In the Dutch language (my native tongue) a (16th Century) poem exists that -loosely translated- goes like this:
Man suffers most
From the suffering he fears
Yet which never appears
Thus he has more to endure
Than God gives him to bear
The point of the piece is simple: in our minds we often create more suffering than our “real life” situation warrants. I do so; in fact, I’m an expert at it when it comes to financial security. And I’m pretty good at it when it comes to getting older, and becoming frail and ill. Even though nothing in my present reality points towards ANY of my doom mongering having ANY element of truth at all. I sometimes create “What if’s” and “Yes, but’s”, and scary “But suppose that” stories about how “the future” is going to turn out badly in those areas. And I’m not alone.
Why do we do this? Well, many theories exist. Some point to our “neuro-biological wiring”. We are hard-wired to prioritise surviving over thriving. Our brains have a tendency to think about worst case outcomes to be prepared for (and survive!) them in case they should happen. Other theories point to previous experiences and lessons, that have formed how we think about life in general, and now have us a bit suspicious about the future. Other theories again point to personality. Some people seem to naturally be a bit more focused on what could go wrong than others (think: Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh).
The main problem is that we assign too much truth value to our thoughts; we believe them. And resistance against them is often futile; you end up in a debate with your mind about the “truth” of a particular thought. The more down-to-earth and practical question could be: are these thoughts helpful? Do they help me forward, in a way that I believe to be more valuable; more beneficial? Sometimes, negative thinking CAN actually be helpful; in that case, use them to prompt you into action or to improve your situation. More often than not, though, these thoughts kill our joy, and create a miserable feeling inside our bodies. That’s not helpful.
So how do we stop that? Well, that’s tricky, as we can not really “stop” negative thinking -it’s hard-wired, remember. We can only learn to distance ourselves from our thoughts, and to then redirect our thinking in more valuable and beneficial areas. Here are three simple starter-tools to assist:
- Whenever you notice yourself thinking something negative, say “STOP!”. Add “I am having the thought that…” in front of that thought. Even better: “I notice that I am having the thought that…”. And see what it does to your level of “truth” of that thought. So: “this is going to turn out really bad” becomes: “STOP! I am having the thought that this… etc”.
- Name your story. Whatever you are finding yourself thinking about, call it out: “this is my ‘I am going to be financially ruined’-story”; or: “this is the ‘he is going to leave me’-story”.
- In times you are pondering something unwanted, thank your mind. Literally. “Thanks, mind”; or “thanks for sharing, mind”. The idea is to not be sarcastic of facetious about it, but to purely acknowledge what thoughts you are having.
What these -first aid- techniques allow you to do, is to take a little distance from the content of your thinking. It’s about not immediately fusing with those thoughts as if they were the truth, but still acknowledging that you have the thoughts. So, it’s not a matter of running away from them, suppressing them, or fighting them. It’s more about disconnecting from them if they are not helpful (regardless of truth!).
There are more techniques that I will cover next month, which allow us to “defuse” our thinking from any truth-value they may have.
Healthy dissociation from our thoughts is actually a very mindful exercise. It could help you to not feel whatever it is you’re experiencing as intensely. That, in turn, allows you to maintain more of a level head, so your next decisions are not based on strong emotions per se, but more on a clearer vision of what is in your best interest. And that, in my professional view, is a good thing.