A Simple 5-Step Process to Separate Your Actions from Negative Thoughts

As a collegiate student-athlete for many years, I was constantly reminded to think positively.

Recently, “The Secret” emphasizing positive thinking was an incredible commercial success. ‘

Your thoughts become things’ was the central thesis of “The Secret” and is the main philosophy taught in most mental health disciplines.

Personally, the whole positive thinking thing never really struck me as a realistic mental technique in life and sports.

There are times when I just have negative thoughts.

I don’t believe this is a bad thing, nor do I believe these thoughts to be completely under my control. I tried several techniques to change or stop my negative thoughts.
What didn’t work

Replace a negative thought with a positive thought.

“I can’t study for another hour.”
“I can study for another hour!”

Five minutes of studying later…

“Nope I can’t.

I’m too tired.”

Textbook closed and I’m looking up the latest NBA Power Rankings.

I also tried focusing cues, reframing, positive imagery and plenty more mental techniques, but nothing seemed to stick.

It just isn’t realistic to stop thinking negatively altogether. I eventually realized the issue was not my thoughts; it was my inability to separate my thoughts from my behavior. I needed to become an observer of my thoughts and an active participant in my behaviors.

Thoughts alone achieve nothing. It is the action we take that achieves everything. Thoughts are useful for solving math problems, analyzing scenarios, developing business plans, etc… But it is not until these thoughts are put to action that they become useful.

For example, I am walking down the street and I see someone getting mugged in an alley, and I say to myself, “Run over there and help this person out!” however, I just keep walking and don’t do a damn thing despite my “positive thought”.

I was thinking positively yet did nothing to help this person in need. My issue was not the content of my thoughts; it was a lack of commitment to my thoughts. This lack of commitment can be problematic in situations like this, and beneficial when the content of our thoughts are self-deprecating.

What are thoughts anyway?

Thoughts are a bunch of letters, grouped together into words, grouped together into sentences, and these letters, words and sentences are given meaning by… us.

If we gave them their meaning, how do certain words, phrases or sentences supposedly affect our behavior? Because we allow them to!

This is the issue. 

There are times when we feel sad, think ‘negatively’ without much control of our own. Our behavior directly affects our lives. So why spend so much time attempting to change our thoughts, when they have zero direct impact on our lives?

Committing to our values consistently is essential to our mental health, and there are times when you will have to push yourself through some negative internal states.

In order to do this, it takes self-awareness of thoughts and commitment to valued action.

The 5 Step Process

Here is my 5-step process to act in a valued direction while experience negative thoughts and/or emotions:

  1. “I can’t walk.” exercise.  Simply walk around wherever you are, and say, “I can’t walk”. Say it to yourself and then say it out loud while walking. Although this may seem silly, you are actually training your mind to distinguish between thoughts that are helpful and those that are not.
  2. Separate thoughts from behavior in other simple tasks. For the next week or two choose 2 to 3 activities that you know you can do with no problem and say out loud or in your head “I can’t ________.” This could be “I can’t brush my teeth for 30 seconds.” “I can’t get out of this chair”. “I can’t walk up this stair.” It doesn’t matter what activity you choose as long as it is easy and you say, “I can’t _______” while performing the activity.Take note of how connected you are to your thoughts. Notice how it was the first time you did this exercise to the next. You will begin to see a difference in your feelings as you practice this activity. However the point is not to eliminate negative thoughts, it is to act how you want in the presence of these negative internal states.
  3. Increase the difficulty. As you notice the impact of your thoughts lessening, increase the difficulty of the activity slightly. VERY SLIGHTLY. If you were brushing your teeth for 30 seconds while saying that you can’t, increase it to 40 seconds. Or if you said, “I can’t walk for 1 minute straight”, try lightly jogging for 1 minute straight while saying you can’t.
  4. Observe ‘bad moods’ and ‘negative thoughts.’ Simply notice negative content that goes through your head as if you were reading it from a book. Pay attention to your thoughts and recognize that they are not in control of your behavior.
  5. Appreciate your experience. Lastly, appreciate these experiences and let them be a reminder that you’re human. Embrace the range of thoughts and emotions that you can experience. Accept them and move in your valued direction.

Use these tips and notice your life improve.

Now over to you. 

Have you tried these yourself? 

What have you found to be the most effective?

Written on 5/4/2013 by Guido Saltarelli. Guido Saltarelli seeks to help people live their life according to the things they value the most by providing immediately useful mental tips and techniques. Drawing from his current experiences as a graduate student working full-time in retail, and his past experiences as a student-athlete on Grand Valley State University’s Cross Country and Track Teams. Photo Credit
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