Dear Rachel,

Please help me! I'm obsessed with negative thoughts. It seems like I’m never happy! I’m always finding fault with myself, others, and everything in my life. This makes me feel tense, defensive and unhappy. But I find it hard to stop. What can I do?


Dear Upset,

First of all, I commend you for being aware of this bad habit and wanting to change it. Remember, our biggest test can be our biggest success.

I’m sure you’ve heard that at any given moment, we can choose our thoughts—critical, negative and unhappy; or grateful, positive and happy. As this is a choice given to us every moment, it is a challenge we face about 64,800 times a day! I’m sure you can appreciate how formidable this challenge is. Now, even the most determined person can’t think 64,800 negative thoughts a day. (At least, I hope not!) I’m sure you have some, even many, positive feelings and insights. Unfortunately, you dwell on the negative ones, reinforcing the additional negative thought that you are a negative person.

Test whether your assumption is true or not

So, the first thing I suggest is to test whether your assumption is true or not. Try to catch yourself in the act of having positive thoughts and feelings about yourself, others, and the world around you. Everything from “What a nice day!” to “What a pretty scarf she’s wearing.” It’s important to acknowledge yourself, too: “I gave her an encouraging smile.” You’ll be surprised at how many positive musings you find yourself engaged in.

The credo of any 12-step program designed to rid you of a bad habit is to progress one day at a time. In this case, I suggest working on one moment at a time. “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, yet you are not free to desist from it” (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:16). You don’t have to reach perfection; you just have to take consistent action.

When you focus on looking for the good thoughts, you’ll find that there are more than you expected. Then, all you have to do is look for occasions to think more positive thoughts. The more good things you notice, the easier it will be. Don’t try to eradicate all your negative thinking, but do try to increase the times you can acknowledge positive thoughts and feelings. In Ethics of our Fathers (4:2) it’s written that one mitzvah leads to another. Similarly, one positive thought leads to another.

It is also important that you make sure to schedule something every day that you know will give you a lift, whether it’s sipping a latte, listening to a favorite song, or literally smelling the roses as you walk by.

Schedule something every day that you know will give you a lift

One more thought (and it’s a positive one): Our sages instituted blessings for many of the things we do every day—eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, buying new clothes, and even stopping to smell the roses. These blessings help us appreciate the good in our lives. If you don’t already do so, take it upon yourself to say one blessing a day. If you already make blessings, take on a special one that you don’t usually say, or say it with greater feeling. There’s no greater positive thought than thanking G‑d for all the blessings in your life. And the more you notice those blessings, the more you’ll have.

I wish you the best of luck!