Getting Unstuck from Negative Thoughts

So it begins

I’m in a bad mood.

It happens frequently enough. Sometimes I wake up just feeling cranky and with a teeny tiny fuse. Good luck navigating me today family! It has to be frustrating for them to have to deal with me when I’m in this state, just as it’s frustrating for me when I’m dealing with them in this state.

Last time, I wrote about the power of our narrator, and how, more often than not, our narrator sucks a big one. Over this past month I’ve been observing my inner narrator more frequently, particularly when I notice some sort of emotion: guilt, shame, anger, etc. I’ve been trying to use those emotions as a cue to check in with my inner dialogue. More often than not, my narrator is in completely whiny B mode. “UGH! Something inconvenient again! Why won’t anyone leave me alone?? Why do I have to do everything myself! I’m so unappreciated! Wah wah wah!”

Interrupting the negative thoughts

If I heard that come out of my 6yo’s mouth I’d (discreetly) roll my eyes and then work to offer some reassurance or distraction. When it rolls around in my own head though, it feels serious. You may think that because I’m a therapist and personal growth addict, I easily and gracefully apply therapeutic principles to myself. After all, I teach such principles to my clients on a daily basis. But alas, you’d be wrong. I’m just as susceptible to getting caught up in my thoughts as the next person.

When I wrote last time, I focused on how changing the narrator can completely change your perspective on a given situation. What I didn’t address last time I wrote, was about how darn hard it can be to untether yourself from the current story line. I mean, it’s a multi-step process with plenty of opportunities to get reeled back in.

#1: Notice the your thoughts

The first step, of course, would be to notice what the story is. You can’t tie your shoe if you don’t first notice that it’s untied. You have to be willing and able to shift your attention away from the outside world towards your inner world. When you do this, sometimes you find immediate change is possible. Like the observer effect, the mere presence of you observing your thoughts might be enough for (also) you to realize – “whoa, that’s a bit extreme. And also not true, so let’s move on.” If you can pull this off, and can successfully disentangle yourself from an unhelpful story line, you can stop here. Congratulations! You demonstrate adaptive cognitive flexibility!

For the rest of us, read on.

So you’ve successful identified your story line. It’s brutal. One option would be to read back over it, gentle challenging yourself on some of your finer points. “No, you aren’t a horrible person. Yes, you do have people who care from you. You’ve exaggerating how bad it’s going to be, etc.” This is what CBT would have us do and it can be a downright effective technique. What would your wise mind say to your narrator’s lode of tripe? How about a voice of compassion?

But my negative thoughts are like, REALLY mean. And stubborn.

You may find that if you try to challenge really strong thoughts, you fall into a heated argument about whether or not you suck, and frankly that’s not super helpful. What if you’re just feeling too bitchy? This afternoon, I didn’t even want to challenge my thoughts. It felt as though I was too angry and annoyed and frankly justified – cue whiny B voice: “I don’t need to challenge these thoughts because I AM unappreciated!” In the moment, I could get to step one (“Hmm…I seem to be having quite a few negative thoughts”), but just noticing wasn’t enough to make them go away, nor was it enough to change their impact on me.

#2 Notice how the negative thoughts are affecting your body

My next step was to practice some good old-fashion mindfulness skills. I did a quick body scan to see how these thoughts and emotions were impacting the rest of my body. Very quickly I noticed that I was clenching my jaw and tensing my shoulders, so I stopped that. Continuing to scan, I then realize that my stomach may be hungry…or thirsty. Maybe I just need a snack? I notice other sensations. A stabbing pain in my shoulder. A mild ache in my back. My feet on the floor. My clothes on my body.

#3 Notice when the inner critic shows up, and shift focus

The third step also comes to us from mindfulness. When you’re in the middle of a mindfulness or meditation session, one of the primary skills you work on is the idea of returning to the present moment. You focus on breath or a mantra or whatever else. Then you notice that your thoughts wander off and once you notice it, you bring your attention back to your breath. Your thoughts wander off again, you return them to your breath. Over and over again. It reminds me of trying to take a picture of a baby who has recently learned how to crawl. You pose baby just so – baby crawls off. You grab baby and put her back. She crawls off again. Etc.

When it comes to story narration, the idea is similar. You notice that a certain story is playing, you acknowledge it again, and you shift your focus to what youre doing right now. When your thoughts slide back into that negative loop again, you grab them and plop that back into the present. Over and over again. Labeling the story playing can help – oh, there’s that whiny B again trying to rant at me. Give the narrator a title or an image. Externalizing this voice in your head can to create distance between YOU and the thoughts.

The above step is harder on some days than others. Sometimes my Whiny B narrator is really freaking loud. It’s like having a neighbor who has their music blaring on a station that’s causing your eardrums to bleed. How am I supposed to focus with that going on? By moving on to the last step.

#4) Ride it out with love

Take a time out and just observe your internal process for awhile. This is not the same as noticing. This is a longer more intentional act of sitting with everything that you’re holding on to. The frustration of your situation. The discomfort of the feelings. The annoyingness of your thoughts. Notice the WHOLE package of your current experience. And offer the entity that’s going through this challenge some love and compassion. Life is hard. Living is hard. Having feelings and a fear-mongering brain is hard. We’re all trying our best. Me included. You included. Give yourself a big old bear hug and let yourself know that you are on your side.

