The most effective tool I have against negative thoughts

While Bhargavi says negative thoughts still occur, applying a few simple tools have helped navigate them.

Written by Bhargavi Magadi


When I was younger, I was useless at maths. People used to tease me about my grades and compare me to others around me who were maths prodigies. As I grew older, I became insecure about my maths ability. I hated the subject and thought of myself as hopeless at it.

It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would sit down to study maths, get overwhelmed by the first question, and immediately give up, thinking, ‘I’m terrible at maths anyway, it’s not like it’ll matter if I study’. That meant I only got worse at maths. The worse my maths was, the more insecure I was about it, and the more I avoided it.

However, nowadays my maths grades have improved greatly because I have found a way to counteract the vicious cycle of self-deprecation that used to trap me. Though I am using maths as an example, this method has helped me get over many insecurities and negative thoughts I have struggled with over the years.

Admitting to a flaw

The first part is my least favourite part. It never sits right with me, but it is essential that I acknowledge my pitfalls. We are all humans, and it’s normal for humans to be bad at things or have so-called “uglier” sides to our personalities. Ironically, it’s often a lot easier to accept my faults than to have self-compassion

For example, if someone tried to comfort me and tell me that I’m good at maths, they would be lying through their teeth and there’s no way I would ever believe them. If someone said my maths ability was totally disgraceful, it would sting, but I would believe them.

The point of this first step is to remind myself that flaws are normal. It’s an undeniable fact that everyone has flaws and doubts and secret fears. It can be freeing to allow yourself to have these flaws. If you see it as a normal thing, it becomes less monstrous and shameful. Once you stop hiding it, you can deal with it.

Flaws are temporary

Every human can change. If I am bad at maths right now, that does not mean I will continue to be in the future. Being good at maths isn’t something you are born with; it’s something you must learn. Some people may take to it better than others, but that doesn’t mean they would continue to be brilliant at maths forever, even if they put in zero work.

It’s the same with bad habits or a skill that I want to improve. Though they are annoying and difficult to overcome, flaws are temporary. I think that the best part about being human is that, if there’s something about me that I absolutely hate, I can fix it later, or I can change my attitude about it.

Once I admit to a flaw, I must remind myself that it doesn’t have to be there forever.

Don’t focus on the goal, but on the process

I got myself to sludge through maths homework by practising the first two steps, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking, “Why can’t I just be good at maths now?!” The answer is obvious, but unsatisfying: because it’s a process and it takes time.

Remembering that everything is a process can help me to be more patient. Sometimes, though, if I am at my limit, then slow progress can be incredibly frustrating. We are motivated by the fruits of our hard work, but many things in life take an agonisingly long time to benefit us. Daily maths practice was hard enough on its own, but the fact that I didn’t show any large improvement for months was even more demoralising.

The problem with the “everything is a process” mindset is that, while it works when I can reason with myself, it implies that my work must, eventually, lead me to my goal. That means that, the longer it takes to succeed, the longer the process becomes, and the more frustrated I am that there is no end in sight.

That is why I suggest focusing on the process itself. In my maths example, this would be my daily study of maths. If I change my goal from “getting good at maths” to “practising maths every day,” I accomplish my goal in the short-term and feel good about it every day.

I do what I can to direct my attention towards the process. I noted how long it took me to do maths questions and figured out what topics I was good at to make my revision plan more efficient. I ticked off my calendar whenever I did some maths, and bought a stationary set that I could have in close reach at home.

This way, I was constantly working on my maths ability and felt like I was making progress. Even if my skill hadn’t gotten better, I succeeded at doing it more regularly and wasting less time on preparing before my study sessions.

When I finally saw an improvement in my maths ability, it was the most gratifying feeling in my life.

Turning my thoughts into motivation

To sum up, if I am dealing with negative thoughts, I try to acknowledge it and admit that, as of now, I am lacking something. I remind myself that I am not restricted to being who I am in the present, and that I can change myself with time and effort.

Then, I work out what I can do to improve, whether that’s a concrete plan or a more abstract promise to explore my triggers or insecurities and catch my bad habits when they happen. I come up with the smallest possible tasks I can do, so that I make regular progress and remain motivated.

Though I follow this process, negative thoughts never fully disappear. It’s difficult to rid ourselves of the stigma around flaws and to motivate ourselves to change, especially when it’s so much easier to be the same. Negative thoughts are just part of being human and feeling emotion is not something that we are going to be always overwhelmed by. However, for as long as we don’t address our insecurities, they will always plague us. The best we can do is use them constructively, as a motivation for change, instead of as a weapon we turn against ourselves.

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