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The question

How do I get the nay-saying voice in my head to quiet down? It's with me all the time, telling me I'm not good enough and I'm going to fail. What are some specific strategies to think more positively?

The answer

The power of our thoughts is stunning: thoughts can be both our strongest asset, as well as our worst liability.

The way we think about ourselves and the future is integral to our overall sense of happiness and well-being. When we think hopeful, optimistic thoughts we tend to feel more confident, more secure, and generally more at peace. Conversely, when we think pessimistically we can find ourselves getting into a downward spiral of negativity, anxiety/worry, and low, discouraged mood.

If you go to any local bookstore, you will see a burgeoning number of self-help books that focus on the "power of positive thinking".

When we are already feeling happy and enthusiastic, positive thoughts are easy, even if they may be slightly overinflated or grandiose. Unfortunately, if you are already feeling down on yourself, simply thinking positive thoughts alone is not helpful (and ironically can make you feel more frustrated with yourself).

Although it may sound like semantics, a subtle (but very important) shift in your language can make a huge difference: try to make your thoughts fair and accurate. Interestingly, though shifting negative thoughts to become more realistic has the effect of making thoughts overall more positive.

For example, the statement "I'm going to fail" is one that is negative and assumes the worst case situation. Unless you have a crystal ball that can foreshadow future events, this is not necessarily accurate and has the negative impact of lowering your confidence.

It also can contribute to what's called a self-fulfilling prophecy: basically increasing the likelihood that what you expect will occur because you end up inadvertently acting in a way that is consistent with your thought. A more accurate and realistic thought would be "I could fail, but I won't know until I try and there is a chance I could succeed".

Most of our thoughts are unconscious (i.e., below our level of awareness). However, with practice and time, you can train yourself to become more aware of your thoughts. Try the following steps:

1. Start to become aware of your negative/self-defeating thoughts. It's impossible to change your thoughts unless you are fully paying attention and catching your negative thoughts every time they come up.

2. When you have a negative thought, ask yourself a few questions:

  • How accurate and valid is the thought?
  • When you had this thought in the past, how often were you right?
  • What would you say to a close friend who was thinking the same thought?
  • Rephrase your negative thoughts into more realistic statements (which will tend to be more positive).
  • Rewind and repeat until the realistic thoughts become an automatic part of the way you think.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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