by Mike McKeown
In our Anxiety Basics series we have been looking at the different ways that anxiety can affect our lives. The first article discussed the idea that not all anxiety is negative. You can have healthy levels of anxiety that keep you balanced. But when that anxiety grows, that is when we start having negative consequences from those thoughts. We’ve also talked about how much of the distressing anxiety comes from our negative internal dialogue. The only way we can remedy this is by changing our thoughts. To do that, we need to slow down our thinking and examine the things we are saying to ourselves to determine if they are misbeliefs (or lies).
Locating the Misbelief
The tricky part of a misbelief is that it appears true to the person repeating it to themselves. This comes because at the center of every misbelief, there is a tiny shred of truth. Though that little scrap of truth is not large enough to support a full-on argument or debate on its own, it is not unusual to find that the person who believes it has never examined or questioned the truth. That fact alone gives it more weight than it should have. The longer it sits there, the more it grows until it becomes a large, unyielding truth upon which people begin to make their decisions and choices. And if the person has believed this lie for years (or even for their entire lives) it will be difficult to change their perspective to see reality.
If you continue to tell yourself distorted statements, you are going to have negative feelings and engage in negative behavior. It is impossible to make positive changes if you are drowning in negativity.
How many of these have you ever heard in your head?
- You can’t do anything right!
- You’re just not _____ (smart, pretty, talented, etc.) enough!
- You screw everything up!
Everyone hears these thoughts in their head once in a while but the problem comes when they start playing on a loop. They become a constant chant and that is when things become dangerous.
Arguing against Misbeliefs
The first step to lasting change of these untruths is to become more aware of the problem. For most people, living these misbeliefs becomes such a habit that they don’t realize how often they continue to feed the negative thoughts. In fact, it becomes so ingrained that it affects the way they view everything and they often don’t have a clue that they are even doing it! I recommend that you keep a journal and make a note of it every time you think something negative about yourself. (There are a lot of note taking apps available for phones if you aren’t inclined to carry a notebook with you.) You can either review it at the end of each day or even hold on to it for a bit and look at the end of the week. No matter which of these methods you choose, seeing it in print is bound to help you understand the misbeliefs much better.
After you realize how often you say negative things, now it’s time to try to reverse that train. I’ll warn you now that this part isn’t easy. Newton’s laws apply here. Once something is in motion, it stays in motion in that direction even if you hit the brakes. You’re going to have some work ahead of you but I promise, it’s worth it.
When you hear yourself saying something false or negative, STOP! Then you need to say, “no that is not true.” And here’s another tip. Saying it out loud it is more powerful than just thinking it. Hearing it will also serve to make you aware of how often you stop your negative thoughts.
Again, this sort of shift in thinking isn’t going to happen overnight, but stick with it. The outcome is worth all of the effort – I promise!
Ways to Change Your Internal Dialogue
Anxiety damages your internal dialogue. You’re basically just sabotaging yourself. By reinforcing and feeding these negative thoughts, you are setting up your own speed bumps and barriers that you then have to work around! Think about it. You wouldn’t handle someone else insulting you all day long, yet it’s okay for you to think about yourself that way? Because anxiety makes you less hopeful and less content with the things around you, it has a profound effect on your inner dialogue. Suddenly you accept things as truth that you wouldn’t even consider from someone else.
Stopping yourself from repeating the misbelief is one thing. That’s neutralizing the thoughts. But if you can go one step further and add in a positive, your change is going to come more quickly. When you find yourself thinking those negative, disparaging thoughts, see if you can turn them upside down. Often the negatives in our life have a positive flip side. You might think you aren’t smart enough to do a specific job, but I guarantee you know something that you’re really good at. Put that in your thoughts instead. See how you can find the strengths in your life and begin to highlight those.
Improving your internal dialogue is not something that can be done overnight. It’s going to take work and effort. But all the best things in life do. And you are one of the best things in life! By substituting positive thoughts for the negatives, you are taking control of your thoughts instead of the other way around. And once you learn how to control your thoughts, you have taken the first steps to ridding yourself of anxiety.
Next time I will share more tips on how to shift direction when anxiety takes over.