Why trying to subtract negative thoughts is far less useful than adding positive ones.


There are 3 things I want to be great at in my life: Being a husband, being a dad, and being a psychologist. But less than a week ago, after impulsively suggesting that now was the time to get started potty training my oldest daughter, I found myself in the disappointing position of failing at all three of these goals.

Poop on the Brain

Here’s what happened: My wife and daughters and I had just gotten home from an exciting, if slightly stressful, trip to PetSmart to stock up on supplies for our new dog. Maybe it was the bewilderingly extensive selection of pooper scoopers, or perhaps it was the rich aroma of my youngest daughter’s ripe diaper, but in any case, it would seem I had poop on my mind.

Because as soon a we got home, I suddenly remembered that we had planned to potty train my daughter after Thanksgiving and excitedly blurted out to my wife that we had forgotten our plan and should get started this afternoon!

My wife’s eyes got huge. Realizing that, yes, that had been the plan, and also that it was unlikely that there’d be a better time in the near future, she hesitantly agreed. We pulled out the trainer potty, put on my daughter’s birthday suite, and gritted our teeth.

Before I go any further with the story, a quick sidebar about my credentials…

The Grand Poobah of Behavioral Science

I was recently certified as a specialist in behavioral and cognitive psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology (and have been subsequently referred to as “Grand Poobah” by my colleague, Rob). Board certification in this specialty is essentially the highest form of advanced accreditation in behavioral clinical psychology. It signifies that you are an expert at applying behavioral learning theory to help folks work through clinical difficulties like major depression, panic disorder, OCD, trauma, insomnia, etc.

Previous to my board certification, I spent 6+ years in graduate school studying the ins and outs of human behavior and psychology, successfully wrote and defended a dissertation to earn my PhD, spend 6-8 hours a day doing therapy to help people change their behavior, and write weekly essays with the ostensible goal of helping people better apply behavioral science to improve their own lives.

Despite how it would appear, I’m not breaking the flow of my narrative to brag about myself. Quite the opposite: It’s a dramatic plot device to set up the tragicomedy of what came next in our potty training saga.

See, this is the list of qualifications that I kept furiously reminding myself of as I sat on a tiny wooden chair beside my sobbing daughter on her own tiny training potty. The term epic failure just wouldn’t get unstuck from my mind as I sat there listening to my daughter’s pitiful refrain of “no peepee, dada, no peepee….”

Needless to say, it sure didn’t feel like all those letters after my name were doing either of us any good. And the more I tried to eke out some sort of insight by obsessively reminding myself that behavioral learning was what I do for a living(!), the worse I felt and the more things seemed to stay the same for my poor daughter.

Urine Your Head, and It’s Not All That Bad

The afternoon, evening, and next day continued with lots of accidents, mopping up of pee puddles, and plenty of tears. Around 3:00pm of the second day, the stress and discurragement peeked. I was seriously considering whether we should just call the whole thing off and try again in a few months when my daughter was a little older.

I just couldn’t imagine spending the next week—or possibly weeks—anxiously following my daughter around the house desperately hoping she wouldn’t just pull up next to a book shelf or coffee table and pee a little. And really, it was my wife who was going to have to do most of the work since she was home with the girls all day without me.

I remember thinking to myself: It’s like she’s a little pee time bomb, running around the house exploding at unpredictable moments.

But then a funny thing happened: Somewhere in the late afternoon of the second day—in an act of despair—we gave up on the obviously unrealistic idea of keeping my daughter quarantined to the tiled kitchen or backyard. It was just too hard. We resigned ourself to the possibility that there would be peeing (or worse) on the carpet throughout the rest of the house.

A little later in the day, as I was sitting on the (carpeted) living room floor rolling a basketball back and forth across the floor with my daughter, it occurred to me that—despite the stress of the overall situation—I was having fun in this particular moment. And it seemed like Elena was too.

Wait, what?! Having fun on Day 2 of potty training? Surely you jest, sir!

This surprising realization got me thinking… about my thinking…

When I tuned into the thoughts my brain was throwing at me, a lot of them were of the anxious/stressful variety:

And yet, despite these thoughts and the unpredictable inevitability that I would be de-soaking pee out of my living room carpet any minute now, somehow, I was still having fun. We both even laughed a couple of times.

I also noticed that in addition to the continued presence of stressful, anxious thoughts, there were some fun, even joyful thoughts in the mix as well:

In short, I realized that when it came to both my exterior environment and my internal one, it wasn’t all bad. There were happy and unhappy events occurring, just as there were anxious and humorous thoughts running through my mind. This was evidence that, despite the black and white story I was telling myself about the whole situation (This is a disaster. We should just give up. She’s just not ready.), things were both good and bad, stressful and fun, simultaneously. That was the true reality of our situation.

