So you’ve vowed to be healthier this year. That typically means less fast food, and more exercise. But what are you doing for your mental health?
Experts say a great place to start is by tackling your toxic thoughts. We experience thousands of thoughts per day. Some of these thoughts can be negative and thus detrimental to your well-being. In fact, some research has even suggested negative thinking could be linked to physical ailments such as heart disease.
Tipping the scale to have more positive thoughts in your day can work wonders for your mind and overall health. Here are 14 toxic thoughts that experts say you need to banish if you want to be happier:
1. “I’ll do it later.”
Catching up on your favorite Netflix show might sound like your most appealing option when you have some free time, but putting off something you need to get done is likely to lead to more stress.
Creating motivation and adding structure to your routines can help you ward off the urge to stall, said Lucas D. Saiter, a psychotherapist in New York City.
“Checklists are very effective at motivating individuals and there is research that shows this,” he said. “Make attainable goals, write them down and go get them.”
2. Any type of catastrophic thinking
One bad thing does not always lead to another. But when something doesn’t go your way, it’s easy to let your mind delve deep into the dark side.
“When we think things are worse than they are, or assume that because one bad thing happened that more bad things will happen, it can cause a lot of emotional turmoil,” said Robyn Gold, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City.
Gold cited the following as a catastrophic thought process that can quickly get out of control: “I failed a pop quiz in class. This means I’m going to fail the whole class, and then that means I’ll never graduate. Then I won’t ever get a job and I’ll be living in my parents’ home for the rest of my life.”
To combat this type of thinking, Gold suggested asking yourself what all the possible outcomes are ― including the positive ones. “For example, in this situation you could take more control by telling yourself that you have the power to do better next time and use that thought process instead to motivate you to succeed,” she said.
3. “I’m inadequate.”
This type of thinking can quickly impair your ability to succeed in the workplace and within your personal relationships. Lynn Whitbeck, the founder of online women’s career mentoring site petite2queen.com, has developed the acronym “YASS” to help her clients overcome a case of feeling not good enough:
Y = Why you. Remember, you add value.
A = Allowed to fail. Give yourself permission to fail. When you fall, you always get back up.
S = See success. Breathe and reframe your mindset.
S = Surge forward. Take a leap of faith, because if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
4. “Self-care is selfish.”
A flight attendant will always tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting someone else. This should be a metaphor for life, according to Shainna Ali, a licensed mental health counselor in Orlando, Florida.
But we often feel guilty if we place our own needs ahead of things we feel obligated to do. That can end up backfiring: Not only do you get burned out, you also won’t have energy to spend on people you care about.
“Taking care of yourself is an investment that you benefit from, but your loved ones, colleagues, neighbors and community do as well,” Ali said. “So it’s OK to say ‘no’ to baking homemade treats for the neighborhood bake sale if you feel that you’d benefit by soaking in a bubble bath instead.”
5. “Their life is so much better than mine.”
It’s easy to scroll through Instagram and assume everyone else is leading a life far superior to your own. But this is often far from the truth, according to Ree Langham, a psychologist and writer at ParentingPod.com.
“What you see is only the outer shell of what may be happening within. In other words, people put out what they want others to see,” Langham said.
“You may think your life sucks because someone else has a fancy car, a couple of kids, a nice job, a good-looking spouse, a cute dog, an expensive house and white-picketed fence, but you don’t know what happens behind closed doors,” Langham added. “That person you think has the best life may be miserable when people aren’t looking.”
6. “I’ll be happy when...”
Tying your happiness to an achievement in the future ― such as losing 15 pounds, falling in love or getting a promotion ― is a dangerous game. Nicole Issa, a psychologist who serves clients in New York and Massachusetts, recommended changing your thinking pattern so you are not always willing your circumstances to change.
“Instead, think about what you imagine will be different when you move, lose weight, find love, etc., and how you will then be happy and try to cultivate some of those things right now,” she said.
Issa suggested reminding yourself that you can be happy right now if you try to work on these things through small changes, and that you will have a greater probability of getting where you want to be if you are happy. Take the first step by eating a healthy meal or signing yourself up for a dating app. Revel in those tiny steps, which can add up quickly.
7. “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
“Judging yourself for your emotions is like judging yourself for your body temperature. It’s not in your control,” said Tina Gilbertson, a Denver-based psychotherapist and the author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them. “It’s common to believe we can choose our emotions, but if you think about it, that’s nonsense. If we could choose our feelings, why wouldn’t everyone be happy all the time?”
