Sorrow, grief, anger, anxiety, self-criticism, defeating thoughts: every person I know dislikes these experiences. Most of us at one point or another have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to escape, change and get rid of them. But alas, our efforts typically don’t work and the thoughts and emotions persist, leaving us with a feeling of failure, inadequacy and a sense of being flawed. We wonder; Why can’t I just be happy? Why can’t I change my thinking? What’s wrong with me?
What if I told you it is not our lack of effort or will power that is the problem, but it is because it is the natural way our brains work?
Research shows that thought suppression actually strengthens thoughts. Let’s go ahead and try it out ourselves. I am going to ask you not to think about a specific word. Set a timer for 30 seconds and then try your best not to think about it using whatever strategy you want. With a pen and paper write a tally mark every time you do. Are you ready? Do not think about an apple. Begin.
If you are like almost all humans, you thought about an apple at least once during that 30 seconds and more than likely you thought about it many times. Maybe you tried to think about something else like berries instead of apples as a strategy, and I bet you still thought of an apple. This is a natural and normal brain process. What does this experiment teach us about trying to escape, change or get rid of difficult emotions like anger and sorrow or negative thoughts like “I am a loser” or “I can’t do anything right”? That’s right; these actions make those thoughts and those emotions more likely and at times more intense.
You are probably having the thought so now what do I do? Paradoxically, the most effective way to lessen the impact of our difficult emotions and thoughts on our life is to actually let them be there, open up to them and notice them for what they are – only part of the experience of being human. We also experience joy, excitement, love and have positive and neutral thoughts. Emotions and thoughts change like the weather and come and go like clouds in the sky. Sometimes this happens quickly and sometime more slowly, but if we allow ourselves to open up to challenging feelings or notice difficult thoughts without struggle they will eventually move on without us doing anything at all.
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