As a wellness professional, you know how satisfying it is to watch a client make progress toward her health objectives. As she reaches those goals, you and she experience a mutual sense of success.

Along the way, you see that your professional relationship is working effectively when the client shows up for classes and sessions, absorbs your instructions and applies the guidance she receives. So if a client starts out with a negative mindset or hits a mental roadblock on her wellness path, it’s important to clarify what may be going on internally. The pause in progress may be temporary, or there may be a chronic negative pattern in the client’s way of thinking. Either way, acknowledging the negative thinking and understanding its consequences for your work together are the keys to helping your client move out of a stuck place. In this column, you’ll find out more about how negativity is triggered and learn some practical ways to help clients move beyond their self-limiting beliefs.

Origins of
Negative Thinking

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. According to psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD, “To allow us to make sense of our experiences, the perception of present events automatically links up to the past in the memory network, and the stored negative emotions can flood through the person” (Shapiro & Forrest 1997). In other words, 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. They dismiss compliments about their achievements and hold themselves to unrealistic standards. A client in this category is prone to chronic negative thinking; that is, her definition of who she is as a person is consistently negative and generally does not waver. While she can be motivated to move toward goals, she often has an attitude of defeat and pessimism. This comes from a lack of positive reinforcement early in life. 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 faulty; in other words, not in alignment with reality. But to your client, her beliefs and the hurt that stems from them feel very real—as if she “has swallowed whole [her] critical parents, judge or persecutor” (Rosenberg 1985). 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.

For example, let’s say that, growing up, your client was teased about being overweight. The negative core beliefs he developed became internalized. Those beliefs might be thoughts like “I’m weak,” “I’m ugly” or “Nobody likes me.” In the client’s current life, this old way of thinking gets triggered if his fitness or nutrition program stalls or if he experiences a bad day at work. In these situations, the old beliefs come to the surface because on some level they have never been resolved.

Getting Back on Track

Despite the current popular trend, 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.

At times, all of us can shift our negative thinking to positive, and that’s an empowering place to be. However, making that shift is not always possible, and it is important to respect where your client is in those cases. Most clients don’t want to hold a negative view of themselves, yet core-belief thoughts can get triggered without warning. If we could always shift our thoughts by simply thinking positively, most of us would. When a client can’t make that shift, warning her that negative thinking will create negative things in her life will only paralyze her. It should never be used as a scare tactic to motivate a client to change.

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.

Reality Check

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. You reflect back the erroneous thinking and help him dismantle the distorted self-image he is bringing to his session. Using a reality check also shows the client that one moment of insecurity or indulgence does not define who he is as a whole.

Imagine a scenario where this client missed his personal workout over the weekend and overindulged in excess eating because of stress at work. Prior to this he was making consistent progress and feeling good about his successes, but now he has shown up with a negative belief on board: “I have no willpower” (or “I’ll never get there” or “It’s too difficult to keep going”). It seems as if he has developed amnesia in regard to his health goals.

A practical first step is to acknowledge the client’s feelings, regardless of the distortion. This is important because, despite the exaggerated perspective, the negative belief feels like the truth to your client. 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?” (or “I understand you think you’ll never get there, but how do you explain the progress you’ve made all these months?” or “I’m curious, if it’s too difficult to keep going, what has kept you coming for all this time?”) Your question causes your client to shift his thinking because he is confronted with the reality of his own efforts. While he may still want to negate reality or find reasons why his efforts don’t count, it will be difficult for him to hold on to his distorted belief when he has to ponder his progress.

Immediate Action

Moving your clients quickly into action is a great way to shift negative thinking. In discussing how to get beyond depression coupled with procrastination, David Burns, MD, writes, “You have to prime the pump. Then you will get motivated, and the fluids will flow spontaneously” (Burns 1980). In other words, sometimes the only way to help a client focus on something other than her negative thinking is to get her into action. 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. As the client dances, runs, relaxes, writes or breathes, she is forced to shift her attention away from her poor self-image. Then she has the opportunity to move literally and figuratively through what she has been thinking and feeling.

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. Her mood will lift, her face will open up, and her posture will become less burdened. If the activity you introduce frustrates your client, shift to something you know your client can accomplish. Completing the task at hand will give her a sense of empowerment.

Moving Ahead

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.