Emotional Responsibility

Welcome to 2020
From Reddit u/atomicprimeo

There’s a lot of shit going on right now. It seems like in every corner of the globe, something is exploding, imploding or on the brink of doing either. Makes you question if Earth or God or whatever higher power you ascribe to is a little annoyed with the human race experiment.

Some people are dealing with the end of the world as we know it better than others. That’s perhaps not particularly surprising. Some people are better at dealing with everything better than others. But what nugget do these magical unicorns have, that maybe the rest aren’t quite aware of.

I feel like I’ve been having the same conversation over and over again. Sometimes it’s with friends or family members. Sometimes it’s in sessions. and sometimes it’s even in my own head. It usually starts with an awareness of something happening, and that something being no good. What follows is a wide range of emotions – anger, frustration, distress, sadness, helplessness, etc. Then there’s the secondary reaction – the anger, sadness and frustration that one would even have to experience these feelings in the first place.

I mean, what the hell man? Why do we keep having to deal with things that are outside of our control and that impact us on this very personal level? Why is the world exploding? Why are things the way they are? Why doesn’t my partner understand why I’m upset? Why is my country failing so miserably to find a way forward? Why are the people around me being such inconsiderate assholes? There is so much pain pent up inside this tightly wound ball of our perspective, screaming at the injustice of it all. It yells out “ARGH! WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME FEEL THIS WAY!?”

And I mean, I get it. The so-called negative emotions don’t feel great. There’s that pit-in-the-stomach sensation that goes with sadness. The antsy, jittery feeling of anxiety. The tingling, heated, throbbing angry sensation. And, my personal least favorite, that gut-punch, spike of adrenaline that goes with fear. I don’t begrudge anyone who isn’t specifically looking to experience more of that in their life. But sometimes we give our emotions just a wee bit too much power. They are, after all, just feelings. They may be strange and complex, but they, in and of themselves, aren’t dangerous. So why do we act like they are?

As a young therapist-in-training, the model on which I was educated focused on identifying and exploring a client’s “emotional avoidance” while encouraging that person to engage in “emotional tolerance”. There are few of us who get any form of adequate emotion coaching or mentoring, so if client’s can emerge from therapy being able to confront their emotions and “feel the feels” rather then avoiding them through drugs, alcohol, exercise, eating, self-harming, ruminating, or depending on others to manage their feelings for them, I would count that as a success. But at the same time, Emotional tolerance can only get you so far. I feel like it’s missing a key part of the picture, and the key part is responsibility. Tolerating or accepting emotion has this implication that the emotion is going to happen to you, just like all this cruddy stuff in the world is going to happen to you, and your job is to just sit there and take it. Accept that the anger is there. Accept that the sadness is there and ride it out.

I think we’re capable of more. Accepting an emotion sounds peaceful, but it also takes us out of the driver seat of our own experience. As if to say that we’re resigned to just watching our lives play out in front of us rather than taking center stage.

What would that mean, then, to take full ownership of your emotions?

For one, it would mean giving up your emotions as excuses.

  • “Sorry I was such an a-hole, I was just really angry about something my boss said.”
  • “I can’t hang out with you today” (because I’m way to anxious to leave my house).
  • “I know you wanted to have sex, but I was feeling too annoyed with you to having any kind of connection.”
  • “You hurt my feelings, so I’m going to ignore you and give you the silent treatment”.

For another, it would mean taking a step back, identifying what your tendency is, and then, in most cases at least, doing the opposite thing.

  • “My kid is pushing my buttons like whoa and all I want to do is scream my head off and yell at her to go to her room. Instead, I’m going to go sit down with her calmly and connect with her on an emotional level so she understands where the boundary is, and what the consequences are if/when she crosses it”
  • “My husband is being a complete grouch. It makes me want to avoid him so his negativity doesn’t rub off on me. Instead, I’m going to approach him, compassionately and empathetically and offer him support – even if he doesn’t ask for it”.
  • “My mom is criticizing me yet again and spouting off her wacked-out opinions. I want to snap at her for her backwards ways and uninformed beliefs. Instead, I’m going to accept her as she is, even if she has trouble accepting me as I am, while also affirming who I am, what I like, and what I believe.”

What do you think? Have you ever been able to take a step back from the roar of your emotions long enough to see a different way through them? What’s happened?

Always let your (emotions) be your guide

Emotions get a bad rap. I’ll be the first to say I was not always on-board with listening to, feeling or otherwise acknowledging my emotions. It was drilled in to me at a relatively young age that emotions are superfluous, unnecessary, messy, inconvenient, and certainly not fit for public consumption. Not to mention – they certainly said a lot about you as a person and what you cared about.

The kid who cries because he didn’t get what he wants? What a brat! And also his parents suck because how dare they allow their kids emotions be on display. Or the kid who gets angry and throws, hits or kicks to demonstrate just how clearly upset she is.

