Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 8)
As we go about our lives, we have a front row seat to a rather curious spectacle—the pageant of our thoughts and our emotions. Sometimes our thoughts are noble, inspired, optimistic and reasonable. Sometimes we feel joyful, proud, ecstatic, calm, curious, and pleasantly surprised. But these positive slices of life often get far less time in center-stage than their negative counterparts. There are far more negative varieties of emotion than there are positive varieties (don’t take my word for it—try to name all the positive emotions you can and then all the negative emotions). And while many of our thoughts are helpful, it is certainly easier to dwell on the negative ones.
Often, the solution provided to us is, simply, “Stop it,” “Don’t feel that way,” or “Don’t think like that!” As if the world is collectively saying, “What’s wrong with you! Feel happy and be positive!” Even the people giving that advice secretly know that it’s not so easy. You can’t control all of your thoughts and your emotions. Often trying to suppress them just makes them worse.
And while you can make efforts to change your beliefs, change your behavior, and correct some of your problematic thoughts, you are going to have to accept that some of your negative emotions are natural and that some of your unpleasant thoughts are unavoidable.
The solution to all of this is acceptance. Stop trying to force some program of censorship onto your thoughts, and instead to acknowledge that while your thoughts and feelings are part of your experience, they are not the most important piece. You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. Your true identity can be found in the choices you make and the effect you have on others.
In a Nutshell:
Much of what occurs within the mind and body is beyond your control. Let your unwanted thoughts and feelings come and go. Instead of battling with them, focus on the choices you have before you and the goals you want to work towards.
How to Use This Idea:
Notice your thoughts. Be aware of your feelings. But also foster your ability not to respond to every thought that occurs or every feeling you notice. Sometimes you can just allow your thoughts and feelings to pass like cars driving past your house. They are there, but just because you notice them doesn’t mean you have to run after them. Similarly not every tiny feeling or sensation needs to dominate your experience. At each choice-point, try to live intentionally, by focusing on your goals and living according to your values—the things you do get a say in.
The Fine Print:
Feelings can be quite painful at times and thoughts can be fairly disruptive. It’s important to learn that you can allow your thoughts and feelings to be what they are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also make use of coping skills—especially in response to emotions that are painful and overwhelming. Breathing exercises, grounding techniques, and self-soothing strategies can be useful for restoring balance. To learn more about these techniques click here.
Also, while you can’t control all of the thoughts that pop into your mind, you can control what you believe. Beliefs can be changed with exploration, experimentation, learning, and consciously choosing more healthy, helpful or logical beliefs (such as occurs in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy). For example, you might have thoughts pop into your mind like, “I didn’t succeed at my goal. I am such a loser.” You can’t control whether or not this thought (and others like it) will occur to you. But this thought might be related to something you actually believe. Do you believe that not succeeding at a particular goal makes you a loser? If you do, you may be able to change this belief by making a conscious decision to adopt a different belief.
What This Will Help You Avoid:
You can use this belief to avoid obsessing on your thoughts and emotions, or falling into the trap of trying to wish them away and only making them stronger in turn. The real world is all around you and to the extent that you are tuned into your thoughts and emotions, you are not focused on reality.
What This Will Help You Gain:
Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a calm, curious, awareness of your situation—whether that is your mental situation or your surroundings in the real world. Mindfulness also requires an awareness of the actions you are taking. To achieve this state your attitude towards your own mind must be nonjudgmental, allowing what goes on there to happen naturally.
Allowing your thoughts and emotions to be what they are will put you in a better position to see the world clearly.
The Source of this Idea:
Acceptance of thoughts and emotions has its roots in Buddhist thought, but in recent times it has been incorporated into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the form of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) which includes a number of techniques to assist with the acceptance of thoughts and feelings while committing to living according to our values and achieving our goals.