Mental Health Math

Seeing clearly that even something as stressful as the first two days of potty training is a simultaneous mixture of positive and negative elements was a good reminder of a lesson I’m regularly trying to impart in therapy with my clients: Fighting against, eliminating, or trying to transform negative thoughts is often far less useful than simply adding or focusing on more positive ones.

Let me try to unpack that a little.

A basic principle of human psychology is that how we feel is largely determined by what we think and how we talk to ourselves: If our inner monologue is consistently bleak, pessimistic, and negative, we’re probably gonna feel sad, blue, or depressed; If our mind is always on the lookout for potential threats and dangers, we’re gonna feel stressed and anxious; If we’re reminding yourself of how grateful we are to live in a beautiful place and that we’re largely healthy and active, we’re gonna feel a sense of joy.

Most of us realize this basic idea, that the way we think profoundly impacts the way we feel. Consequently, many of us regularly commit to trying to improve the way we look at things. However, our natural instinct for how to go about this process of changing our thoughts is often to try to remove or lessen these negative thoughts in the hopes of feeling less bad. This is an ill-advised strategy for two reasons:

  1. Sometimes our negative thoughts about things are actually realistic and accurate. If my daughter did pee on the carpet, it would be frustrating to clean it up. No doubt about it. By trying to deny or eliminate our negative thoughts, we often end up trying to deny or eliminate reality. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you that’s probably not a great idea.
  2. When we try to eliminate or fix negative thoughts, we teach our brains that negative thoughts are dangerous, which is both untrue and will lead to more anxiety in the long run. Due to the fear learning process, whatever we treat as dangerous, the mind will start to think of as dangerous and cause us to feel as though it’s dangerous. Given that our lives are full of negative, stressful things, and that it’s inevitable that we will think about those negative, stressful things, it seems like a bad idea to train our minds be afraid of negative thinking. Uncomfortable, yes; dangerous, not so much. That’s how anxiety disorders get started.

So if it’s ill-advised to try to change the way we feel by removing negative thoughts, how can we feel better in difficult situations like potty training?

The answer is to start using addition instead of subtraction.

Your Mood is a Ratio not a Whole Number

How we feel isn’t simply a function of how many negative thoughts we have. Or how many positive thoughts we have. In other words, our mood is never a whole number. Instead, our mood, or how feel at a given time, is better thought of as a ratio or fraction; specifically, we can think of our mood as a ratio of positive to negative thoughts. When the ratio is greater than 1, our mood tends to be positive; and when the ratio is less than 1, our mood tends to be more negative.

For example, suppose that in response to a given event or situation we have 10 negative thoughts for every 2 positive ones. In that case our mood ratio is going to be 0.2 (2/10) and probably negative. On the other hand, if we have 5 positive thoughts for every 2 negative ones, our mood ratio is going to be 2.5 (5/2) and probably positive. Importantly, as with all fractions and ratios, there are two ways to increase the value of the number: You can try to reduce the denominator, but you can also try to increase the numerator.

In super basic math terms: 4/5, for example, = 0.8. To get that 0.8 up to 1, we could either decrease the denominator, making it 4/4, or we could increase the numerator, making it 5/5.

Mood as a ratio is very good news for our mental health because it means we can change how feel without resorting at all to the subtraction method of trying to combat negative thoughts and its associated side effects. Instead, we can acknowledge that those negative thoughts are there, but shift our attention and efforts to increasing the number and quality of positive, constructive thoughts.

A Happee Ending

Even thought the rest Day 2 of potty training remained stressful and accident prone, it was also more fun. By accepting that accidents would happen and that negative thoughts and feelings would arise, and then deliberately adding more constructive and positive thoughts and behavior we were able to continue potty training and feel modestly but definitely better.

Happily, my daughter apparently got a really good night’s sleep along with some solid memory consolidation, because by the next day she had improved dramatically. In fact, she didn’t have a single accident on Day 3. Of course that lead to both my wife and I (and probably our daughter) feeling much better as well.

But in some ways the bigger benefit of an additive approach to thinking in stressful situations was that it helped just enough to prevent me from taking action on my more discouraging feelings and suspend potty training. Which in hindsight would have been a mistake since clearly my daughter was learning and improving—quite quickly, actually.

Summary

We can improve the way we feel by changing our thinking, and there are two primary ways of doing that: We can try to remove or eliminate negative thoughts, or we can try to focus on or add positive ones.

