“I’m Lost,” “I’m Weak,” And Other Thoughts That Can Get In Your Way

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated March 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It’s not uncommon for people to experience unwanted negative thoughts about themselves. These kinds of ideas can get in the way of your success, happiness, and health. However, it’s often possible to redirect your thinking and avoid letting unhelpful thoughts hold too much sway over your self-image. Certain techniques have the potential to change the way you react to unhelpful thoughts, and they may even help you to learn to think more positively. You might try mindfulness meditation, framing negative thoughts as challenges, and assessing your beliefs objectively. Working with a therapist, whether in person or online, can also be helpful.

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Therapy can prevent negative thoughts from holding you back

Negative self-talk

Unwanted and counterproductive thoughts can come in many forms. Some of the most common fall under the heading of negative self-talk — persistent, unrealistic criticism of yourself. 

This may mean focusing on small flaws or mistakes and blowing them out of proportion. It might mean making negative predictions, telling yourself that things are going to turn out badly. Sometimes it can mean making broad, harsh judgments about yourself. The following would all be examples of negative self-talk:

  • “I’m worthless.”
  • “No way will this work.”
  • “I ruined everything.”
  • “Nobody likes me.”
  • “I’m going to screw this up.”
  • “I can’t do anything right.”

Negative self-talk may also be called rumination. This refers specifically to the kinds of repetitive negative thoughts that we turn over and over in our minds, making it hard to focus on other things.

Intrusive thoughts

Another kind of thought that can hold you back or cause distress is an intrusive thought. This is a thought, image, or idea that seems to come out of nowhere and can disrupt your focus or your sense of well-being. 

Intrusive thoughts are sometimes disturbing, involving the idea of yourself doing something shameful or morally wrong. They may also be upsettingly violent or sexual. They can spark fear, embarrassment, or shame, even if you have no genuine desire to act on these thoughts. 

It can be common for people to be afraid that their intrusive thoughts represent secret urges that they may not be able to control. But researchers and clinicians say that these upsetting thoughts are typically more like anxieties than desires. They tend to correspond with your own worries, such as the fear that you might not be a good person. 

Are unwanted thoughts a sign of mental health conditions?

It can feel disorienting and upsetting when your thinking seems to be out of your control. Some people worry that their intrusive thoughts or negative self-talk could be signs of mental disorders.

A study conducted across multiple continents indicates that it can be quite common to experience some unpleasant, unintentional thoughts. The researchers found that more than 90% of participants reported at least some spontaneous and unwanted thoughts within the past three months. The most common type was self-doubting thoughts, suggesting that negative self-talk may be particularly widespread. These results indicate that the simple presence of challenging thoughts doesn’t necessarily indicate a mental health condition.

Some disorders can be associated with extremely frequent, persistent, and severe thought intrusions. Anxiety and depression may involve “repetitive negative thoughts” such as worry and rumination. And many people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or eating disorders experience disturbing and upsetting intrusive thoughts. 

Please do not attempt to self-diagnose based on internet articles. Instead, we recommend reaching out to a mental health professional if you think you might have a clinical condition. If you’re having repeated thoughts about self-harmful behavior, you may also want to contact mental health help organizations such as the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988).

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How negative and intrusive thoughts can get in your way

Even if your unwanted thoughts aren’t symptoms of a mental health condition, they can be mentally and emotionally draining, disruptive to your focus, and harmful to your confidence. Research has found that negative self-talk in young people may impede their learning. In adults, it appears to be correlated with performance in athletic events and on the job. Meanwhile, upsetting intrusive thoughts can disrupt happy or peaceful times, potentially decreasing your quality of life. 

There’s also some evidence that persistent negative thinking may raise a person’s odds of developing mental health disorders. One study concluded that rumination, worry, and self-blame generally increased the likelihood of anxiety and depression in people who experienced traumatic events or had family histories of mental illness. Another paper reported that people appeared to be more likely to have multiple psychological disorders if they displayed repetitive negative thinking.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

These results strongly suggest that learning to let go of negative thoughts and foster positive ones could be good for your well-being. But how can you affect your own thoughts? In many cases, part of the reason that unwanted thoughts feel so distressing is that they seem to be outside of your control.

