When people talk about addiction, they’re usually referring to alcohol and drugs; but negative patterns of thinking also can become a self-sabotaging habit. Often we don’t even realize when that happens to us because there are so many negative influences in today’s world—sensational news programs, gory movies and TV shows, overblown political rhetoric, and nasty gossip of both the real-life and cyber varieties. If we start believing that’s just how the world is, then we get mistrustful and anxious. That can go on for years, without it ever occurring to us that we could simply change the channel and find a more pleasant group of friends. Before we know it, there’s a huge heap of persistent negative thought loops stuck on auto-replay in the back of our consciousness, and we have no idea how to turn them off.
I have to admit I’ve got some of my own negative thought loops that I haven’t been able to banish. Even though I consciously know they’re a total waste of brain space and are harmful to both mood and health, they just keep popping up anyway. So, instead of making excuses and telling myself everybody has a few negative thoughts and it’s no big deal, I’ve decided to treat them like the damaging addiction they are. This post is the first in what will be a monthly series of virtual 12-step meetings for recovering negativoholics. Every month I’ll reflect on the next step in the series and how it relates to negative thinking. Let’s get started with the first:
(What to do? Well, introduce myself, right?) Hi everybody, I’m Meg and I am a negativoholic.
(People smile and wave to me) Hi Meg!
(I look around, feeling reassured by all the friendly faces) I’m here today for the purpose of being honest with myself. The first step in the traditional Alcoholics Anonymous program is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” These are strong words, and that’s the whole point—they don’t leave any space for pretending that maybe it’s not much of a problem after all. Admitting that these words really do fit isn’t easy. Powerless and unmanageable, hey, that can’t be me, can it?
Well, yeah. Negative thinking can seriously mess with a person’s mind. Like alcohol or drugs, it’s an escape from reality. When we ruminate about all the bad things other people did to us, then we don’t have to think about whether we might have done something wrong ourselves. And we don’t have to take responsibility for fixing the situation either; we can just decide that the other person (or political faction, or whatever) is so evil and ignorant that there’s nothing constructive to be done. That leaves us free to yell at them or, at the least, to daydream about how we’d like to vanquish the wicked enemy, thus getting our regular fix of melodrama.
And as with substance abuse, negative thought loops become less pleasant as time goes on. At first it may be satisfying to fantasize about what we’d like to tell a bully or jerk; but if we’re halfway sensible, then we know it would only make matters worse. So either we stew in silence, or we whine to our friends and play the poor mistreated victim role to get their sympathy. If the latter, our friends will surely get sick of hearing about it. Either way, we end up with a pointless thought loop that degenerates into nothing more than our inner child repeatedly having a tantrum, along the lines of “So-and-So was mean to me 10 years ago. Wah.” By then, maybe it has become too embarrassing to even mention to anyone, but it still won’t go away.
Another consequence of becoming addicted to negative thinking is that—again, like substance abuse—there are many ways it can damage our mental and physical health. Frequent negative thinking can easily lead to depression and anxiety, which in turn are likely to cause physical symptoms such as headaches, sleeping poorly, and many other health problems we may not even realize are associated with our high stress levels. The modern world already has far too many sources of unavoidable stress; we certainly don’t need to pile on more of it by letting negativity fester.
In short, when persistent patterns of negative thinking develop, they really are a serious problem and shouldn’t be dismissed as just something that happens.