Sam Holstein

Your Negative Thoughts Are Lying To You

We all have horrible thoughts sometimes. Sometimes they’re major, like I hate my parents for the way they treated me. Sometimes they’re minor. Wow, that girl looks ugly in that dress. Sometimes we enjoy having them. Sometimes we relish the opportunity to seethe with righteous anger when we’re cut off in traffic. That fucking dick doesn’t know how to drive. Sometimes having them gives us a sinking feeling in our stomachs. Wow, that girl looks ugly in that dress. Oh my God, why would you notice that? That’s such a horrible thing to notice.

As much as we hate thinking things like this, these thoughts crop up from time to time. It’s a natural part of being human. When this becomes a problem is when we automatically believe every sour thought we have is the truth.

Sour thoughts often have some kind of basis in reality, but they are very rarely themselves the truth. Take the negative thought she looks ugly in that dress. When you think she looks ugly in that dress, that is not literally true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What is true is that she, in that dress, is not particularly attractive to you at this moment. She looks ugly in that dress is an objective statement which is false, and she is not attractive to me is a subjective statement which is true.

After all, there is no reason our thoughts would have to be true. When you think about it, though, there’s no reason our thoughts would be true. Neuroscientists know very little about the way thoughts work on a physiological level. Evolutionary biologists think thought developed as a way to help us run scenarios to “practice” survival situations and to help us catalog our massive number of social connections. And as Dawkins pointed out in The Selfish Gene, just because a trait evolved into a population, doesn’t make it “right”, or even something that makes individual organisms in that population happy.*

All this to say, there’s no guarantee that thoughts are rational and accurate because they didn’t evolve for rationality and accuracy.

Just because thoughts didn’t evolve for rationality and accuracy, though, doesn’t mean they can’t be used in a rational and accurate way. It just takes a little consideration on your part.

When you have a negative thought, the negative thought itself may be false, but the fact that you had this negative thought is itself a data point. Why did you think that girl was ugly in that dress? Was it because you have had a bad day? Was it because she reminded you of your ex-girlfriend? Was it because you feel ugly in your new dress? Like a detective searching for the man behind a murder, you can use your negative thoughts as leads to help you find the real issue.

Mytemptation is to write a guide or how-to to help you find the real issue, but I don’t think there is a guide for that. Only you can know what really inspires your most untoward thoughts. Having callous thoughts about the appearance of other women is a fault of mine, and I do it because some part of my subconscious picked up my ex-boyfriend’s sexist attitudes. Another woman might think this way because she was told growing up she was not as pretty as the other girls and puts them down to put herself up. The problem is the same, but the fixes are quite different.

You can sense where the pain lies in a negative thought, though, because it will be where you least want to prod. My subconscious picked up my boyfriend’s sexist attitudes. Was it because I didn’t really have a personality of my own in that relationship? Was it because of flagging self-esteem? Was it because I couldn’t find someone to teach me about strength and honor without simultaneously teaching me about objectifying women? (Hint: it was that last one).

Doing that is hard work, and people don’t always want to do it. It’s a hell of a lot easier for me to look at someone and think she’s not hot than it is for me to sit down and unpack why it matters to me that I was not attracted to some random woman I saw at Chipotle. Because when I unpack it, I realize it’s because:

Further, by not unpacking my negative thoughts, I also avoid having to do anything about them. Once I realize what my callous thoughts are really about, I’m on the hook for doing something about them. I have to start countering callous thoughts like she’s not hot with she’s not attractive to me, and that’s all right, because she’s plenty attractive to plenty of people and doing a lot of painful work cognitively reappraising the way I see the world, and that’s hard work too.

Hard work unpacking why we have the negative thoughts we have, and more hard work taking responsibility for them: sounds hard. No, it’s a lot easier to just believe that chick really is ugly and move on with my life.


We all have negative thoughts all the time. The only time they really become dangerous is when we take them too seriously.

If we’re willing to be lighthearted with our negative thoughts, we can address the underlying pain that caused them. It’s hard work, and it starts with moving toward that pain.

When you next have a negative thought, ask yourself the following questions:

The answers may surprise you.


*In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins calls to the reader’s mind the examples of sexually cannibalistic insects. Females have evolved to mate with partners, and then to kill and eat their partners. Males have evolved to keep allowing themselves to be killed and eaten. Does it make male insects of these species happy to be killed and eaten? If they have a conscious experience in any way, it’s not likely.