We all have negative thoughts from time to time, which is part of being human. Some of us have a reservoir full, resulting in a negative self-image. As negative thoughts cloud our mind over time, we also can begin to lose one of our greatest assets- our character strengths.
People often wonder where these negative thoughts come from. They usually begin in childhood when we may have heard negative comments about ourselves. It could be that we don’t put in enough effort or concentrate well, that we talk too much or too little, or that we are not so smart, to name a few. We believe these ideas as absolute truths because that is what we usually do as children. Sometimes even with praise from our families, we can compare ourselves to others and come out on the short end of the stick.
The thoughts that we have and sometimes express may then be in line with our negative self-image. If someone comments that we are smart, for example, we may not believe it. We might even act incompetently because that is who we believe we are – an incompetent person.
Now not everyone holds such negative perceptions of themselves and negative self-images run along a wide spectrum. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. What can we do when we only see the glass as half full or close to empty?
Toolset for the Mind
To uncover character strengths from behind a dark cloud of negative thoughts, we have to take a psychological approach and develop a toolset to unearth them. With this toolset, we can come to view ourselves and the world in a more positive light. Negative thoughts lessen in degree and intensity.
Ideas Versus Absolute Truths
People will have impressions of us just as much as we will have impressions of them. We have to remind ourselves that any impression is only an idea and not an absolute truth. Take something as basic as beauty. We all know that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, yet we can hold onto rigid negative beliefs about ourselves and look at them instead as fact.
Pay Attention to Negative Thoughts
One road to discovering our character strengths is to pay attention to our negative thoughts and challenge them. We often dismiss many of our negative thoughts, but we need to become aware of them on the road to discovering our character strengths. For most us this means keeping a list of negative thoughts that pop into our head, such as the nagging ones that I sometimes have as I write this piece- that I am not a good writer!
Look for Alternative Explanations
This means asking ourselves for evidence to support our negative beliefs and at the same time looking for alternative explanations. Sometimes, for example, people may ask too much of us rather than our not keeping up as reflecting our own incompetence. As for my thought that I am not a good writer, I would have to stop and remind myself of times of receiving positive feedback for my writing and to realistically come to accept that some pieces will be written better than others.
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Keep Track of Positive Thoughts and Actions
When we are overly negative, we tend to tune out the positive in ourselves. Even if you have negative thoughts and act out in a way that reflects a negative self-image, no one is all bad. We are more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
If you keep a list of your positive thoughts and actions, like getting most your work done competently, being a good listener, a good friend, not always putting yourself first and the like, what will emerge are thoughts and actions that reflect character strengths. They can be small actions that may go unnoticed as unimportant such as went grocery shopping today, arrived to work on time, organized my closet, and the like. Focusing on small actions can be especially helpful if you have a hard time finding things positive about yourself.
If you are not familiar with the most common character strengths, the VIA Institute has a listing of twenty-fourth strengths to work with (http//:www.viainstitute.org). Let your positive thoughts and actions list grow awhile – perhaps a week or so – and then for each thought or action, write down the strengths that are reflected in it. For example, holding a door for someone may suggest kindness and patience. Keeping a positive thought/action and character strength list may reflect strengths such as love of learning, creativity, and persistence.
For anyone plagued with negative thoughts and even if only from time to time, keeping track of your positive thoughts and actions, and translating them into character strengths can become a reservoir to boost our self-confidence. What a good place to turn to when feeling down or afraid to accept change and try out something new! During these times our negative thoughts are likely to creep back in, but with focusing on the mental toolset, you will feel much better at the thought of moving ahead. To learn more about character strengths, visit my recent blog at http://junerousso.com/241/we-all-have-character-strengths and Sandi Schwartz’s blog at http://happysciencemom.com/help-children-build-good-character/.
“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving yourself and see what happens.” – Louise Hay
June Rousso, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and positive psychology coach practicing in New York City. She has written two children’s books from a positive psychological perspective- We All Live on This Planet Together and The Little Book of Character Strengths. Her ultimate goal is helping people view themselves and others in a more positive light.