In my last two posts I talked about how we’re programmed to focus on negative thoughts, experiences, and emotions. If you missed those, you can catch up here and here or get shorter versions on Instagram.
The amazing thing about knowledge is that simply learning about something changes how you’re affected by that thing. The change isn’t always positive, but there is always an effect. How you’re affected depends on what you do with your knowledge.
Let’s say you discovered that your favorite food was actually harming you every time you ate it. With that knowledge you could:
-Stop eating the food, be miserable every time you craved it, and be mad about not being able to eat it any more.
-Continue eating it, knowing you were harming your body which would make you feel guilty and anxious.
-Stop eating the food knowing you’re making the right choice for your health and discover new foods that you like just as much, which makes you happy.
The knowledge that your favorite food is hurting you doesn’t change but the way you react results in drastically different outcomes. You choose what you do with your knowledge and what you do affects your happiness. You don’t just choose to be happy in the last option—you choose not to focus on negativity and that makes you feel happier.
So now that you know that our brains are wired for negativity you can choose what you do with that knowledge. You can keep doing things the way you have been and keep getting the same results that you have been or you can start thinking in a new way that makes you (and everyone around you) happier.
You’re smart so I’m going to assume you chose the latter. 😉 There are three words I want you to remember: Realize. Reframe. Redirect. Repeat them out loud right now so they stick in your memory. Realize. Reframe. Redirect.
Realizing you are in a negative thought loop is the first step in the process. It seems simple but developing the ability to use your Observing Mind to notice when your Thinking Mind is taking you on a one-way trip to Unhappyville takes practice. Regarding your Thinking Mind as separate from you, like an annoying sibling that is always chattering away and saying things that bug you, but that you love all the same, can help. That way when you notice that your Thinking Mind is thinking negative thoughts you can disconnect from the negativity rather than internalizing it.
When I catch my Thinking Mind spiraling down a negative thought path I usually end up laughing and shaking my head because the things it thinks are objectively ridiculous. I bet you’ll discover your Thinking Mind is just as absurd.
Once you’ve realized your Thinking Mind is trolling you with negative commentary, you can’t just stop thinking about whatever it was worrying over. Not only is it impossible to will thoughts away, your Thinking Mind is doing a valuable job by bringing up things you need to resolve. So, you need to reframe the thoughts to make them beneficial.
You reframe thoughts first by considering whether what your Thinking Mind is saying is even true and if they are, by asking what lesson you need to learn from the thoughts.
We’ll get into determining if your thoughts are true in more detail in the future because it’s a much bigger conversation. (In fact there’s an entire lesson just on this in The Life Manifesto.) For now you can start by just asking yourself if the thoughts are based on something that is actually happening or that you know with absolutely certainty is true.
Are you thinking about things that you know are real or are you creating stories about what other people think/feel/do? If you’re creating stories about other people’s motives or actions you are putting yourself through hell over something you have no control over. Reframe these thoughts by accepting that you don’t know what the other person is thinking, what their motivations are, or what they may do and accept that the only thing you have control over is how you act and react.
Are you thinking about what happened in the past? If you are, you’re reliving something that you can’t change. Reframe it by thinking about what lesson you need to learn, what behavior you need to change, or what you need to do to move on. (Obvs if you’ve had serious trauma, seek professional help.)
Are you agonizing over what may happen in the future? If you are, you most likely haven’t done the work you need to do to create the future you want or you are worrying about something you can’t change. Reframe these thoughts by focusing on what you can do to get the outcome you want and accepting that there are some things you can’t change.
At least once a day my Thinking Mind reminds me that I am going to get old and die and that freaks me the fuck out. I could become obsessed with that fear and live my life full of worry about it or I can make sure I make the most out of the time I have and take care of my body and mind so I age more slowly. I can’t change that I’m going to die and I accept that but I can take actions to make my old age more enjoyable and that reduces the power of my fears about dying.
Once you’ve realized you are in a negative thought loop and reframed the thoughts to either discount their validity or turn them into actionable lessons, you need to redirect your energy to break the thought cycle. You can do this in any way that works for you. You simply need to do something that requires your focus so you can interrupt your Thinking Mind’s process.
You could do detailed work that requires concentration, such as coloring or a crossword.
You could do something physical like pushups or dancing.
You could play with your pets or kids.
You could do something productive, such as cleaning or cooking.
Anything that takes your attention off of the negative thoughts and rewards your brain with positive feelings, either through a sense of accomplishment or feelings of joy, will work.
Don’t try to shortcut this process and just ignore the negative thoughts by numbing with social media and tv binges. If you skip the Reframe step and go right to Redirect, your Thinking Mind will continue to bring up the negative thoughts with increasing frequency and urgency until you deal with the underlying issue or emotion.
After practicing this process for a while you will find that you have fewer, less powerful negative thoughts and will be able to reframe and redirect with much less effort, resulting in an overall happier you.