Managing Unhelpful Thoughts

‘Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Unhelpful, intrusive thoughts are debilitating and none of us is spared. My favourite one to say sadly to myself as I stare at the third incarnation of a book I’ve been writing for the last 500 or so years is, what are you doing? I say it slowly, with pauses in between each word, like I’ve just realised how stupid I’ve been for the last three years. What. Are. You. Doing? Sometimes I say it with a sad little mental head shake. Sometimes the thought gathers some strength and continues; Do you really think this one will be different? You’re a shit writer and this is just escapism. This will never work out and you’ll have wasted another year of your life on it.

All this is truly unhelpful. If I were to believe these thoughts when they arrive, I would never get anything done. ‘Negative automatic thoughts’ like these pop up at times of risk, any risk, whether that is creative, professional or romantic risk. They even occur when I’m taking a risk in a friendship or other relationship. Uncertainty and anxiety about our perceived idea of failure can often lead to these type of thoughts which can then halt our work, which can then prove our hypothesis, which can then become a self fulfilling prophecy which we can then use as evidence at the next risk. It’s a protective tactic, as they can prevent us from ‘failing’ alright, but they can also prevent us from succeeding, or trying to succeed, or learning how to live with mistakes or failure. It becomes a giant circle of doom.

Luckily, I can recognise these unhelpful thoughts as just that; an unhelpful thought, when they occur, and bat them away with more useful thoughts. I continue working on this never ending book, not knowing whether I will ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’  but knowing that unless I try I will never find out. Batting these thoughts away and replacing them with others isn’t so easy, and it takes practice, so I’m going to share a way of doing this that comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

I’m going to take a thought; This will never work out and unpack it. If you like you can replace it with whatever future fear you have and do the unpacking with me. Below is a handy chart you can use.


The first thing we do is look at where we are when the Negative Automatic Thought. I am always, always, always, at my computer, and I am usually struggling with the writing when I have it. This gives me valuable information; I do not have or believe these thoughts when I am walking my dog, or seeing friends, or driving in my car. It only exists when I am in front of my laptop. If I did something ‘wrong’ like letting a friend down, and am feeling guilty, I might think ‘I am a crap friend’, but I’ll likely think of it everywhere I go until I believe something else. It will be there somewhere in my mind, burdening me, until it is resolved. This tells me that although This will never work out is a valid fear, it is not rooted very deeply if it doesn’t come with me into other areas of my life. It is likely not related to a core fear.

Next is the emotion we are feeling at the time of the thought intrusion. This will never work out is actually a fairly rare thought for me to have. Sometimes I think it when I am feeling frustrated with the work. Sometimes I think it when I am feeling impatient and angry at how long it is taking. But accompanying any of these is a lack of confidence, an insecurity, in my competence.  I can feel frustrated, angry and impatient and not think This will never work out. An insecurity in my skill as a writer is always present for the thoughts to have a way in. This tells me that working on this lack of confidence might help with the appearance of the thought.

Next we write in our Negative Automatic Thought – This will never work out – and then we look at evidence to support it. This part is very important. Our minds go here first, yelling SEE! SEE! at you, waving it in your face as ‘proof’.  I do have apparent evidence to back up my thought; I have two fully written but unpublished books sitting in my external hard drive. I have put years of my life into telling one story in a way that would work, and am no closer to it than I was in 2012. In a low ebb, this really can feel like legitimate ‘proof’.

Next we look at evidence that does not support the thought. Our minds are slower to go here, preferring the protective self fulfilling prophecy of continual doom. Although I have two books sitting in my hard drive, the first one is one I pulled from print myself. It was the right decision for me at that time. I felt good about it. The other book did not get published as it was trying to do too much. The feedback from the publisher was valuable learning material to take forward into the next chapter (ha) of writing it. So although I have two unpublished books, they are not proof at all of future ‘failure’. Lastly, none of us knows if anything will ever work out. Even the most certain situations can have tragedy or bad luck befall it. All we can do is believe in ourselves, hope for the best, and keep working hard.

After unpacking all the evidence we can now think of  an alternative thought. Mine is I trust myself and this process. I need to tell this story, in some way, some how.  Over the last few years I have been learning what doesn’t work, and what doesn’t feel right for me, and I am now trying another way. I will get there. It is all a process, a journey, a route to the truth. I trust myself to work to the best of my ability and to make the right decisions for me. Although it is frustrating, and I do feel impatient sometimes, saying this to myself brings me right back to the moment at hand. The grammar has changed from future tense to present – a small injection of mindfulness. It’s hard to remember to do, especially when you’re feeling a bit low and prone to hanging onto the evidence that supports the thought, however superficial it may be. A couple of my clients have written these new alternative thoughts on a piece of paper and kept it in their wallet to pull out in a thought emergency. By doing this every time they have the Negative Automatic Thought, they are overriding that association, and replacing it with something else. It is not easy and it takes practice but it can definitely work. 

Finally, with our new thought, listen to how our feelings may change. For me, it is a sense of calm, contentment, a returning to myself and my inner voice, an acceptance of the present moment. It is definitely helpful, unlike the self critical and judging this will never work out. Having come to the end of the chart, the initial Negative Automatic Thought now seems completely unreasonable.

Each part of ourselves; emotions, physicality, thoughts, and behaviour, influences the other parts.  By experimenting with things like this and other exercises we can gift ourselves with a greater understanding of ourselves, and give ourselves a bit of a helping hand in navigating something that can initially feel permanent and definite. If you are prone to having Negative Automatic Thoughts, give this a try and remember above all, to be kind to yourself.

Main Image: Jessica Poplar