In this article I share some of my tips on how to break negative cycles. Those negative cycles include judging oneself for having negative thoughts related to past challenging situations. As someone who has struggled with mental illness all my life, I can attest that changing my mindset and my “story” about negative and traumatic events was crucial in my healing process. We don’t need to remain the victims of our past.
Most people are tired of suffering. Dr. Henriques points out that people enter therapy because they are suffering. They find themselves stuck in the cycles of negativity (2018, p. 51). What makes the situation worse is that they develop negative reactions to their negative feelings. It’s no wonder as our Western society promotes quick fixes and makes one feel that having negative feelings is abnormal.
Specifically, people are taught from a young age that negative feelings such as anger and sadness are not acceptable and thus they become afraid of their negative feelings. In my clinical practice, what I’ve found to a large extent is most of my clients try to numb those feelings. They do that by replacing them with substances, relationships, work, or anything else to avoid looking within.
So why do some people judge themselves for having negative feelings? According to Dr. Henriques, there are several reasons.
First, having negative feelings is painful. Most people don’t want to experience negative feelings. As we know, there are two main forces at work. We want to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
Second, negative feelings can cause problems. For example, anger can lead to domestic violence, or if turned inwards, it can lead to chronic depression and even suicide.
Third, blocking and repressing negative feelings causes these feelings to build up. We can become sick, as our immune system becomes compromised. Sometimes those feelings lead to rage or some other type of impulsive display of feelings. Repressing anger is equally damaging as allowing it to escalate where someone attacks somebody or it leads to property damage can occur.
Finally, people tend to react badly to anyone expressing negative feelings. Again, there is a lot of pressure to appear “on top of one’s game” and to constantly exude confidence and success. People tend to shy away from somebody who is often anxious or depressed as it makes them uncomfortable.
Dr. Henriques developed the “CALM” approach with the purpose of teaching clients how to change their negative reactions to their thinking (2018, p. 50).
1. “C” stands for curious
Client asks himself or herself several questions from a standpoint of curiosity, rather than self-blame and trying to avoid negative feelings. Let’s take an example of somebody who is feeling upset about recent disagreements with a loved one. Questions would include: What really happened? How did I contribute to the disagreement? Why I am getting upset about this situation? How can I resolve this situation?
2. “A” stands for acceptance
When I studied Zen Buddhism, one of the first things I learned is that “things are what they are.” The sooner we can accept ourselves including our feelings, the sooner we can let go and move on with our life. Judging ourselves for having those feelings in the first place will just delay the process of moving on and healing the situation.
3. “L” stands for loving compassion towards ourselves and others
Nobody is perfect. We’re all doing the best we can. Many times, we have more compassion for others than for ourselves. Therefore, this step is important in being able to move beyond challenging situations. When we are able to fully accept ourselves, including our strengths and weaknesses, then we will feel more in control of our lives.
4. “M” stands for motivated.
Motivation is the driving force behind any change. That change takes self-reflection and observation. Who do I want to be? What’s important to me? What are my values? If we use the example of somebody being upset. Motivation would encourage that person to think about the value of harmonious relationships. Is it worth it for me to get upset? How can I shift my thinking so that I minimize feelings of being upset and feeling “wronged” in this particular situation?
To summarize, we want to break the pattern of negative thinking and judging ourselves for having those specific feelings in the first place. It’s important to practice self-compassion and realize that while negative feelings can be unpleasant, they are also our guides. They can inform us about the outside world and about our relationships with others. They can be great motivators for change. However first we need to accept and understand these feelings so that we can find a solution for a challenging situation.
Henriques, G., Ph.D. (2018). The Root of Suffering. Psychology Today, pp. 48-50.