This post is aimed at helping you through struggles. Not of the external variety such as financial stress or interpersonal problems, but targeting those struggles that reside within our own minds. This is about the way that we see and interpret the events that are happening around us. The manifestations of these struggles may be as mild as being in a bad mood or a bit grumpy for a small spell all the way to a full-blown depression that lasts for months on end. While these endpoints are quite different, the same process underlies both results.
On a surface level, you are likely familiar with what this discusses. People may have told you to “search for the silver lining”. Others may have attempted to encourage you by saying that “things are not as bad as they may seem.” Heck, even Monty Python told you to “Always look on the bright side of life.” While well intended and on the right track, these suggestions and advice have likely been ineffective in pulling you out of the negative that clouds your thinking when you are feeling down. Why is this?
Basically, this is prescribing the very thing that is most out of reach to you at that moment. It’s like telling someone who is lost in the desert and dying of thirst to “just drink some water.” When this suggestion is presented without appreciating the difficulty it entails, we are likely to reject it out of hand. This is quite unfortunate, because the wisdom behind the suggestion being offered actually has some value in terms of the behavioral health benefits. I will attempt to dig beneath the surface of what is being said when someone offers this type of advice and transform it from quickly discarded tropes to something that may be meaningful and helpful.
The Power of Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts are like a black hole. Once you have fallen into its depths, there seems to be no escape. This happens in part due to how our memory works. In the interesting book Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough, the author describes memory as working to serve the moment. We may think of memory as a documentary of the past: what has been recorded will be watched and viewed the same way each time. However, that is not the reality. Our memory actually changes each time we recall something based on our current mood and the reason we are recalling the memory. Therefore, when we are in the midst of a negative mindset, we recall and interpret past events from that point of view. Not only are the things that come to mind more likely to be negative events, but we may even recall positive or neutral events in a negative light.
This is the ultimate form of kicking someone when they are down. Not only do we have to deal with our current negative state, but now it seems as if your entire life history has been one great story of woe. It is easy to see how despair may set in if this is what we are experiencing.
It is important to know that this bias happens. It may not be possible for this knowledge to stop the torrent of negative thoughts, but understanding that your current mindset is not an accurate portrayal of reality may be the life saver thrown to you that can help you survive the turbulent waters in which you are currently drowning.
Another aspect that makes our thoughts so powerful is that they guide our emotions. According to the cognitive behavioral model (or CBT, the most widely empirically supported form of therapy), our thoughts or interpretations of events are the things that shape how we feel about these events. We may think that events directly cause our emotions. You can see this operating when people say things like “I was so sad when that milk spilled” and “I was really happy when I got that raise.” These ways of reporting our experience make it seem that the event inevitably led to that emotional response. However, we interpret the things that happen to us. We tend to leave this step out when we report it, in which case it would sound like “the milk spilt and I thought to myself how much of a waste that was and how now I would not be able to enjoy that glass of milk and that interpretation of events made me sad,” and “I received a raise at work and I thought about how it will be beneficial to my finances and represented a recognition of the hard work I have done and that made me happy.”
The interesting thing is that if we are able to change our interpretation of events, it will cause us to feel differently about the event. For example, “The milk spilt and I realized that I could just pour myself another glass and therefore I was only mildly annoyed.” and “I received a raise at work but it seems like it was too small given how long I have been at the company and how hard I have been working so I was angry.”
You can see that our thoughts do much in the way of shaping how we feel about the things that happen to us, either for the good or the bad. This can be an empowering reminder to you when bad things are happening in life. You can do your part to buffer yourself against the negative impact by paying attention to your thoughts and interpretations of these events.
Become a Detective
To alter your thinking, or challenge your negative thoughts, you must practice finding ways to see the positive in situations. This can be quite a challenge, especially if you have already been feeling down or if you are dealing with overtly negative events in life (such as a divorce, death of a loved one, etc.). However, with dedication and a bit of practice, you can become quite good at finding silver linings in even the darkest of storm clouds. You may have to challenge yourself to become a detective who doggedly searches for clues. Again, much of this is about the choice to adopt a positive mindset and then to practice finding the positives.
No matter how dire your circumstance, it is possible to find those things. In the extremely powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl shares his story of being in a concentration camp during World War II. Even in this harshest of worst-case scenarios, he shares how he managed to find even small things to be thankful for. This terrible life experience served as a way to reinforce to him that the one thing that can never be taken away from an individual is their ability to choose their outlook on life.
Learning to be aware of how you are thinking is another thing that requires commitment and practice. It is difficult, if not impossible, to change your thoughts if you are not aware of having them. They often happen so swiftly that it is easy to miss them. But learning to slow down and reflect on how you are thinking can begin to show you the ways in which your negative thoughts may be coloring your outlook and reactions to the events you experience.