Abby Thompson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, agreed, adding that feelings can act as a barometer for what’s going on inside of us.
“We’d all feel a lot better if we let them happen,” she said.
8. “This kind of thing always happens to me.”
“Too often when a car cuts someone off, they end up in a line that isn’t moving, their luggage gets lost, their flight is delayed, or they end up receiving an item that comes broken or destroyed, their first negative impulse is to say that this always happens to them. Really? Always?” said Toni Coleman, a psychotherapist, relationship coach and divorce mediator in McLean, Virginia.
Coleman said this type of thinking should be banished because it paints an individual as a victim of unfair circumstances, which just reinforces a negative attitude about how the world treats them.
When these types of thoughts arise, Coleman suggested stopping yourself mid-thought and substituting something like, “Bummer, I will be a little late today but it’s a fluke and no big deal in the grand scheme of things.”
“Just substitute any positive ― humorous is better ― thought and move on,” Coleman said.
9. “I wish I looked more like him or her.”
It’s easy to flip through a page of a magazine and covet the body of your favorite celebrity. But nothing about this practice is healthy or beneficial to your happiness, Thompson said.
“While exercise and eating nutritious foods is always a good idea, wishing our bodies looked dramatically different is often a way to procrastinate living our best lives,” she said. “If we decide to live fully now, no matter how much we weigh, how amazing would things be?”
It’s human nature to be hard on your physical appearance, but self-compassion can help.
“Our minds like to throw lots of thoughts at us all the time and many of them are pretty unhelpful,” Thompson said. “One way to respond is to acknowledge it and say to that thought ‘Thanks, but I’m choosing to think about this differently this year.’”
10. “I should have.”
“I would like to send these little words to the moon in a spaceship and remove them from every person’s vocabulary,” said Jennifer Hunt, chair of pathology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and founder of a leadership development program for women called Unlocking the Authentic Self.
“Should have” creates more toxicity than almost any other phrase, she said.
“Almost anything that follows ‘should have’ reflects a disappointment, a missed opportunity, an unhealthy comparison between an ideal and reality, and constant glancing in the rearview mirror,” Hunt said.
Hunt said these “ought statements” can become toxic and eat away at self-confidence.
11. “I’m such an idiot.”
Self-deprecating thoughts can batter your self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence, said Karen Donzaldson, a communication and body language expert and certified confidence coach in Toronto.
“Over time, you become your biggest critic, stop taking action, start making excuses when people speak to you the same way you speak to yourself, you stop sharing and you start to live like you’re not enough,” she said.
Try replacing a self-deprecating thought with something more supportive. Donaldson suggested making a list of three things you do really well and three things you love about yourself.
“Every time a self-deprecating thought shows up, replace it with one of [these] six things,” she said.
12. “I’ll try.”
Using the word “try” gives us a safety net to fail and does not communicate full commitment to ourselves or others, said Melissa Wolak, a holistic mindset and transformative coach and speaker in Boulder, Colorado.
“Thoughts and words are powerful and affect our actions and our energy when completing tasks or addressing challenges,” Wolak said. Instead of using “try,” she suggested saying: “I will do it,” “I will do my best,” “I can do this.”
13. “If it’s not perfect, it’s not worth doing.”
If you only do things you think you can do perfectly, you’ll never get anything done, said Jude Treder-Wolff, a licensed clinical social worker and certified group psychotherapist in Smithtown, New York.
Treder-Wolff said this type of thinking is harmful because it eliminates that essential learning phase of a new role or skill “when we must be free to flail and flounder as we figure it out.” Recognizing this thought as toxic is an important step, as is replacing it with new, healthy thoughts ― try: “Everything worth doing requires the freedom to flail and flounder,” “Everything I put a good effort into will result in learning to do something better and better” or “Everything I put a good effort into changes my brain.”
14. “I don’t know how.”
The secret to getting starting on a seemingly impossible task is to focus on what you do know how to do at the moment, take things one step at a time and learn as you go.
“When you’re focused on trying to know steps 1 through 50, you get way ahead of yourself and this keeps you from making any progress at all,” said Sumayya Essack, a mindset and life coach in Boston. “Big goals like changing careers and starting businesses don’t have paint-by-numbers formulas, so you can’t actually know all the steps.”
If you feel stuck, Essack suggested telling yourself: “I’ll figure out the next step and take it.”
“Think only of what’s the next possible and feasible step you could take,” she said. “Take that one, and go from there. You’ll figure it out as you go.”