’s conflict with someone else or within ourselves, we sometimes try to find the easy way to resolve the discomfort rather than confronting it.  Burying bad feelings, sweeping them under the carpet, often seems infinitely preferable to facing them. 

Sometimes everyone around us is happy to be complicit in that, suggesting we “cheer up” or “look on the bright side”, or pointing out that “there are people worse off than you”.  Social media can often seem like a world so far removed from the one we live in; one full of happy people doing exciting things, which can magnify our own sense of inadequacy. But the problem with burying sadness, grief, or anger is that it doesn’t go away.  It’s like putting a lid on a boiling pan – with no release for the pressure, it builds up until it explodes – but because they feel bad, there’s often a temptation to suppress them in the moment.

Healthy thinking
Trying to find a healthy balance in our thinking can be quite challenging.  It’s easy to get stuck in an unhealthy thinking pattern, whether it’s unhelpfully negative or dishonestly positive.  Being able to see both the good and the bad in our lives, and not attach too much weight to either, is the key to healthy thinking.  It’s okay to feel sad or angry and it’s important to acknowledge those feelings.  By doing that, those feelings can often resolve themselves.  It may be helpful to talk to someone about them or write them down but whatever you do, get them out

After acknowledging your emotions, don’t identify with them. Once we start to tell ourselves stories about how “this always happens to me”, “there’s something wrong with me”, “things will always feel like this” and so on, then we’re moving away from a healthy processing of emotion into creating more pain for ourselves. The key is to listen to the emotion, but not attach to it. In the words of Rachel Roberts of Earn Learn Thrive, you are not your thoughts (you can read her blog about that here) and you’re not your emotions either.

Questions for Reflection
Think about a situation in your life that is causing negative emotions.

  • What are the negative emotions you’re feeling? Be honest, name them.
  • What is causing them?
  • Do you need to take any action?
  • Are there any positives you can take forward from the situation?

What next?

Listen to a podcast conversation between Sam and Anna about “Toxic Thinking“. You can find that on this website under “Podcasts”, on Soundcloud, Spotify or your usual podcast platform.

Log on to Monday Mindfulness, every Monday at 12.30pm, to take time to notice how you feel.

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