The danger in the subtraction method is that—aside from being unrealistic—by trying to remove or eliminate negative thoughts, we train our minds to be afraid of our negative thoughts which produces unnecessarily high levels of stress and anxiety.

Alternatively, we can use the addition method. By briefly validating the negative thoughts and feelings, then shifting our attention and effort to adding more constructive, positive, or appreciative thoughts, we can change our mood for the better without any of the nasty side effects of subtraction.

How to Practice

Conceptually, this isn’t rocket science. The sticking point for most people—myself included—when utilizing the additive thinking style is the temptation to fix or eliminate the negative thoughts before moving on to adding the positive ones.

Anyone can think happy thoughts, but it takes a lot more effort to think happy thoughts while genuinely being okay with having unhappy ones at the same time. Most of us try to think happy thoughts while implicitly maintaining a conditional belief or hope that doing so will eliminate our unhappy thoughts and feelings. The trick is to be unconditional with our happy thoughts and the intent behind them.

Here are 2 tips for getting better at it:

  1. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to develop and strengthen our attentional abilities in order to more easily notice negative thoughts without engaging with them.
  2. Have a pre-made collection of constructive or positive thoughts to go to in times of stress. I have a client who uses being appreciative of his health and physical condition as a go-to thought process. He briefly reminds himself how grateful he is to be physically fit and healthy. Then he quickly does a bunch of push ups as a physical reminder of that idea. Something about the physicality of doing the pushups helps him disengaged from the temptation to get caught up in fixing or understanding his negative thoughts and to instead add some appreciation along side them.

#

Comments

I’m just writing to let you be aware of of the great encounter my wife’s girl enjoyed browsing the blog. She even learned a lot of issues, which include what it is like to have an excellent helping style to let most people quite simply know specific problematic issues. You truly did more than readers’ desires. Many thanks for producing these powerful, trustworthy, edifying and in addition unique thoughts on that topic to Sandra.

The next time I learn a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I imply, I do know it was my choice to read, but I really thought youd have one thing interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you would fix when you werent too busy searching for attention.

I wanted to write a quick remark to be able to express gratitude to you for the amazing items you are giving on this site. My time intensive internet lookup has now been rewarded with brilliant facts and strategies to exchange with my family members. I ‘d assume that most of us readers are truly endowed to be in a great website with so many marvellous people with good methods. I feel very much grateful to have come across the site and look forward to plenty of more cool minutes reading here. Thanks a lot once more for a lot of things.

Needed to write you a very little observation just to give many thanks as before for your striking things you’ve documented in this article. This has been really strangely open-handed with people like you to offer without restraint all that a number of us could possibly have made available as an e book in making some money for their own end, especially now that you might well have tried it in the event you wanted. These tactics as well served like a fantastic way to fully grasp that most people have the same interest really like my very own to know the truth many more in terms of this issue. I believe there are numerous more pleasant times up front for folks who read your blog.

Thank you for each of your labor on this web page. Ellie really likes getting into internet research and it’s really simple to grasp why. My partner and i learn all of the dynamic means you give worthwhile things on the web site and therefore encourage contribution from some other people on the point while our favorite simple princess has always been being taught a whole lot. Have fun with the remaining portion of the year. You are performing a really good job.

Hi, i believe that i noticed you visited my web site so i got here to “return the desire”.I’m attempting to to find issues to improve my web site!I assume its good enough to use a few of your ideas!!

I and my pals have been analyzing the good pointers on your site while then came up with a horrible suspicion I had not expressed respect to the blog owner for those secrets. Those guys came for that reason warmed to see them and have in effect seriously been tapping into them. We appreciate you simply being very kind as well as for making a choice on some incredibly good subject areas most people are really eager to learn about. My very own sincere regret for not expressing gratitude to earlier.

I simply wanted to construct a quick comment in order to express gratitude to you for all the fabulous points you are writing on this site. My incredibly long internet look up has now been rewarded with awesome information to share with my company. I ‘d claim that many of us readers are undeniably blessed to live in a notable network with very many perfect people with insightful strategies. I feel truly blessed to have seen the web page and look forward to tons of more brilliant times reading here. Thanks a lot once again for all the details.

I actually wanted to make a small comment in order to appreciate you for some of the nice recommendations you are sharing on this website. My long internet lookup has now been recognized with sensible concept to exchange with my best friends. I would express that we site visitors are undoubtedly fortunate to be in a useful site with very many marvellous individuals with great strategies. I feel really fortunate to have used your weblog and look forward to tons of more fun times reading here. Thanks a lot once again for everything.

