You Can’t Stop Negative Thoughts, But You Don’t Have to Take Them Seriously
You Can’t Stop Negative Thoughts, But You Don’t Have to Take Them Seriously
Sometimes new clients think the understanding I share with them is too simple, and even long-term clients in a moment of distress can get frustrated and want me to give them something to do rather than point them in the direction of how their experience is created. It is always my intention to help my clients reduce their suffering. I believe the best way to do this is to help them see more clearly the full picture of where their experience comes from rather than giving them techniques and strategies to deal with a very narrow part of it. Trying to manage our experience also has the downside of reinforcing the idea that our upset is a real problem, rather than it simply being the result of buying into the illusion of our painful thoughts. Any technique or strategy used to manage an illusion is only going to make the illusion look more real. Freedom comes from seeing the illusion for what it is.
I understand how real the illusion feels. The thoughts aren’t true, but the feelings that result from identifying with them can be acutely painful. In my twenties I struggled with depression. I found myself suffering tremendously and not able to function. The emotional distress I experienced left me contemplating suicide at times.
When I met my husband Angus, he tried to help me. He had experienced great benefit from reading the book Psycho-Cybernetics. The book provides techniques to help you manage your thinking so you can focus on positive and productive thoughts. This appalled me at the time, but for all the wrong reasons.
My main criticisms were that the book was too simplistic, and it negated my experience. I believed there was something broken inside of me that needed fixing. Real painful events had occurred in my life, and I didn’t think a band-aid of positive thinking was going to help.
Truthfully, even if I had thought it would help, I did not have the bandwidth to practice the recommended techniques. The times when my mood was lowest, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. I felt consumed and engulfed by negativity in a way that seemed completely outside of my control. Where I did find relief was through practicing yoga and meditation. I had an intense two and a half hour daily practice that gave me respite when I did it, but the practice was not sustainable. And of course, the times when I needed it most, I would not do it.
So not only do techniques reinforce the illusion of our thinking, but also, even if they have the potential to help settle our thinking, when we feel badly we are unlikely to use them. It is then common to feel even more discouraged and be hard on ourselves because we aren’t doing what we think we should be doing to help ourselves. It quickly becomes a self-reinforcing negative thought loop.
That is where the benefit of understanding comes in. Understanding does not require any effort. It is just there. Once we see something, we can’t unsee it. I still have the capacity to become upset and experience emotional disturbance, but I no longer suffer in the chronic way I did in the past. I do not experience the same intensity of the lows, and if my mood does drop, I bounce back much more quickly. My level of functioning is not impaired the way it used to be. I don’t loose days to crying, and my work doesn’t suffer.
I attribute this difference to me being less bothered by my emotional experience. I used to be the emotional equivalent of a hypochondriac. I monitored my moods and my emotional state. Any sign of imbalance was cause for concern, and significant imbalance was evidence there was something wrong with me. This hypersensitivity to my internal state reinforced my negative and anxious thoughts. I would become even more stirred up and experience even more emotional pressure and intensity. This often had the end result of me discharging the pressure by becoming reactive — usually with Angus.
Thank goodness Angus in the early part of our relationship lived in the fantasy that he could help me, and believed I would change. Otherwise, I am sure he would have left me pronto. But his desire to help made him very patient and long-suffering. There are numerous examples of me acting out that made complete sense to me at the time, but are mortifying to me now. There was the time I barricaded him out of our apartment by pushing every piece of furniture I could move up against the front door. Another time when I cut up into tiny shards the Polaroids from our first photo shoot together. Then, the incident when I nearly snapped off the turn indicator in his sister’s car. And the infamous episode in our marriage, when I smashed all of our wedding china in the garden, and the neighbor called the police. The LAPD never made an appearance when we thought a prostitute was being attacked on our street, but they did show up for some broken dishes.
My point is I had lots of internal and external data that I used to prove that I was mentally imbalanced and therefore, defective. Consequently, I believed I needed to keep working on improving myself so I could overcome the deficits. I even thought my spiritual practice might remove these deficits, if I would only work hard enough on it and myself. The trouble was I never could work hard enough on my self-improvement. It was never ending.
The difference now is that I don’t care as much about how I feel. I am no longer worried when I feel bad. It is understanding that helps me at these times. I understand my experience is coming from the thoughts I am identifying with. I also understand my experience is temporary. I know it is going to pass. I recognize that even though the feelings are real, my experience is coming from thoughts that are limited and not true. This helps me to ignore my negative thinking more often. Unlike using a technique to try and change my thinking that requires effort, ignoring thinking simply requires the understanding that it is not helpful to pay attention to it.
