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The Single Word That Stops Negative Self-Talk

Aug. 8, 2019 Psychology Today

Trying to deny or run away from negativity takes a lot of energy. You might even end up in a mental war with those thoughts, trying to rationalize them away, only to have them come back even stronger. If this has happened to you, here’s another strategy: Apply a good old-fashioned jujitsu move using your awareness. Apply this simple move, and flip negativity on its head.

This mental jujitsu practice, in a single word, is gratitude.

Before you start snoring and clicking away on your mouse, thinking, “Oh, yeah, that’s what my grandmother used to go on and on about and made me yawn,” let’s look at some research that might surprise you. 

One major research project on gratitude showed that a gratitude practice resulted in the following effects on well-being:

  • Higher levels of life satisfaction and more optimism and vitality about life.
  • Better progress toward personal goals and goal attainment.
  • Reduced levels of stress and depressed mood.
  • Greater alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy in young adults.
  • More prosocial behavior, such as helping and providing emotional support to others.
  • Reduced focus on materialism as a definition of one’s success, as well as fewer feelings of envy toward others.
  • Greater “positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality,” in adults with neuromuscular disease.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg when describing the benefits of gratitude. In my own practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen dramatic shifts in mood and narrative as the result of a simple gratitude intervention.

Let me share the experience of one patient, Jerry (all names are changed), who had a history of family depression that stretched back generations. His grandfather had been in and out of mental hospitals for years, and his mother was diagnosed with acute depression and had trouble functioning. In Jerry’s own words, “I have a genetic history of depression and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

But Jerry had not yet encountered the masterful mind-bending and life-bending power of gratitude. As he explored it, a major shift occurred in his life. He started asking people at work what they had gratitude for. It became a touchstone that transformed his understanding and perception of events—one that represented a very different way of thinking and being in the world. 

Over time, Jerry’s inner narrative changed. I still recall the day he said to me, “I have periods of depression, but I know how to effectively manage them using gratitude and other skills.” That is a much more empowering narrative, isn’t it? And it was made possible in part by gratitude. 

Gratitude Is an Intentional and Selective Attention Practice

Gratitude trains us to use attention in a very specific way. For example, you can focus on what is wrong or missing in your life, and endlessly compare yourself to others. Or, you can turn your awareness toward noticing the good, decent, and beautiful things around you in this moment.

Why does this matter?

By noticing what you could be grateful for, you cultivate a different attitude about your situation. This, in turn, changes not only how you think and behave in the moment, but helps to develop a supportive and life-affirming habit for the future. 

Gratitude Encourages Here and Now Participation

Gratitude is a proactive means of engaging in the here and now. We spend a lot of time as life spectators—watching things on our computer, watching sports and entertainment on TV, and so on. Gratitude catapults us into the present moment because it encourages participation. For example, in order to feel gratitude, you need to be present. You are encouraged to act on your gratitude because you feel more connected and optimistic as a result. Gratitude also helps build resilience, because it gets us looking at the positives, rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong. 

Here are some simple practices for getting started with gratitude. The next time you notice negativity, use the jujitsu gratitude intervention below to turn negativity on its head.

  • Jujitsu Gratitude Move 1: Notice and name one gratitude right now. Write this down, being sure to include WHY you are grateful or thankful. For example, this might look like: “I am grateful for ____ because _____.” Telling why you are grateful deepens the story. 
  • Jujitsu Gratitude Move 2: Keep track of your daily gratitudes. Get a teacup and tape the word “gratitude” on it. For each gratitude you find each day, put a penny in that cup, or write down on a small piece of paper two or three words about that gratitude. At the end of the week, review how many gratitudes you found and experienced. 
  • Jujitsu Gratitude Move 3: Share your daily gratitude with another. This is a wonderful way to make connections on a deeper level with others. Don’t underestimate the importance of this for relationship building, at home or the workplace. 

Do this for a week, and don’t settle for repeating the same gratitude each day. There are many kinds of gratitude to notice.

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