We’re kicking off our series on unhealthy thinking patterns with a discussion on the pattern of negative focus. I think it’s very appropriate to start with this category of thoughts because it’s one of the most common unhealthy thinking patterns I see in people I know (myself included).
What negative focus is
Negative focus is exactly what it sounds like: focusing on the negative. When we have a negative focus, it’s easy for us to see the bad parts of a situation while ignoring or downplaying the good parts.
I like to think of negative focus like a filter. If you use a filter on a picture you post to social media, it changes the picture, sometimes significantly. It can change the colors—amplifying, removing, or distorting them. Some filters add things that aren’t there (like light flares, prisms, sparkles, etc.). Filters can change the focus of the picture, blurring out the background or smoothing over imperfections.
A negative focus thought pattern does the same thing. It changes the picture. It brings the negative aspects or downsides into focus, altering your perception. Sometimes, it can change just one aspect of a situation; other times, it can recolor the entire memory or experience.
Filters on actual images also change the way we present a situation to others. If you went to the beach on a rainy, overcast day, but used a filter to make the sky look clear and blue, you are presenting that situation in a certain way to others. Anyone who sees that image might think that the weather was beautiful that day, because you told them it was.
Similarly, our negative focus gets communicated to other people as well. We may alter someone’s perception of a person or event because we chose to focus on and communicate the negative side of things.
What negative focus looks like
Here’s the thing about unhealthy thought patterns: we’re often unaware of them. When our brains think something often enough, it’s hard to separate the “thoughts” from the actual truth.
Of course, catching the unhealthy thinking pattern is key to overcoming it, so it’s important to try to catch yourself slipping into negative focus as often as you can.
Luckily, negative focus thought patterns are not that hard to identify, even if they are hard to catch. Any thought that (1) focuses on the negative and (2) ignores the positive qualifies as negative focus.
Your negative focus thoughts might sound like:
“Nothing went well today.”
“I keep failing over and over again.”
“There are so many things I didn’t get done today.”
“I’m so unlucky.”
“My partner said the most hurtful things to me today.”
“No one cares about me.”
“That trip was a disaster!”
Why it’s a problem
Some people might think, “Who cares if I have negative thought patterns! No one else can hear my thoughts, so it’s not like it’s hurting anyone.”
Unfortunately, that is simply not true. Your negative thoughts do hurt people—most notably, you.
Your thoughts affect your feelings and your actions. They affect how you show up in relationships. They influence your decisions. Thoughts don’t just exist in your mind. You manifest them and make them a reality. Some way, somehow, they come out.
There are actual, researched consequences of negative focus that have been studied, like:
- Increased stress
- Depression, anxiety, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Relationship struggles
- Decreased self-worth
I’ll also add that negative focus is a problem because it leads to even more negative focus. We see what we notice. If you are only noticing the negative, then that is all you will see.
How it affects you as a creative
Negative focus has a particularly negative effect on creatives. Creatives already tend to be hard on themselves and on their work, so focusing only on the negative is going to make that self-criticism even worse.
Additionally, negative focus can hamper your creative spirit. Negativity does not embrace new ideas or ways of thinking. When your mind is a negative place, creativity is not safe there, so it won’t show up.
How to overcome negative focus
The unhealthy thinking pattern of negative focus can clearly hold you back in several ways, which leads us to the big question: how do you get over it?
Let me start by saying that retraining your brain takes focus, mindfulness, and time—especially if you’ve been stuck in the unhealthy thinking pattern for a while. Be patient with yourself as you work to change your thoughts and your focus. You’ll get there; you just have to keep trying.
Gratitude is a powerful positivity tool. After all, what is gratitude if not a focus on the positive?
Practice gratitude by:
- Keeping a gratitude journal (whatever that looks like for you)
- Going for a walk and identifying things you see, hear, smell, or feel that you are grateful for
- Going around the table during a mealtime and letting each person share something they’re grateful for
- Making it a point to thank people you interact with throughout the day
- Writing “thank you” cards telling people how much you appreciate them
- Pausing to enjoy small moments, like a good meal, a favorite song, etc.
As you practice gratitude, you’ll shift your focus more toward the positive. It will be easier to notice and identify the good things in your life.
Establish a negative thinking time or routine.
The hard thing about unhealthy thinking patterns is that they can pop up at any time, disrupting you at the most inconvenient moments and throwing off your day.
One way to counteract this is to try to keep your negative focus confined to a limited time period. Schedule time to think negative thoughts (I’d recommend no more than 10 or 15 minutes). Allow your negative thoughts to run wild during this time period. Think them through. Write them down. And then, when the time is up, let them go. Throw the paper away. Wipe the slate clean.
The practice of thinking the thoughts and then letting them go will help you to (a) more easily recognize the thoughts when they come later, and (b) let them go more easily in the future. Just as we can practice thinking in a certain way, we can practice releasing those thoughts when we realize they aren’t serving us.
Name your negative alter-ego.
Try giving your inner critic/negative side a name. (Yes, an actual name.) This is helpful for a couple reasons:
- It separates your negative side from your positive side. You start to see that side of you as a separate part of you, one that can be controlled, placated, or ignored.
- You can see your negative thoughts more objectively. When the thoughts aren’t your own, it’s easier to pick them apart or present counter arguments.
- It adds a lightheartedness to the situation that immediately counteracts the negativity. This is especially true if you give your inner critic a silly name.
Perspective can be a good solution to negative focus. A lot of times, negative focus is the result of close focus: we are focused on something that happened today, and the negative self-talk convinces us that that thing happens every day.
When you find the negative thoughts sneaking in, try to have a broader perspective. Zoom out. Does your negative perspective apply in the long term, or are you being short-sighted? Practice seeing your negative thoughts as “right-now” thoughts rather than “all-the-time” thoughts. This might help you realize that things aren’t as bad as they may seem. (We’ll talk about this more in our next post in the series on overgeneralization.)
Having a negative focus can hurt your self-confidence, your creativity, your relationships, and many other aspects of your life, but only if you let it. Recognizing the unhealthy thinking pattern and breaking free from it will help you live a more positive, optimistic life—one that focuses on the good in yourself, in others, and in the world.
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