The Truth About Negative Thoughts


The fundamental error behind two psychological canards.


To be a psychologist who has a blog is to write a post about how to handle negative thoughts. This takes the form of a list article that begins with acceptance and ends with going for a run. Perhaps included, as a pretense to originality, is the psychologist’s personal experience with handling negative thoughts.

The thrust of the eventual admonishment can be summed in two ways: (1) ignore the thought or (2) change the thought.

Most psychologists don’t even know what a thought is, yet they don’t want you to feel bad about it, so they insist a negative thought doesn’t mean anything. “It’s just a thought,” and nothing more. Something that can be easily ignored or changed like it was a piece of fashion.

Except thoughts do not exist in a vacuum, as stand-alone mental properties. They cannot be changed anymore than we can change a gear in a clock and expect it to reflect reality. They cannot be ignored any more than we can ignore an engine by placing electrical tape over the check oil light on the dashboard.

A thought is an identification of reality, whether that reality is physical or psychological. Therefore, the only way to manage a negative thought is the only way to manage reality—to interpret it, to understand it, to figure out how to engage with it in the most productive way possible.

Let’s say we have the thought that we’re a loser. Like any interpretation of reality, this can either be true or false. If it’s true, and we are indeed a loser, then the goal is to identify with this thought, to figure out why it’s there. List out why we think we’re a loser, ask what may cause this thought, talk with other people who have managed a similar thought. It’s the same way to deal with reality, through awareness and acceptance.

If this thought is false, then it’s at the very least a reflection of our psychology. It’s a symptom of a deeper, emotional issue. Thankfully, we understand how our emotions operate so the thought could either be a result of depression or anxiety. As such, we get our needs met or confront threats and we find the negative thought takes care of itself. Again, awareness and acceptance.

Of course, most psychologists don’t know how emotions function or even what they are, so it’s no wonder why they want to diminish the importance of thoughts. Maybe a negative thought is no big deal, but maybe it is—maybe it’s a lens into a more fundamental psychological issue.

The debate about thoughts and what to do with them is an epistemological one. It’s the same debate about beauty—specifically, where it exists. Is it in something outside of us or do we make it up in our mind?

This false alternative makes the mistake of divorcing the existential from the psychological, which is the result of the mind-body dichotomy, a fallacy that philosophers have been propagating since Jesus belted his beatitudes.

The inability of psychologists to understands negative thoughts assumes beauty—or value—either (1) is intrinsic in the existential; or that it’s (2) merely a result of a subjective whim. But the truth is neither. The thought has an identity to be understood, and we have a capacity to understand. The goal, therefore, is to neither cave in to the power of the thought nor to willfully ignore it. Rather, it’s to figure out its identity so we can relate with it the best that we can.