Perhaps those are poor examples, after all, they’re kids. Kids are notorious for having unstable moods and flipping from ecstasy to despair faster than you can blink. I’m actually witnessing this right now in my own kids. “You can have a piece of cake (YES!!!! Full ecstasy!!), but not for breakfast (NO!!! Utter despair!)”. Part of growing up is learning about all these different states called emotions and learn how to engage with them. Anger is okay – biting is not. Sadness is okay – but maybe we don’t need to sob on the floor of the grocery store. We learned when emotions are acceptable and what behaviors are acceptable outlets of those emotions.

Unfortunately, sometimes the messages we receive about emotions get a little scrambled, and by the time we’re grownups, we don’t necessarily have the best handle on them. Instead, we learn various strategies to “cope” with the emotions, some of which may be harmful, some of which may be completely ineffective, and some of which may be preventing us from living our lives as fully as we would like.


  • Growing up in a family who viewed sadness as a weakness. The sadness is still there, but now can’t be expressed and instead is made visible through different means: engaging in self-harm, using substances, developing an eating disorder, etc.
  • As a shy person, feeling highly anxious about social situations and so avoid places or environments where social interactions are likely: weddings, reunions, meetups, dates, etc.
  • Not liking how uncomfortable certain emotions make you feel so learning to control your environment so that you aren’t forced to experience anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, etc. When you are put into a situation outside of your control (cough cough, covid19), the overwhelm feels almost unbearable.
  • Coming from a family that never shows emotions and meeting the person of your dreams, who happens to come from a highly expressive and confrontational family. You realize that you don’t know how to communicate in such a way that the other person can even hear you.

Emotional Guidance System

What we rarely learn in childhood or elsewhere, is just how useful and important emotions are. And I don’t just mean in woo-woo, self-awareness sense, but also in a practical day to day to sense. What no one tells you (unless you go into therapy), is that emotions are our guides. We have developed these internal systems to alert us about the outside environment and how what’s happening IN THIS VERY MOMENT aligns or conflicts with our core values.

Sadness – Indicates there has been a loss, that something you want in your life is missing

Anger – Indicates a threat or that boundary has been violated

Guilt – Indicates that you have done something wrong which needs to amended

Fear – Indicates a threat or some kind of danger

Anxiety – Indicates a potential threat in the future

Joy – Indicates that things are good

How awesome is it that we were equipped with these? Also awesome – that we’re a social species, so while our emotions communicate something to us about what’s going on, they also communicate to those around us about what’s going on, so that we better know when to stay away and when to approach and offer help.

The one caveat to this whole emotional thing is that in order to receive the message from your guidance system, you have to be listening. That’s often where many of my clients struggle. We have been taught to tune out, ignore, “control”, or otherwise minimize the signals we receive from our emotions. Learning to tune back in can be a challenge. You might not hear anything. So instead, I offer this suggestion:

Observe your behaviors

Just like our emotions are our guides to how things are going in our lives with respect to our values, our behaviors are our guides to our emotions. Thankfully, behaviors are WAY more obvious that emotional signals. Anytime you find yourself having an urge to do something, that’s the time to check-in.

Last night, I got my kids to bed, it should have been time to relax. Instead, I had a very strong urge to eat chocolate. Like, a lot of chocolate. Okay, check-in time. Was I hungry? Nope. Was I tired, yeah, somewhat. Was I angry? sad? Nope and nope. But I was tense. And a little jittery. Ah – that one is anxiety. The president of Uganda was making yet another speech about the current state of the country-wide lockdown. My social media feeds were blowing up. Some young men were loitering on our street, taking pictures of our house. All of this led to a general sense of unease.

This leads to another important part of emotions: they guide us to action. Anxiety alerts us to a potential threat, so what is the potential threat, and can I do anything about it? The threat is that no one knows where this whole covid thing is going. No one knows how the people of this country in particular will handle sweeping movement restrictions. And I don’t know if those guys are plotting to attack my house or are posing for their instagram feed. What can I do? I can’t change the president’s edicts, but I can limit how much social media about it is streaming into my head. I can’t chase those guys off the street, it’s public property, but I can alert our guards (all houses/compounds here have guards) to their presence and them to keep an more vigilant eye out. I can ensure all my doors/windows are secured and that our outside lights are working. This is all helping to address the potential future threat. For the future threat I have zero control over? That’s where relaxation and breathing techniques come in. Remaining in a over-hyped state is not useful. It breaks down the body and actually limits the cognitive functions you probably want online should shit hit the fan and really spatter (splatter?).

If I had not checked-in with myself, I would have quickly grabbed some chocolate (and then more chocolate) in hopes that the small burst of dopamine would calm me down and make me feel a little better. And while it may have in the very short-term, it doesn’t address the threat that the anxiety was trying to alert me to, which means I would have needed more and more something to keep that anxiety feeling at bay. Better to just notice it, feel it, and take appropriate action.

What emotion do you find yourself avoiding? What do you suppose it’s trying to tell you? Drop me a note and let me know.