I wanted to construct a brief word so as to appreciate you for all the stunning secrets you are writing at this site. My extensive internet look up has at the end been compensated with extremely good details to go over with my guests. I ‘d believe that many of us visitors actually are really lucky to dwell in a really good community with many lovely individuals with valuable solutions. I feel pretty grateful to have seen your webpage and look forward to some more entertaining times reading here. Thanks a lot again for everything.

I simply wanted to write a brief message in order to express gratitude to you for some of the lovely strategies you are giving on this website. My prolonged internet lookup has finally been honored with good quality points to exchange with my close friends. I ‘d assert that many of us site visitors are very much fortunate to dwell in a good community with so many wonderful professionals with useful strategies. I feel pretty lucky to have seen your entire webpage and look forward to many more entertaining times reading here. Thanks once again for a lot of things.

I precisely had to say thanks again. I am not sure the things I would have worked on without these recommendations shared by you on that industry. It absolutely was the intimidating concern in my position, but discovering this specialised manner you handled it forced me to leap with gladness. I am happy for this support and even have high hopes you comprehend what a powerful job that you are putting in instructing many people using your blog post. Most probably you’ve never got to know any of us.

I precisely needed to appreciate you all over again. I do not know the things that I might have worked on without the solutions contributed by you on such a industry. This was a very horrifying concern in my opinion, nevertheless being able to view the expert avenue you treated the issue made me to leap over contentment. Extremely thankful for the information and then trust you realize what a great job you have been putting in training many people with the aid of your web page. Most probably you haven’t encountered all of us.

My spouse and i got so thrilled Albert managed to conclude his basic research from the precious recommendations he received through your web page. It’s not at all simplistic just to always be giving for free guides that many some other people have been making money from. And we fully understand we have you to be grateful to because of that. The type of illustrations you’ve made, the straightforward site navigation, the friendships your site help to instill – it’s got mostly sensational, and it’s facilitating our son in addition to the family reason why the topic is enjoyable, which is certainly pretty vital. Thanks for everything!

I want to point out my admiration for your kind-heartedness in support of those individuals that absolutely need help on in this content. Your very own commitment to getting the message all through came to be pretty helpful and have really helped girls just like me to achieve their desired goals. The useful information implies a lot a person like me and still more to my office workers. Regards; from everyone of us.

I wish to show some thanks to you for rescuing me from such a problem. Because of exploring through the the net and coming across ideas that were not beneficial, I thought my entire life was done. Living without the presence of approaches to the problems you have solved by means of your good report is a critical case, as well as those which could have in a negative way damaged my entire career if I hadn’t come across the website. That mastery and kindness in maneuvering all the details was tremendous. I am not sure what I would’ve done if I had not come upon such a solution like this. I can also at this moment relish my future. Thanks for your time so much for this professional and result oriented help. I will not be reluctant to suggest the sites to anybody who will need assistance about this issue.

Thanks a lot for providing individuals with such a spectacular opportunity to read critical reviews from this website. It is always very good and also jam-packed with fun for me personally and my office co-workers to visit the blog at least thrice per week to study the latest stuff you will have. And definitely, we’re always amazed concerning the perfect guidelines served by you. Some 3 areas on this page are really the very best I’ve ever had.

Thank you for your entire labor on this blog. Gloria take interest in doing investigation and it’s simple to grasp why. Almost all learn all regarding the lively tactic you offer good information on this web site and therefore cause participation from other people on the article so our own simple princess is without a doubt becoming educated a lot. Take pleasure in the rest of the new year. Your carrying out a brilliant job.

My wife and i have been so thrilled that Ervin managed to round up his researching through the entire precious recommendations he discovered from your site. It is now and again perplexing just to find yourself freely giving tricks which usually many others may have been selling. So we know we’ve got the writer to thank because of that. The main explanations you’ve made, the simple blog menu, the friendships you make it possible to foster – it is everything extraordinary, and it’s aiding our son and us consider that the theme is amusing, and that is exceedingly pressing. Many thanks for all the pieces!

I happen to be commenting to let you understand what a awesome discovery my princess encountered reading through your webblog. She picked up such a lot of pieces, which included what it is like to have a wonderful coaching heart to get the mediocre ones without difficulty have an understanding of certain very confusing things. You undoubtedly did more than her expectations. I appreciate you for presenting such warm and helpful, healthy, revealing and even unique thoughts on this topic to Jane.

