“I always expect the worst so that I’ll never be disappointed.”
I read a lot of books when I was a kid, but that’s the only sentence that I remember. It was from the Redwall series of books by Brian Jacques when I was in grade school. I read a bunch of books in the series at the time, but I don’t remember much else except for critters and medieval adventures, and that one quotation.
That sentence could have been my life’s motto, because I was plagued by negativity. The more negative thoughts I had, the more depressed I became and the more depressed I became, the more negative thoughts I had. It was a vicious cycle of unhappiness.
When I was in school, nobody taught me how to be happy. I didn’t understand why I was depressed. I didn’t think to address the root of the problems, the bulk of which stemmed from my perspective on the world. I had written the story of my life with my thoughts – and it wasn’t a happy story.
To break the cycle and get to where I am today, I had to start addressing my thoughts. I had to identify with a new motto, write a new story, and create a new default setting for my inner dialogue.
I’m going to show you exactly what I did (and continue to do) to stop the negative thought loop and perpetuate happiness from within.
How did we get here?
Let me start by giving us humans some credit – we’re programmed to focus on the negative, so we’re working against some evolutionary forces.
Our well-meaning brain narrows our perspective to focus on the bad as a survival mechanism1. If a hostile predator is hunting you down, it benefits you to completely focus on escape than on how pretty the sunset looks on the horizon.
This instinct is less relevant in our modern society that has few immediate, life-threatening situations. So instead of our propensity to zero in on the negatives saving us, it’s driving us into unhealthy thought loops.
Although your brain defaults to pinpointing the “bad” around you doesn’t mean you are a prisoner to it.
Because each individual only knows her own thoughts, we tend to discount their importance. However, thoughts are very real in a physical and psychological sense.
Have you ever heard that “Neurons that fire together, wire together”? The connections between neurons in the brain actually strengthen or fade depending on their use or lack thereof. This phenomenon is the basis of neuroplasticity2.
Imagine you’re in an undisturbed jungle and you need to get through it. You start walking and it’s difficult to progress. You’re stepping through plants, hacking branches and leaves out of your way. It takes longer than you anticipate to escape.
The next time you approach the area, are you going to start carving a new trail? No – you’re going to retrace your steps and take the same path. It will be a little bit easier to venture through because you’ve already matted down some growth and cleared away obstructions.
Every single time you choose to take that path, it’s going to be easier to walk through. Eventually, you’ll be able to take a leisurely stroll on that course. You’ll be sprinting down this self-created path soon enough.
Our brain strengthens and automates that which we repeat in order to create mental shortcuts and free our conscious mind up for other things3. Such is the nature of our synapses to strengthen the connections that we constantly use, allowing us to automate about 40% of our daily lives4.
In the case of negative thinking and other habits we want to break, we have to choose a new path or a less-beaten path when we approach the jungle. It’s difficult and time-consuming to forge a new one, but while you’re cultivating this new road instead of traversing the old, the old one becomes overgrown and a less attractive option.
Imagine all of these trodden paths in your brain. If you constantly expect the worst, beat yourself up, and get stuck on the hamster wheel of negativity, you are literally training your brain to facilitate depression.
When I figured this out, I felt a bit defensive. So it’s my fault that I’m depressed? I’m making myself miserable? Yes and no.
Pair the unknowns of how our brains work with the fact that we all live in a modern world that our evolving ancestors could have never been mentally prepared for. We are constantly on alert, forcing our minds to narrow in on the bad around us.
Rather than blaming ourselves and society for making us depressed, I do what’s within my control and take responsibility for my happiness. We may experience unfairness and brutality. We may have been predisposed to depression through our genes or our surroundings. We can’t change what brought us to our current selves, but we can accept responsibility for our future selves.
You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, so the first step is to be mindful of your thoughts. You don’t have to judge them or change them right now – just start recognizing your thoughts. Some people use phone alarms to remind themselves to “check in” mentally. Scatter a couple alarms throughout the day and consider what you’re thinking and feeling at the moment. Even better if you write it down and keep track so you can review and pick up on your recurring thought patterns.
What is the nature of your inner dialogue? When you’re embarrassed, do you berate yourself? Do you forgive yourself? Do you talk to yourself as you’d talk to a friend or loved one, or do you treat yourself like an enemy?
When you spill your drink all over your shirt, do you tell yourself, “It’s going to be one of those days”? Do you constantly talk yourself out of pursuing your dreams?
Whether throughout the day or a 5-minute reflection at night, take the time to consider your thought patterns.
“You don’t have to accept every thought that comes into your mind.”
Daniel G. Amen
Once you’re aware of the nature of your self-talk, you can start recognizing the pitfalls.
Be careful what you condone from your inner dialogue, because it speaks to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell yourself that today is a bad day, then you will discount evidence of the contrary and focus on anything that corroborates the belief that today is a bad day5. A thought may seem innocent or intangible, but our beliefs about who we are and the world around us influence our actions6.
In Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Daniel G. Amen identified a list of “Automatic Negative Thoughts” (ANTs) that helped me identify the irrational negativity that colored my life7. I still sometimes find these ANTs pop up in response to a situation, but I know that they’re counter-productive, so I observe them and discount them.
Looking back, I realize that my depressed identity was ruthlessly dictated by these ANTs. “I always expect the worst so that I’ll never be disappointed” was a product of a fortune telling ANT, predicting the worst outcomes with no solid basis. My inner dialogue was also peppered with dramatic, all-or-nothing thinking like, “Everybody hates me.”
Take a step back and look at these statements rationally to diffuse their power over you. Maybe someone made a rude comment or some of your colleagues didn’t invite you to a party. Does this really mean that everybody hates you? Probably not. There are billions of people in the world and most of them are too busy worrying about themselves to put their energy into despising you.
Do you think that you have no luck or that nothing good ever happens to you? Realize that a lot of good in your life goes unnoticed. If you’re reasonably healthy and have access to food and clean water, it’s tough to contend that nothing good ever comes to you. I was severely depressed, yet I had a family, a home, and a safety net. Recognize the irrationality of your ANTs.
Once your Automatic Negative Thoughts don’t have a hold on you, it leaves room to instill a new self-fulfilling prophecy. What identity do you want to reinforce?
You attract what you focus on and think about. If you always think about how unfair life has been to you, you’ll constantly see injustice. But the availability heuristic works both ways, because the luckiest people are the ones who make their own luck9.
Here is how I’ve changed my thoughts to stay happy and optimistic, even when handling tough situations.
Rejection from college/job applications
Depressed Kat: I can’t believe I didn’t get into my top choices. I know stupid people who get into schools they don’t deserve to be in because of sports or because their parents have money. I thought I was smart and unique – above average at the very least. All of my hard work has been a complete waste.
Happy Kat: I really, really wanted this job and I put a lot of work into the interview process. I thought that I did my best, but maybe there are some things I can improve on for my next interview. It’s possible that they just didn’t see me as a right fit for this position, and they might be right. I’m disappointed, but I know that I can find another opportunity with its own merits – one that may actually be even more beneficial.
Depressed Kat: I don’t know how to be happy without this person in my life. I’m never going to find someone I love this much ever again. What’s the point of living if the one person who made me happiest in the world left me? I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself.
Happy Kat: I’m sad that I can’t continue a romantic relationship with someone who was a really big part of my life, but this is a mutually beneficial outcome. It’s better to make a decision now if I know it’s the right thing for me. I’m grateful for all the good times and memories I shared with this person, but I will still have many happy experiences without him. I know that it’s possible to fall in love again.
Often, my first reaction when rejected is to be upset – and it’s OK to be sad when we get excited about something that doesn’t pan out. The difference between depression and happiness in these situations is control over my inner dialogue. Instead of automatically dwelling on the negatives, I ask myself what I can take from the experience.
This may seem idealistic or naïve, but reframing my everyday life is what keeps me happy. When I hated my job a couple years ago, I recognized that it was a catalyst for me to make changes in my life. I tell myself that if I hadn’t disliked the job so much, I might have stagnated without taking action for a long time. It’s not about delusions. It’s about reframing our thoughts.
Remember that breaking the cycle of negativity won’t happen overnight. We’re essentially rewiring our brains – avoiding the shortcut through the jungle and hacking a new path through. Construction takes time. There are delays and unexpected obstacles. What I can tell you is that with time and progress, no matter how slow, you’ll build a new happiness shortcut in your brain. Eventually, you’ll have a hard time remembering what it was like to take the depressed trail, and the path to happiness will be your brain’s default.
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- Clear, J. (2019, April 22). How Positive Thinking Builds Skills, Boosts Health, and Improves Work. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/positive-thinking
- Appedix D: Artificial Neural Network. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/mcraegroup/wwwfiles/ChuangChuang/thesis_files/Appendix D_Artificial Neural Network.pdf
- Clear, J., & Clear, J. (2018, November 29). Why your brain builds habits. Retrieved from https://qz.com/work/1479378/why-your-brain-builds-habits/
- Rubin, G. (2016). Better Than Before. Hodder.
- Lazarus, C. N. (2018, March 29). How to Stop Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Failure. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-well/201803/how-stop-self-fulfilling-prophecies-failure
- Breines, J. (2015, August 30). 3 Ways Your Beliefs Can Shape Your Reality. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-love-and-war/201508/3-ways-your-beliefs-can-shape-your-reality
- Stopping Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). (2019, March 14). Retrieved from https://www.amenclinics.com/blog/number-one-habit-develop-order-feel-positive/
- 9 Types of ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts that invade our relationships and how to exterminate them. (2015, December 18). Retrieved from https://www.collaborativeawareness.com/single-post/2015/12/18/9-Types-of-ANTs-Automatic-Negative-Thoughts-that-invade-our-relationships-and-how-to-exterminate-them
- Chu, M. (2017, September 12). This Researcher Reveals How Lucky People Differ From Unlucky People. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/melissa-chu/want-to-become-luckier-heres-what-you-need-to-do-a.html