Every day unwanted thoughts enter our minds: “What’s wrong with me?” “I keep doing this to myself,” “I’m stupid,” “I’m all alone,” “I never get a break” and “How will I ever get out of this?”‘ ‘Our minds are vulnerable to negative thoughts, causing us doubt, worry, anxiety—and frequently, it’s the same negative thoughts that return over and over.
Repetition is a sign that you need to change. A part of you is calling out to get your attention. These thoughts are like having a rock in your shoe. It’s not reasonable to ask the rock to quit hurting you or to see it as your enemy. The pain the rock causes is only asking for a remedy.
The first step is making a decision, one that only you can make: to walk away from the false solutions and futile tactics that have kept you stuck in your mental misery. It’s not the thoughts that are making you miserable; it’s the lack of a viable strategy.
Psychologists have asserted for decades that there is a huge difference between having a negative thought and turning it into action. Yet this lesson never seems to sink in. Thoughts are just fleeting mental images. They have no consequences until you choose to make them important. Let’s look more closely at the five choices that will help you take the mental rock out of your shoe.
1. Turn Negativity into Positive Action
If an obsessive thought is a cry for help—and it is—bring the help that’s asked for. You wouldn’t neglect a crying child, yet we all neglect our negative thoughts, which are the mental equivalent. Let’s say you are in a difficult situation and you start thinking, “What’s wrong with me?” or “How will I ever get out of this?” Acknowledge that you are feeling scared, which is the real event occurring in your mind. Don’t push the anxiety away. Take a break and walk away from the immediate stress. Sit quietly and take some deep breaths. Do your best to centre yourself.
Once you feel calm enough to address the situation, make a plan. Write down the possible steps you can take that will be positive, achievable actions. (The point here is to use the rational side of the brain rather than giving in to runaway emotion.) Once you have your list, put the positive actions in order of which to do first, second and third. Now take the first step. Turning an emotional event inside yourself into a set of rational steps is one of the best ways to rise above the level of the problem to the level of the solution.
2. Get a Healthy Outside Perspective
If a negative mental habit—like feeling insecure, scared or helpless—has been with you for a while, you need to check if your plan for action is workable. Seek outside validation. Go to someone you trust, preferably someone who displays the qualities you want to acquire (e.g., a firm sense of self, a lack of fear and plenty of self-reliance), and discuss the practical things you intend to do. I’m not talking about the kind of adviser who says things like “Get over it,” “Everyone feels that way” or “Poor thing.” Such statements are copouts. Seek someone who genuinely empathizes and can validate your plan to change.
3. Don’t Indulge in the Level of Futility
We’ve already discussed our propensity to keep doing what never worked in the first place. But futile tactics are insidious. They keep coming to mind over and over, despite their record of failure. The difficulty is that you have wired your brain, setting down a groove that is all too easy to fall back into. Grooves can be erased only by forming new grooves.
If you find yourself falling back into self-defeating thoughts, stop and say, “That’s how I’ve been approaching the problem. And it doesn’t work.” You will have to do this more than once, and yet each time is useful. The more you stop indulging the level of futility, the more mental energy can be devoted to new tactics. Please note, I’m not saying that you should fight your old mental habits. That’s a recipe for more misery, as all wars are. Your aim is simply to notice what doesn’t work, which is a form of mindfulness or self-awareness.
4. Expand Your Awareness
When the mind is constricted, it becomes like a tight muscle—you can’t expect it to move as long as it’s cramped. The things that constrict the mind: old conditioning, outworn beliefs, ritualized thinking, habit, inertia, fear and low expectations. These are challenges you need to confront as honestly as possible.
Having a closed mind doesn’t feel good, so whenever you detect any kind of inner discomfort, the first tactic should be to expand your awareness. Let’s say that you feel resentment toward someone else. Clearly, that is a contracted mindset. If you were more open-minded, you’d start to tolerate that person, see their good side, and stop waiting for something new to blame and dislike them for.
In and of itself, open-mindedness solves all kinds of problems that are the result of narrow-mindedness. But to achieve it, you need to stop believing that being stuck, judgmental, opinionated and self-important ever works. You must learn to know yourself better, to follow the model of tolerant people rather than prejudiced ones, to turn away from victimization and so on. For years I’ve recommended meditation as the most effective way to expand awareness. Also useful are mindfulness, self-reflection, prayer, contemplation and counselling.
5. Take Full Responsibility
Your mind encompasses the best of yourself and the worst. It holds the greatest promises and the greatest threats. Our minds create our reality. Once you face this fact, it can be overwhelming. We all secretly want to escape responsibility for creating the situation we find ourselves in. We don’t want to face painful truths. Change feels like risk. Our minds are used to projecting blame and judgment upon others. So much promise goes unfulfilled this way. In truth, the power to create your reality, which begins by building a mature self, opens the way to life’s greatest joys.
6. Develop a Higher Vision of Your Life
It would be sheer drudgery if you took responsibility for only the bad things in your life. You are also responsible for the good things. If you have a vision for yourself, you can aim higher. The good things become more meaningful because you are heading for long-term fulfilment. This is much better than a string of short-term pleasures, nice as they may be. People without a vision can amass a lot of small pleasures. This kind of immediate gratification is everywhere in our society; distractions are a multi-billion-dollar business. Look at your daily quotient of idling around the Internet, video games, channel surfing, movies, snacking, shopping, and merely hanging around.
These distractions are hangovers from adolescence, when immaturity was a natural state. They drop away when life moves on and you undertake the project of building a self. The point isn’t to become self-serious and reject having fun. The point is to aim for higher satisfactions that last. By developing a vision of what your life is about, you are asking, “Who am I?” and then turning your answer into positive actions.
7. Make Full Use of Your Successes
We began with the universal problem of mental misery, tracing it back to the mind being an enemy instead of an ally. When you start making your mind into a friend, each step forward needs to be reinforced. That’s how the brain gets new neural pathways that last. Without reinforcement, your successes will seem to float away while your problems will seem to stick around. In reality, negativity has no power to defeat positivity. Both forces exist in everyone’s mind. The real issue is to bring in as much light as you can. Negativity acquires its power through repetition, being unconscious, judging yourself and focusing on setbacks. Positivity gains its power by celebrating our successes, associating with people who are good role models, learning to be emotionally resilient, being objective about your situation and, above all else, acquiring self-awareness.
I realize that I’ve set out a plan for overcoming mental misery that sounds daunting if you are used to following futile tactics—most of which only postpone the day when you make a tremendous discovery, that you are not life’s victim or fate’s pawn. But you are the creative centre of your own existence. The greatest power we have is the power to create reality. Mental misery denies you that power. Taking positive steps to turn our mind into an ally is the escape route everyone has been seeking for centuries. The essence of wisdom is to see that there is always a solution once you realize that the mind, which seems to create so much suffering, has infinite potential to create fulfilment instead.