I definitely wanted to send a brief note to say thanks to you for all the stunning hints you are giving out on this site. My time consuming internet investigation has at the end been honored with really good knowledge to share with my co-workers. I would state that that many of us visitors are really endowed to be in a superb website with very many marvellous individuals with valuable solutions. I feel very blessed to have seen your webpage and look forward to plenty of more excellent times reading here. Thanks a lot once again for a lot of things.

A lot of thanks for each of your effort on this blog. Betty really loves going through investigation and it’s really easy to understand why. My spouse and i learn all about the dynamic way you deliver precious guidance via the blog and as well strongly encourage participation from some other people on the issue and our own simple princess is truly discovering a great deal. Have fun with the remaining portion of the year. Your performing a remarkable job.

Thanks so much for providing individuals with an extraordinarily wonderful possiblity to read in detail from this web site. It really is very superb and as well , full of a good time for me personally and my office co-workers to search your web site no less than 3 times every week to learn the new issues you will have. And of course, I am also usually fulfilled with your good methods you give. Certain 4 tips in this article are surely the most suitable we’ve had.

I in addition to my buddies ended up viewing the good secrets and techniques located on your website and so before long developed a terrible feeling I had not thanked the site owner for those secrets. Those women came certainly passionate to read all of them and now have in reality been having fun with those things. Appreciation for being so considerate and also for deciding on some cool useful guides millions of individuals are really desperate to be informed on. My honest regret for not expressing gratitude to you earlier.

I must get across my passion for your generosity giving support to people that should have help on in this question. Your special commitment to passing the message across ended up being extraordinarily productive and has usually enabled many people much like me to attain their endeavors. Your amazing interesting help and advice denotes so much a person like me and especially to my peers. Best wishes; from everyone of us.

I would like to show some thanks to this writer for bailing me out of this matter. After looking out throughout the world-wide-web and coming across solutions which are not pleasant, I figured my life was over. Living devoid of the approaches to the issues you’ve solved through your entire guideline is a crucial case, as well as the kind that would have adversely damaged my entire career if I had not discovered your web site. Your own personal talents and kindness in touching almost everything was helpful. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t encountered such a subject like this. I can also at this moment relish my future. Thanks very much for your impressive and sensible help. I will not be reluctant to endorse your blog to any person who would like guidance about this issue.

Thank you for all your work on this blog. Gloria takes pleasure in carrying out research and it’s really simple to grasp why. I notice all relating to the lively method you give functional tricks by means of your web site and even recommend participation from other people on this matter then my girl is always becoming educated a lot of things. Take pleasure in the remaining portion of the new year. You are performing a superb job.

Thanks a lot for giving everyone such a pleasant possiblity to read from this blog. It’s usually so useful plus full of a great time for me personally and my office co-workers to visit your website minimum 3 times a week to learn the newest guidance you will have. And of course, I am also actually pleased with the impressive tips served by you. Selected 3 tips in this posting are in reality the most suitable I’ve ever had.

My husband and i have been quite comfortable that Peter managed to conclude his reports through the precious recommendations he came across when using the web site. It is now and again perplexing to simply always be making a gift of hints which many others might have been selling. And we also figure out we have got you to appreciate because of that. The entire explanations you have made, the easy site navigation, the friendships your site make it easier to promote – it’s all fabulous, and it’s assisting our son and our family believe that this subject matter is exciting, which is very important. Thanks for the whole thing!

I am writing to let you know what a awesome encounter my princess undergone going through your web page. She came to understand a wide variety of details, which included how it is like to have a marvelous coaching heart to have the mediocre ones effortlessly thoroughly grasp various hard to do subject areas. You undoubtedly surpassed visitors’ expected results. Thank you for producing the beneficial, safe, educational not to mention cool thoughts on that topic to Sandra.

I must express thanks to you just for rescuing me from such a incident. Just after browsing throughout the world-wide-web and finding views that were not helpful, I assumed my life was gone. Being alive minus the solutions to the difficulties you have resolved as a result of your article is a crucial case, as well as the ones which could have in a wrong way damaged my entire career if I hadn’t noticed your blog post. Your skills and kindness in touching all the pieces was helpful. I am not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t come across such a subject like this. I can at this time look forward to my future. Thanks a lot very much for the impressive and effective guide. I will not think twice to recommend your web blog to anyone who will need assistance on this subject matter.

I am glad for commenting to let you know of the useful experience my cousin’s child developed viewing yuor web blog. She figured out a wide variety of details, including what it is like to possess a very effective helping style to make folks completely master specific tortuous matters. You truly surpassed our desires. Thanks for supplying those precious, healthy, educational and in addition cool guidance on your topic to Tanya.

Comments closed