Change Where You’re Looking – How to Shift Away from Negative Thinking

Change Where You’re Looking – How to Shift Away from Negative Thinking

Betsy Stephens, MSW-Candidate

The first time I tried surfing, I popped right up on the very first wave. I wasn’t expecting that to happen (it never happened quite so easily again), and neither did my instructor. I would have expected the feeling wasn’t exhilarating, it felt more like sheer terror as I suddenly realized I was being hurled full speed ahead toward another novice surfer and nobody had yet told me how to stop. We crashed into each other—luckily there were no injuries.

I swam back to my instructor and he gave me a bit of surfing advice that I’ve found just as applicable to experiences I’ve had on dry land. “If you’re heading in a direction you don’t want to go, change where you’re looking. Everything will shift and you’ll start going where you want to go.”

It works in surfing because when you turn your head, you also turn your shoulders, which shifts your body weight, which turns the board you’re on. It works on dry land for pretty much the same reasons. The moment you set your focus on something, everything shifts. Your thoughts, your words, your actions—they all shift in the direction you are looking.

Though the logic behind this is simple, putting it into practice actually takes some practice. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that uses techniques, many of which are aimed at shifting your focus toward better mental health. Here are three CBT techniques you could try today:

Reframe Your Thoughts

The problem: Have you ever had a conversation with someone about a movie, food or sports team that the two of you like? Usually when this happens, the conversation builds as it goes on and the two of you become more excited about your shared interest. This can happen with thoughts too. If you start to think about what a terrible day your having, you and your brain might end up in cahoots with each other and before you know it, you’re having a conversation with your brain about the worst day in the history of bad days.

The CBT FIX: “Reframing” them to something that more closely meets reality can turn a downward spiral around. In this case, you could reframe the thought: “This is the worst day in the history of bad days” to “Sure, I started my day with a flat tire, but it’s only 10 o’clock in the morning, there’s plenty of time for the day to get better.” Now that you’ve shifted your thoughts and words toward a better direction. Your actions are surely to soon follow!

Stop Mind-Reading

The Problem: Sometimes you don’t even need to have a conversation for your mind to spiral in a negative direction. Maybe you wave at a friend from across the street and they don’t wave back. You might think something is wrong. Maybe you think they’re mad at you. Or, you might think: “They’re pretending not to see me so they can avoid me. I knew they didn’t like me.” These thoughts can get bigger and bigger and before you know it, you’re ready to cut this person out of your life—for good. Meanwhile, did you notice your friend was walking out of the optometrist’s office? It seems they need glasses because their having trouble seeing from a distance—from across the street, for example.

The CBT Fix: This CBT technique involves recognizing when you’re assuming you know what someone else is thinking, then you remind yourself that you have no idea what is going on in someone else’s mind. You can take a deep

Lose Labels

The Problem: When you were choosing a major in college, you didn’t look at anything outside the realm of liberal arts because you’re “bad at math.” Anytime you’re out to dinner with a group of friends, you always tell someone other than you should divvy up the check because you’re “bad at math.” Now when faced with any sort of problem that involves numbers, you feel panic rising and you begin to look for someone—anyone—who can help because you’re “bad at math.” Are you sensing a pattern? Assigning a label to yourself, whether it’s “bad at math,” “not very outgoing,” or “unlucky” can set you up for living up to the label.

The CBT Fix: The next time you hear yourself using a negative label, drop it. Better, yet, replace it with a positive label. “I’m bad at math” can become “I’m sharpening my math skills; “I’m not very outgoing” becomes “I enjoy meeting new people” and “I’m unlucky” becomes “I’m due for a lucky break.”

Persistent negative thoughts can lead to anxiety and depression. If you find that your thoughts are leading you to an anxious or depressed state, you might benefit from the help of a professional who could teach you strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy and have you looking toward a healthier future.

About our practice: Verne Psychotherapy and Wellness LLC is a private therapy practice in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Verne has multiple therapists with a wide range of expertise treating anxiety, depression, trauma, and beyond. Verne accepts people of all cultural, racial, and sexual backgrounds. We serve clients ages 12 to 65. We have an in-person office in Montclair, New Jersey and also can see patients virtually. To get matched with one of our therapists, please call our office at 862-330-1727 ext 3  or visit our website:

Our in-person office is easily accessible from Essex County, Bergen County, and Passaic County. We are located in an area with public transportation (trains, buses, rideshare). We are in a handicap accessible location with elevators located on the first floor by the parking lot (in the back). Parking is pay-to-park on the streets and in the lots surrounding the office.

About the Author: Betsy Stephens (she/her) is currently completing her second year of graduate school at Montclair State University, on her way to earning her Masters in Social Work. During her first year of graduate school, Betsy was an intern at Montclair State University Center for Autism and Childhood Mental Health where she worked with children of various ages and abilities. There she learned a great deal about relational health, a therapeutic practice rooted in interactions and connections with others and how they impact our overall well being. Betsy has taught yoga and mindfulness to both children and adults since 2001 and finds that lessons from yoga and mindfulness can help anything from self-acceptance to stress-reduction. She enjoys working with people of all ages from childhood to adulthood through to seniors.

Betsy lives in West Orange and enjoys hiking, practicing yoga, going to the beach and spending time with her husband and their two teenage children.

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