Anyone who has suffered the horror of insomnia is likely to be very familiar with negative, unpleasant, or downright scary thoughts. They can plague us, sabotaging our ability to sleep well. And the more we try to get rid of them, or understand them, the more they seem to stick around.
One of the most common questions I am asked is
‘what can I do about my negative thinking?’
So let’s have a closer look at some of these negative thoughts.
Consider the following:
I have that important interview tomorrow so I don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of sleeping tonight
There’s something really wrong with my sleep. I must be broken or permanently damaged in some way
Nothing every works for me. My insomnia is incurable
There’s no way I can sleep without my sleeping pills
I MUST sleep tonight or I’m going to have a terrible day tomorrow.
These thoughts go around and around in our heads, making us feel stressed, anxious and miserable. We try and try to reason with the thoughts, make them go away or find solutions to the problems they throw up.
But let’s consider another set of thoughts…
I’m going to the gym after work so I must remember my gym bag
I wonder if dragons really exist.
My hair looks good today.
If I take the shortcut, I’ll be home in time for dinner
I never get colds
I’d love to go to Peru
I must call my accountant
Oh, what lovely wallpaper!
Now, why don’t we try to reason with these thoughts, make them go away or find solutions to the problems they throw up? Why don’t we give these thoughts any attention? Why don’t we afford them importance? We let them come and go, slipping through our minds like water.
The only difference between the two sets of thoughts is that one set feels bad and the other doesn’t. But none of these thoughts has any greater meaning or importance than the others.
We have thousands of thoughts running through our minds every day, every second a new one. But as soon as one pops in that we don’t like the feel of, we jump on it. We start to analyse it, giving it meaning and significance. We give it an important sounding label like ‘repetitive negative pattern’ or ‘obsessive thought’. Then this thought takes on a whole new reality, becoming bigger and more prominent in our lives.
Why do we only do this with thoughts that feel bad?
Let’s face it, there are other thoughts that repeat and repeat every day too. Some daily repetitive thoughts might include ‘I hope the roads are clear on the way to work’, ‘Time to walk the dog’, ‘What’s the weather like today?’
You might also have repetitive fantasy thoughts such as ‘I hope I win the lottery this week’ or ‘I’m SO looking forward to my holiday’. You might visualise and plan exactly what you’d do when you win the lottery, or when you go on your holiday. But we reject these repetitive thoughts as mere daydreams, nonsense, fantasy.
On the other hand, the thought ‘I’m a broken, chronic, incurable insomniac’ is given pride of place, importance, meaning. We imagine we must analyse a thought like this, work it out, deal with it, get therapy for it. We must get to the bottom of this thought, understand where it’s coming from and why.
No, we don’t. We don’t have to do that at all!
Why assume ‘I’m a broken, incurable insomnia’ is any more important than ‘My hair looks good today’? It’s kind of crazy, really. Why not focus on the thoughts that feel good? In fact, why assume any negative thought warrants one more second of our attention than we choose to give it?
Because, it’s that attention that makes the thought stick around. It's that attention is what makes it grow and take on enormous significance.
It's true that some thoughts may feel ‘stickier’ than others. Some may take a little longer to move on. But the fact remains
A negative thought is just a thought, with no significance than any other and no more power than that which you choose to give it.
Instinctively, deep down, you know this must be true.
When the truth of this really dawns on you, suddenly all negative thoughts lose their hold on you. Their power drains away. They disappear, disintegrate like a puff of smoke on the wind.
So back to our initial question and the title of this blog post. What do we do about negative thoughts?
The short answer is, we do nothing.
But for now, just try the following. The next time a negative thought pops into your head, just tell yourself this:
‘It’s just a thought. Another one will be along in a minute.’
And then. Let it go. Get on with whatever you were doing before the thought popped in. Don’t put life on hold because of a stupid little thought!
And that's when you'll notice... those negative thoughts don't have nearly as much power as you used to believe. You may even see them slip through your mind as fast as they arrived.