However, there are several strategies that have shown great promise in helping people reframe and reshape their thinking in positive ways. The following techniques may help you get past your intrusive thoughts and negative self-talk.

Stop pushing your thoughts away

It may sound strange, but one of the best ways to improve your thought patterns may be to avoid trying to control them. Investigations into intrusive thoughts have found that attempting to suppress them can actually make them more likely to recur. Pushing away your unhelpful thoughts could also cause them to show up in your dreams and may worsen symptoms of psychiatric disorders. Thought suppression has been shown to increase rumination in people with depression. 

Instead of trying to reject and avoid your unhelpful thoughts, it may be best to try to accept them without judgment. When a challenging thought pops up, you don’t have to act on it or fixate on it. Instead, you can simply acknowledge that it’s a thought you’re having.  A substantial amount of research indicates that acceptance of negative mental experiences — both emotions and thoughts — helps to improve psychological well-being and reduce distress.

Practice mindfulness meditation

Meditative techniques may help with the acceptance-based approach described above. In fact, mindfulness meditation could be described as an active practice of acceptance; it involves taking time to observe your thoughts, emotions, and sensations in a neutral, objective manner. 

Studies have repeatedly shown that a regular practice of mindfulness meditation can have beneficial mental health impacts. It appears to be effective at reducing rumination and helping practitioners let go of habitually negative thinking. Mindfulness-based techniques may also assist people with OCD in reducing the frequency of intrusive thoughts. A simple way to get started might be to take 20 minutes each day to relax and pay attention to your breath and your thoughts without attempting to control or critique them.

Framing negative thoughts as challenges

Much of the research on the effects of self-talk has taken place in the field of athletics. A study examining cycling performance found that athletes usually did better when they interpreted their negative self-talk as challenges to improve rather than reasons to give up. This approach might prove helpful for unwanted thoughts of all kinds. It may be more effective than trying to use overly positive affirmations, which you may have trouble believing.

For instance, if you often find yourself thinking, “I’m terrible at this,” you could mentally add, “but I’m working hard and getting better!” This might work better than simply trying to replace it with thoughts like, “I’m great at this!” which could simply feel unrealistic.

Assess your beliefs objectively

Excessive self-criticism may be hard to shake because you can trick yourself into thinking that you’re just being realistic. In reality, though, our negative self-talk often wildly exaggerates our negative qualities and downplays our positive ones. When this comes up, it could be helpful to ask yourself what the evidence really says about your life.

You might be saying to yourself, “I fail at everything I try,” but chances are good that this isn’t really true. Consider thinking back over your life and coming up with counterexamples. You can probably find five things you’ve succeeded at without thinking too hard. Even if they seem minor, they can help you recognize your negative self-talk as a cognitive distortion. 

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Therapy can prevent negative thoughts from holding you back

Get assistance from a therapist

Clinically trained therapists may also be an enormous help in overcoming the thoughts that get in your way. Some types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, are specifically aimed at helping people practice new ways of thinking and reacting to emotions. There’s substantial evidence that therapy can help with negative rumination and obsessive thoughts

Many people find online therapy particularly convenient and helpful. This may be a good approach if you’re struggling with feelings of shame related to your intrusive thoughts. Conducting therapy online can provide a greater sense of inomminateness that may increase your comfort with the process. It may also be easier and faster to find a therapist experienced in this particular issue when you’re connecting with them over the internet.

But does online therapy work? The research suggests that it does. Numerous studies of cognitive-behavioral therapy have demonstrated that its effectiveness doesn’t seem to change when it’s conducted over the internet rather than in person. The authors of the linked study conclude that their research showed “compelling support for the efficacy and effectiveness of online CBT”. You can find a licensed counselor through an online therapy platform if you’re interested in seeing how therapy could help you.

Takeaway

It can be very common for people to find that their thoughts sometimes get in their way and trip them up, but there may be ways to build more positive mental habits. Techniques such as mindful acceptance and cognitive reframing can help you think more constructive thoughts. An experienced therapist may be able to support you in your efforts and offer additional effective strategies.
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