This entry is essentially a repost from a few years ago, but it came to mind as a result of two people (a client and a friend) having their thoughts fall into an exceptionally negative place. There's a wonderful, structured technique for pulling out of that place, first articulated by Byron Katie.
This method has antecedents in post-modern thought, namely that reality is to a great degree constructed by how we look at it. There's a parallel idea that has emerged from quantum physics known as the "observer effect": the mere act of observing a phenomenon alters it to some degree. A problem common to virtually all negative thinking is that the mind scurries around looking for evidence to support its point-of-view, and evidence can always be found. Contrary evidence is rarely considered, because it puts the mind in the uncomfortable place of holding opposing thoughts at the same time (the psychological term for this state being "cognitive dissonance").
The foundational principle behind the method I'm about to outline is that by viewing thoughts / situations from multiple perspectives we can begin to see that there is a fluid, multi-faceted aspect to "reality" which allows us greater freedom and flexibility in reacting to it.
Step One: WRITE down the thoughts that are troubling you. Go on for pages, if you like. Get it all out and down on paper. Then:
Step Two: Take the first thought you've written about and ask yourself "Is it true?". Let's start with a fairly easy example: "My husband is self-centered and doesn't listen to me" You might say "yes, it's true". Then go on to
Step Three: Ask yourself "Can I absolutely 100% for sure know it's true?". You can't really know anything for sure when it involves the motivations and actions of others, so the answer would have to be "no".
Step Four: "How do you feel or react when you think that thought?" Because the purpose of this exercise is to focus on troubling thoughts, your answer will always involve some kind of negativity, in this case perhaps: "I feel disrespected, I feel unimportant, I feel unloved".
Step Five: Ask yourself "Who would I be without that thought" (or "how would I be feeling without that thought?). In this case, a sample answer answer might be "I feel less tense, I feel lighter, I feel loved".
Step Six: This is the tricky one. It's called the turnaround. What you need to do is to take the original thought and switch elements of the sentence so that it has a different meaning. For example "My husband is self centered and never listens to me" could be turned around to:
1) My husband isn't self-centered and does listen to me.
2) My husband doesn't listen to me when I'm self-centered.
3) I'm self-centered and don't listen to my husband.
Now, think carefully and as objectively as you can about each of the turnaround statements and think of a time or times in which those thoughts are true. Let's try another couple of examples:
"My wife is rude to my Mom"
1) Is it true ("yes", you feel)
2) Can I absolutely 100% for sure know it's true? (no, at least to some degree rudeness is in the eye of the beholder).
3) How do I feel when I think that thought? Angry, resentful, like my feelings aren't important to her.
4) Who would I be without that thought? Calmer, less angry.
5) Turn the thought around:
"My Mom is rude to my wife"
"My wife isn't rude to my Mom"
"My wife is rude to herself"
Some of the turnarounds will have immediate resonance (in this case, you might recall an instance when your Mom was rude to your wife, or when your wife wasn't rude to your Mom which could certainly shift your perspective on her rudeness). Others less so or not at all, but by working at it you'll usually come up with some examples that support the turnarounds.
Another example (focusing just on the turnarounds, as the preceding steps are fairly self-evident): "I'm always doing things for other people and they should reciprocate".
The turnarounds could be:
"I'm always doing things for people and they shouldn't reciprocate"
"People are always doing things for me and I should reciprocate"
"I'm always doing things for me and I should reciprocate".
By identifying situations opposite from the one embedded in the original troubling thought you are able to see "reality" from a different, less troubling angle.
I urge you to experiment with this method. The turnarounds can be tricky, and depend to some degree on the way the troubling thought is phrased, so try rewording the thought if turnarounds aren't working. If you write down "I'm worried that I'll lose my job," the obvious turnarounds (I'm not worried that I'll lose my job, I'm worried that I won't lose my job) might not make any sense. But if you reword the thought to "If I lose my job I won't be able to find another" a couple of the turnarounds would begin to make sense (If I don't lose my job I won't be able to find another (because I won't feel the need to look), If I don't lose my job I will be able to find another (because there's always the possibility of finding a new job), If I'm not able to find another job I won't lose my job (maybe by stopping the job search and focusing on the job you currently hold you'll improve your performance).
To learn more about this method and how to use it, go to Byron Katie's blog: