How to Move Beyond 'Your Impossible'
Repetitive negative thinking can feel like we're facing the impossible.
Posted November 30, 2020
Are you facing what seems like the impossible? We’re all living through an extraordinarily difficult time in human history. The pandemic has created an unprecedented groundswell of personal stress and burden on daily living and elevated our natural levels of anxiety, uncertainty, despair, and frustration. This makes any additional stressors more difficult to handle. You might be feeling like “I can’t take anymore” and then “the more” happens; something bad occurs in your life and you feel like you’ve been pushed into the realm of the “impossible." In the past you could have managed this additional problem, but not now. The pandemic has eroded your coping resources and it feels like you’re at “wits end."
What’s Your Impossible?
There are different routes to the feeling of impossibility. Sometimes it’s a past mistake, failure, or missed opportunity. You may be filled with regret and it feels impossible because you can’t go back and change the past. Or possibly you’ve been treated badly, unfairly, or even been abused or humiliated. The scars of this emotional trauma run deep, and it seems impossible to move past it. Or you’re worrying about the future, what will happen to your family, your health, or your job, because your present circumstances are not what you expected. Whatever it is, your impossible could be ruminating about the past, dealing with the present, or worrying about the future. Although these impossibilities may seem quite different, they’re rooted in how we think about life and our ability to cope. Often, we’re unable to move on from the impossible because of repetitive negative thought.
Repetitive Negative Thought
Repetitive negative thought (RNT) involves having the same negative thought repeatedly come to your attention, persist in your mind, and be difficult to suppress or ignore. Usually this way of thinking is highly distressing because you want to stop thinking like this, but you can’t. Worry and rumination are the two most common types of RNT. In worry we get stuck in the future, going over and over again the “what ifs” that could happen. What if I get terribly sick, what if I can’t find a better job, what if my child gets in trouble with the law, what if my partner leaves me, etc. These worries become “our impossible” because we can’t control the future.
Or maybe you’re stuck in the past, ruminating on some past mistake, failure, or loss. Here RNT takes the form “if only” thinking. If only I had not said that to her, if only I had taken that job offer, if only I had spent more quality time with my children when they were younger, if only I had quit smoking several years ago, and the list goes on. Rumination becomes a type of impossibility thinking because it keeps us focused on the past which we cannot change.
Suggestions for Moving Beyond “Your Impossible”
Repetitive negative thinking is one reason we remain mired in feeling that life is impossible. In my book The Negative Thoughts Workbook1, I describe therapeutic strategies for countering the effects of RNT in negative emotions like anxiety, depression, regret, shame, humiliation, and resentment. Each of these emotional states involves some form of feeling like life is impossible. There are four themes to these strategies that will move you beyond “your impossible.”
- Identify your RNT: To become more aware of the negative thoughts that repeatedly enter your mind is an important first step. If it's worry, what is the catastrophic outcome you fear most? In rumination, are you stuck on trying to figure out what caused a past negative experience? A better understanding of your RNT will help you realize the exaggerated nature of this thinking style and how it gets you stuck.
- Challenge the worth of RNT thinking: To get beyond feeling the impossible, you’ll need to be convinced that RNT thinking is unhelpful. For example, you’ll remain stuck in worry if you think it’s preparing you for the future, or you’ll ruminate about the past if you think it’s important to discover the real cause of an unfortunate experience. You won’t be able to stop RNT thinking and adopt a healthier view of your situation if you’re convinced repetitive thinking about the past or the future is helpful. Instead RNT is a mental trap that provides no solutions but keeps you stuck in feeling like your problems are impossible.
- Live in the moment by focusing on the present: To move beyond the feeling of impossibility requires a shift in time perspective. Rather than focus on the past or the future, pay attention to the present where you can look for ways to improve your current state of health and well-being. Let’s take rumination as an example. Instead of trying to figure out “why” something happened you shift your focus to “how” you can minimize the negative consequences of a past discouragement. Most psychological therapies consider “a focus on the moment” critical for healing and wholeness. When combined with a problem-solving perspective, a present-day focus is the best way to stop RNT and move beyond feeling stuck.
- Know what you can control: When your mind is dominated by negative thinking, it’s often an attempt to resolve problems that are mostly beyond your control. When this happens, it only increases the feeling that you’re facing the impossible. Worry, for example, is all about trying to plan and predict for an unknowable future. Rumination is motivated by an attempt to close the gap between what is wanted and what a person got. Learning to accept what cannot be changed and focusing on that which is within our control is an important step in moving beyond what feels like the impossible.
Clark, D. A. (2020). The negative thoughts workbook: CBT skills to overcome the repetitive worry, shame, and rumination that drive anxiety and depression. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.