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How to Handle Unhelpful Thoughts

It takes you forever to do the simplest tasks. 

Why can’t you be more productive? Faster? Smarter? Better? 

No one will hire you.

You always mess up important opportunities.

No one likes your ideas.

No one likes you. 

When these thoughts run through our minds, we assume they’re true-blue truths. And we take them very seriously—even though they are, in fact, false. 

Indeed, some negative thoughts are “the equivalent of a party crasher or the drunken loudmouth behind you at the stadium. And anxious thoughts are often unreliable narrators,” writes clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D, in her excellent, new book Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good And Discover the Life You’ve Always Wanted.

Maybe you already know that your negative thoughts are inaccurate, and you regularly find yourself in a shouting match inside your mind, defending yourself from your own disparaging comments. Or, you try to ignore your thoughts—but they return with a vengeance. Louder. Meaner. More stubborn. 

Either approach leaves you feeling awful. Because you end up at the mercy of your thoughts. 

So, what’s the solution? 

Fortunately, we can change how we relate to our thoughts—so instead of empowering the cruel, vicious cycle, we empower ourselves to go after our goals, bolster our emotional and mental well-being, and feel better overall. 

The key, Bonior writes, is to be curious, non-judgmental, and gentle with ourselves. Specifically, she suggests trying these five steps: 

  1. Acknowledge the negative thought from the perspective of a gentle outsider, such as: “I’m noticing some worry about this appointment,” or “I’m having the thought that….”
  2. Label the thought, such as: “Hello, Mr. Anxiety,” or “There you are, Nervous Itch!”
  3. Remind yourself that your thought will eventually pass, such as: “This thought isn’t part of me, but I’m big enough to let it pass through me. I can watch it as it goes.”
  4. Ground into the present moment by focusing on your breath and relaxing your body, such as: “I am here, sitting at my desk, and I am going to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, slowly.”
  5. Visualize the thought passing, such as: “There you go, thought. You were a dark cloud, but now you’re breaking up,” or “I’m watching that worry float by, like a leaf on a stream.”

Bonior’s clients have used different visualizations to represent their negative thoughts gradually losing strength and going away, such as ice melting; thick, dark smoke dissipating to reveal a blue sky; dirt flowing down the drain as they wash their hands; loud, active birds becoming quieter as they fly away; and words rising up out of sight. 

When it feels like your thoughts are running your life and making sure you lose focus on what actually matters to you, remember that you aren’t helpless.

You don’t have to argue with your thoughts or sweep them under the rug. You can acknowledge an upsetting thought as it arises without agreeing with it. You can hear it out, and you can send it away.

After all, you are in charge and you are powerful. Just because we sometimes forget that doesn’t mean it’s false. 

Photo by Karim Sakhibgareev on Unsplash

How to Handle Unhelpful Thoughts

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2020). How to Handle Unhelpful Thoughts. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 May 2020
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