Instead of examining my negative thinking, worrying about what it means about me, and trying to figure out what to do about it, I can simply leave it alone. When thinking is left alone it eventually disappears.
Even the times that I do get compelled to look at my negative thoughts, and consequently, bring them to life so I suffer as a result, are not so bad. The suffering is more tolerable because I understand what is happening. I know I am the creator of my experience even if I can’t help it. I also recognize that my thinking will naturally settle without any effort required on my part. When my thinking settles I will get unstuck from these thoughts. I will then be able to reconnect with the experience of my innate wellbeing and peace of mind.
It always amazes me how circumstances can look so different to me depending on my state of mind. In one moment when my thinking is stirred up, and I am gripped by negative thoughts, the situation looks dire. As soon as my mind settles, and I get perspective, I realize it is not the end of the world and just move forward.
When I am gripped and caught up in negativity, there is really nothing for me to do at those times. It is not the doing that helps me. It is my understanding that allows me to navigate my human emotions more gracefully and with less suffering. I am not being prescriptive here. I am not telling you what to do or not do. What I am saying, is that for me, the most important thing that has helped me navigate my moods more gracefully, is understanding where they come from. Seeing how they are created helps my challenging emotions shrink down to size, and makes them much easier to ride out.
I no longer feel I need to fix my self or eradicate negative emotional experiences from my life. I understand they are simply part of the human experience and not something to escape.
Wellbeing is simple. It is who we are. We cannot escape it. Techniques and strategies point us outside of ourselves and away from the simple truth that we are okay no matter what our emotional experience is. They keep us caught in trying to manage the content of our thinking to try and have more of the experiences we want. Rather than pointing to the peace of mind that is below the content of our thoughts, to the truth of who we are, that is always looking for ways to express itself and be experienced.
We have wellness at our core. That is our true nature, and the only thing that ever separates us from experiencing it is our thoughts. And thoughts are transitory. They constantly shift and change. When we step back and see the gift that we think, the content becomes much less compelling. I can get all caught up in the petty details of my experience on a plane, but when I step back and look at the principle of flight I am in awe. That is how I feel about thought. When I forget about all of the minutia included in the content of my thoughts and just register how amazing it is that I have the capacity to think and witness my thoughts so I can live this human experience that is pretty amazing. And as a consequence the uncomfortable feeling states that go along with having the gift of thought look more manageable to me.
It also makes me less scared of my experience when I understand I am creating it. It is the difference between being in a nightmare believing it is really happening and waking up from it and recognizing it is a dream. Even if I remember the whole nightmare when I am awake, I am no longer scared by it because I know it is not real.
People will say, but nightmares aren’t real, and real things have happened to me. Those events are the source of my suffering. While it is true real things do happen in life. People die, relationships end, people behave badly and hurt each other. Things don’t work out. All of these things happen and more, and we do have a real emotional experience. Our physiology brings our thoughts to life so we feel them. But the events are not the source of our suffering — our thoughts are. That does not mean we shouldn’t have bad feelings. We will. They are part of the human experience, but understanding where they come from helps us navigate painful experiences with less suffering.
When we understand that the suffering is perpetuated by ruminating on the thoughts and not from the event itself, it helps us to relate to our thinking differently and hold it more lightly. We will create all kinds of thoughts. The content of our thinking is never the problem. The challenge occurs when we don’t see that our suffering comes from our thoughts that are transitory and ephemeral. We get tripped up when it looks like our suffering comes from something real that either needs to be fixed or worse can’t be fixed.
The content of our thinking will always flow through our consciousness. We are designed that way. Thoughts only stick around when we hold them in place. Otherwise they are like a river. The river will have all kinds of content. We will have all kinds of experiences from that content. I experience more gratitude these days from being in the flow no matter what content is being delivered to me, and am spending less time diving into the river thought trying under the misguided notion that it will give me a better experience than the one I am having. And, without any effort on my part the content of my thinking cleans itself up. My river of thinking has much better content these days without me trying to change anything.
No matter what, we can’t get it wrong. We are human, and we are spiritual. In our essence, we are fundamentally okay no matter what happens to us, and the only thing that gets in the way of us experiencing that is our thoughts. Our spiritual nature is not damaged by our human experience. We have the blessing of knowing both — the ups and downs of our psychological nature and the unchanging, permanence of our spiritual nature. We have the best of both worlds.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.