This week I wanted to don my Oprah hat and write about something I think we all experience: negative thoughts and self-doubt. I’m told that self-doubt is as much a part of a writer’s DNA as coffee dependency, narcissism and nosiness. To be honest, that doesn’t really give me much comfort when I’m hunched over my laptop, paralysed with fear and self-loathing, as though the assignment I’m working on is the first thing I’ve ever written and wondering why the editor gave it to me of all people. So how do you stop that niggling negativity from completely taking over?
A little bit of self-doubt is fine and, some would even argue, healthy. In the College Fashionista podcast (yes, I listen to a podcast for teens) Rachel Zoe says something wise about how being afraid shows you’re being challenged. On the flip side, negative thoughts and self-doubt can easily spiral out of control and become your go-to emotion when you’re confronted by any change or opportunity at all.
Just to make sure we’re on the same page, by negative thoughts I mean ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I don’t deserve this opportunity’ not ‘my life sucks’ or ‘I hate myself’. You might need to talk to your doctor/ a healthcare professional if you’re overwhelmed with the latter.
As I’ve gotten older and less cynical (LOL), I’ve really been working on being more positive and not dwelling on the half empty glass. It’s hard and I’m nowhere near a ‘positive vibes only’ kinda gal but I am getting there.
Here are a few ways I cope with negative thoughts and stop The Fear from sending me into free-fall:
- Ask yourself: would I let a friend talk to me like this? Sometimes, the voice in my head is a real shitshow (go on, analyse me). If the voice in your head regularly tells you the things you hate and fear most about yourself, stop it in its horrible tracks with this simple question. This is not advice I came up with, in fact I think I heard it most recently on the Fringe of It podcast, but it’s a tip I’ve found to be really useful. As soon as I hear that awful negative voice in my head, I ask myself how I would feel if a friend said it to me. If there’s no way I’d listen to a friend or family member say it to me, there’s no way I’m talking to myself that way.
- Put your feelings aside and ask yourself if you’re really being accurate in your assessment of things. This is a hard one when you’re battling anxiety and it just clouds your judgement but try to look at the situation as objectively as you can. For example, if I’m crippled by self-doubt and feeling bad about myself because I’m starting a new writing project and I don’t feel like I can do it, I remind myself of all the projects I’ve started – and successfully completed – in the past. This way I can prove to myself that A) I’ve felt this way before and B) I can do it. Self-doubt begone!
- Make a list of positive things you like about yourself. Sounds a bit twee, right? But it works. A bit like writing a daily gratitude list, a few bullet points of things you’re proud of or that make you feel good will counter your negative feelings. Chances are you already know you’re a loyal friend etc, you just a little reminder. Have a look at (the only celebrity worth following) Jameela Jamil’s I Weigh Instagram account which she rightly describes as a life positivity project. Instead of defining their worth in terms of kilos, women submit lists of positive personality attributes instead. You don’t have to submit a version but I really recommend you make your own list and keep it for when you need a boost.
- Turn comparison into motivation. So much has been written about how social media makes us feel bad about our lives but still I was surprised to hear Leandra Medine say on the Girl Boss podcast that Instagram makes her feel terrible. We all know that comparing ourselves to others is a Very Bad Idea, but I don’t want to tell you to stop doing it because if it was that simple, you’d have done it by now, right? Instead, when you’re comparing yourself to someone else and feel like you have failed at life or just don’t measure up, try to use that feeling to motivate yourself into action. Cringeworthy as this is to admit, I regularly find myself looking at what other journalists are doing and saying things like ‘well, I could’ve written that post/article/book’. Well, you didn’t. Get over it. Instead, think of what you CAN do and get a move on.
- Look on the bright side. Well, duh. When you find yourself always focusing on the negative, make a pointed effort to think of the positives instead. For example, if you’ve been to a work event and when you come home, all you can think about is the moment you called a client by the wrong name or when you accidentally spilled some wine, think of at least three good things that happened, such as your boss saying you did a great job organising the event, a client giving you props on your hard work or just how good you felt in your outfit. When someone asks you how your day went, instead of unloading about how crap your boss is, think of the GOOD things that happened in your day. Mindfulness practitioners recommend that we don’t suppress negative thoughts, instead we should acknowledge them and let them go. If you just can’t let something drop, write it down on a piece of paper and either burn it or just bin it. I know it might sound a bit woo-woo but this simple act of recognising a negative thought or source of self-doubt and discarding it sends a clear signal to your brain that you’ve got better things to devote your mind to and this thought is just not one of them.
Liked this post? You might also like my post on Morning Rituals to Start Your Day Positively and here’s a really useful TED Talk on choosing positive thoughts over negative: