Turn Off the Nagging Self-Doubt

June 16, 2016

Think of the last time you told yourself something critical or negative. Then think of the last compliment you gave yourself.

Which is easier to remember?

Many of us—whether due to genetics, brain chemistry, our experiences or coping skills—tell ourselves way too many negative thoughts. We ruminate, thinking the same negative, unproductive thoughts over and over.

Each thought is made up of a complex pattern of activity between proteins and other chemicals, gene expressions and neural connections in our brain. The more we have a thought, the stronger this circuit grows.

A well-developed thought “is like a ski track in the snow. The more you ski down a path, the easier it is to go down that path and not another,” says Alex Korb, a neuroscientist and author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.”

With intent and practice, you can create another path. Psychologists call the technique cognitive reappraisal. The result will be stronger neural networks devoted to positive thoughts, or a happier brain.

People who do this have better mental health and more life satisfaction, and even better-functioning hearts, research shows. This technique is at the heart of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy practiced by many psychologists. The good news is that you can practice it at home.

Performing a cognitive reappraisal isn’t turning off your negative thoughts—that is almost impossible to do without replacing them with something else. It is also not about turning untrue negative thoughts into untrue positive ones. The goal is to reframe your thoughts constructively, so they are based in reality.

“I tell clients to think like a scientist,” says Hooria Jazaieri, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Jose, Calif., and researcher in the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies emotion regulation. “You are using your observations and descriptions about yourself non-judgmentally, observing and describing the facts.”

Here are the steps.

Be Aware

You need to know your thoughts to change them. Learn to notice when you are ruminating. Remind yourself that this is a waste of time.

Write down the thoughts. Identify what triggered them. Be specific: “My boss came in to talk to me and I started to worry that he hated my work and I am a loser.”

“This brain dump clears your mind of the ruminative thoughts,” says Paul Hokemeyer, a psychotherapist in New York and Telluride, Colo.

Challenge what you tell yourself when you ruminate. Turn the negative thought into a question: “I am a loser?” Then look at the answer. Typically, you will find little evidence. Illustration: Dominic Bugatto for The Wall Street Journal

Look for Supporting Evidence

A lot of the things people tell themselves when they ruminate are untrue. You need to challenge your beliefs. Turn the negative thoughts into questions: “I am a loser? I fail at everything?” Then try to supply answers. You probably won’t find many.

Next, look for evidence to the contrary. What are your successes? Did you get a promotion last year? Are you a good parent? Write down a long and specific list. “Writing strengthens the memory,” says Jeffrey Borenstein, president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in New York.

Examine the evidence. Maybe you don’t succeed all the time; no one does. But you might succeed much more than you fail. The goal is to see yourself more accurately, says Steve Orma, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco, and author of “Stop Worrying and Go to Sleep.”

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