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.

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