Negative thinking stems from internal beliefs formed over time or by a single event. Typical catalysts for the formation of these beliefs include messages from caregivers; a large trauma or a series of small traumas; and unrealistic images in the media. When negative thinking shows up in a client, it is usually because an external event in his current life has caused him to regress to an old way of thinking about himself. A missed workout or a fight with his significant other can cause your client to feel the same feelings he felt when something upsetting happened in his past. When that event occurred, your client felt “less than,” powerless or self-critical, and the feeling contributed to his forming a negative core belief about himself. This view, in the present, is not accurate, but by now it has deep roots. It can show up in two forms: chronic negative thinking or situational negative thinking.
Chronic Negative Thinking. Some clients have ongoing negative beliefs about themselves and their abilities. A person who does not receive enough supportive input to counteract whatever negative messages come her way tends to develop a distorted belief system. Of course, this belief system is not in alignment with reality. Consequently, without working through her old painful feelings, your client is stuck in the past.
Situational Negative Thinking. Other clients do not have a chronically negative mindset, but they are vulnerable to situational negative thinking. A client in this category sometimes feels powerless or unimportant in the face of present-day circumstances. Triggers can range from an incident at work to conflict with another person to not sticking with an eating plan. The result is that the client temporarily has feelings of doubt or insecurity, which affect his view of himself, including his ability to achieve wellness goals.
Getting Back on Track
Despite the current popular trend, just telling a client to think positively when negative thinking occurs can make her feel worse. What’s more, the positive-thinking approach bypasses an important process of change, in which your client clearly understands that her thoughts are a distortion.
There are two practical strategies to consider when a client is thinking negatively: does the client need a reality check, or is the best solution immediate action? When the negative thinking is situational, either strategy can be effective. With chronic negativity, immediate action is generally the better choice.
When a client arrives with a negative view of himself and his progress, it’s good to take a few moments to evaluate what may have triggered this mindset. If the client is one of your regulars, you will be able to discern whether this negative thinking is situational or part of a chronic pattern.
If the negativity is situational, you can give the client a reality check. Using this strategy, you positively reframe his negative beliefs by drawing on your experience of him as evidence. Using a reality check also shows the client that one moment of insecurity or indulgence does not define who he is as a whole.
After you have allowed some time for his feelings, you can move on to a series of questions that are evidence based. For instance, in response to the statement of inadequacy you might say, “I get that you feel you have no willpower, but if that’s true, who has been coming here week after week?” Your question causes your client to shift his thinking because he is confronted with the reality of his own efforts.
Moving your clients quickly into action is a great way to shift negative thinking. This could mean moving your client into a workout; teaching a new skill that is achievable but requires focus; using a visualization technique to help the client relax; asking her to write down all that she has accomplished since she started with you; or having her concentrate on her breathing.
Your guidance toward activity provides your client with a focus and diverts her from the loop of negative thinking. The artistry of your work lies in adjusting the actions you have chosen, based on your observations. You should notice how your client responds to each suggestion and then use that knowledge to guide both of you. From a body-mind perspective you will see your client’s energy change as her thinking shifts.
As you become more alert to negative beliefs in your clients and learn to help them clarify their thinking for themselves, they will enjoy the satisfaction of making steady progress toward their wellness goals—and that satisfaction will be your success.
For more on this topic, see the full article in the February issue of IDEA Fitness Journal or online in the IDEA Article Archive.