The words came out of my mind before I could catch them. But it would be a lie to say they surprised me.
Truth is, some version of the phrase had been percolating under the surface for a few days, but I hadn’t realized it.
Maybe your words sound different. More specific. More “PG.”
- I’m so fat!
- What a doofus!
- I have no clue!
Whether you say bad things about yourself regularly or rarely, whether they’re routine or rated-R, what you do next is critical.
When reframing doesn’t work
You’ve likely heard enough positive thinking advice to know you should mentally counteract the negative words.
Don’t misunderstand. Arguing against your negative inner voice is a great tactic.
In fact, I’m the girl who yells, “Now say three positive things!” when she overhears a stranger bad-mouthing herself. (Yep, I’m a joy to be around.)
But the day “I suck” slipped out, I realized the ill-timed phrase was a stand-in for negative thoughts I’d been harboring about various aspects of my appearance, my abilities, and my personality. It felt too big for
- my hair looks cute,
- I ate a healthy lunch,
- and I didn’t strangle anyone at work today.
And when I asked myself, “Why do you think you suck?” — an attempt to identify the core issues so I could argue against them directly — my brain responded fast and furious with responses. I certainly didn’t have the time or energy to refute all 429 of the underlying negative thoughts.
You’re asking the wrong question
When you find yourself in a similar situation — with the desire to change your thoughts but not the energy — it can be helpful to determine the feelings behind your grand “I stink” statements. But you may be asking yourself the wrong question.
Geeky Brain Fact: When you ask your brain a question, it’s compelled to find an answer. So when you ask yourself, “Why do I think I suck?” your mind will return reasons you stink — even on your sunniest days when you feel great about yourself.
So asking yourself why — even for the noble purpose of reframing — can backfire: if you weren’t feeling down before this little fact-finding mission, you will be after.
Better questions to ask yourself in this situation?
- What’s the feeling behind the thought?
- How do these negative thoughts fit together?
- What do they have in common?
Pray for discernment
How do you refrain from going down the negative-brick-road? James 1:5 tells us:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
Ruminating on the negative thoughts can send you into a downward spiral of depression and shame. But asking God for discernment to determine the feelings behind the negative thoughts can keep you from entering that tornado of troubled thinking.
For example, some of the thoughts behind my unfortunate word choice included
- I weigh too much and my thighs are pudgy.
- I’m not a good enough writer.
- I always say the wrong thing.
But, with the Holy Spirit’s help, I quickly recognized the common thread behind this sudden outburst of negativity.
- Although my weight and appearance concerned me, I actually wondered if my husband still loved me and found me attractive.
- I questioned my writing ability because a friend had chosen not to accept my help on her book project.
- I pondered whether things I said, online and in person, prevented me from making friends.
The evidence added up to one thing: I was lonely.
I longed for connection and was worried I’d lose some of my favorite people.
What your negative thoughts are telling you — and why it matters
Of course, your negative thoughts are different than mine. And even if they were identical, the theme behind them would be different. In fact, the same negative thoughts may point to diverse background patterns in different seasons or on different days.
But the great thing about determining the underlying issue?
You can DO something about it. It’s an itch you can scratch right now.
When you treat the negative thought as the problem, there are often no immediate solutions. In my case, it takes time to slim down, to improve my writing, and to develop better communication skills.
Of course, there’s some truth to those negative thoughts. We can always improve our skills or take better care of ourselves. And we can take some initial steps today.
But beginning to deal with those issues won’t settle down the tornado. Because the negative thoughts aren’t the problem.
I wanted to be thinner, but I needed connection — and my brain was taking the long way around to getting it: “If you were thin, someone would love you.” We can thank the enemy for that sleight of hand.
The simple solution to “I stink”
If you can determine a core theme around your general “I stink” thoughts, you can devise a potential solution.
For instance, if you’re feeling disconnected (like I was), brainstorm opportunities to help you combat the underlying loneliness.
- Ask your husband to go for a walk, take a drive, or watch a movie together.
- Email or write a nice letter to a friend, sharing what they mean to you or how much you miss them.
- Perform a simple, kind act for a stranger or someone you barely know. (A favorite of ours lately is to surprise cashiers and other workers with flowers from our garden.)
Of course, I’m not suggesting this abolishes negative thinking or loneliness, or that it’ll work 100% of the time, especially for folks who suffer from a diagnosed depressive disorder. But it’s one weapon you can use to combat negative thinking.
The next time you find yourself spewing negative generalities in your own direction, give this method a try:
- Pray for discernment.
- Ask yourself:
- Are the negative thoughts the real problem, or are they masking something else?
- What are the feelings behind the thoughts?
- How do these negative thoughts fit together? What do they have in common?
- Brainstorm possibilities to combat the actual problem.
And if you truly do “stink”, take a shower! 😉