What happens if you wake up in the middle of the night with a racing mind full of unpleasant thoughts and try to go back to sleep? Do you try to push your thoughts away by distraction? For example, you check the latest news or messages on your smartphone, read a book, or get up to distract yourself with some tedious activity. If it works, you go back to bed tired and fall asleep soon.
But what if it doesn’t work? What if the unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or sensations reappear as if they were waiting for you in bed? This indicates that your control strategies are failing, and it is not a surprise. We all know that sleep is an unconscious process in which many of our well-thought-out control strategies simply don’t work.
This is not only true for sleep but all our mental processes. Think about it: How many times have you tried to think more positively about things, and yet the negative thoughts keep coming back?
Our mind’s priority isn’t positive thinking
The successful evolution of our mind is not based on thinking primarily positive about pleasant things, but on ensuring our survival. And that meant, first and foremost, continually looking out for potential dangers and attackers. Our mind is doing exactly what it has been doing for thousands of years: protecting us from threats, and that inevitably involves producing a lot of unpleasant thoughts, whether we like it or not.
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Yet we all grow up with the message that we should be able to control what we think and feel and change it to more positive thinking and feeling. This message is so deeply rooted in our culture, and we hear it always, even from those who are experts in dealing with our psyche. Most psychiatrists and psychologists claim that we feel better and calmer when we question our negative thoughts or feelings and replace them with positive ones.
We have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we think
The truth is that we have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we would like. It’s not that we have no control, but it’s much less than many experts are claiming.
Also, it’s not that our control techniques have no effect; they can often make you feel temporarily better. But in the long run, these strategies will not help you eliminate your negative thoughts and feelings such as anger, fear, sadness, insecurity, and guilt. They may disappear for a while, but then they come back. And then they disappear again, and then they come back again, and on and on it goes.
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The widespread belief that we can get rid of our negative thoughts and feelings is the very reason for many of our problems and dissatisfaction because most of us feel inadequate when we fail to control our thoughts and feelings. This belief leaves us stuck in a battle that we can never win: the battle against our own human nature.
Why don’t we have much control over our thoughts and feelings?
Our mind is truly amazing. It enables us to make plans, invent new things, coordinate actions, analyze problems, share knowledge, and imagine new futures. With our minds, we can shape the world around us and adapt it to our desires, to provide us with warmth, shelter, food, water, sanitation, and medicine.
Not surprisingly, this astounding ability to control our environment raises high expectations of control in other areas as well. If we don’t like something, we successfully figure out how to avoid it or get rid of it. Too much noise where you’re living? Avoid the noise by using earplugs or even moving to another place. Can’t sleep because your mattress is uncomfortable? Get rid of it and buy a new mattress. Don’t like your current haircut? Go to the hairdresser and change it.
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So in the physical world, our control strategies generally work well. But do they also work in our inner world, the world of thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations? Can we avoid or get rid of those we do not like?
Try not to think about your favorite chocolate
Let’s do a little experiment: If I ask you not to think about a banana, what comes to your mind? Right, a banana! Or this one: Don’t think about your favorite chocolate. Yes, don’t think about its flavor and its texture. How does it go?
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Here is another experiment: remember your last vacation. Picture it in your mind. Do you have it? Okay. Now delete it! Erase this memory so that it can never return to you. How did you do? Just check again to see if the memory is really gone.
These are just some simple examples, but hopefully, they show you that thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories are just not so easy to control.
“There is nothing to be afraid of”
Remember hearing this sentence from your parents or caregivers when you were young? It’s well-intentioned, but it also reveals that we were taught from an early age to control our feelings. “There is no need to cry” or “Get over it” or “Move on” are other messages indicating that we should be able to turn our feelings on and off at will, just as you would turn a switch on and off.
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And when you look around, it seems like most people have their thoughts and feelings under control. But that’s just the surface. Most of us merely don’t openly or honestly admit the struggle we are waging with our thoughts and feelings. We “put on a brave face” and use our various control strategies to pretend to be happy and content.
But if we were honest with each other, many of us would say things like, “If my friends and family could hear me now, they would never believe it. Everyone thinks I’m so strong and happy.”
What are the common control strategies?
The most common control strategies can be divided into two categories: fighting strategies involving wrestling with and suppressing unwanted thoughts and feelings, and escape strategies include hiding or distracting from these unwanted thoughts and feelings.
So you may push your feelings deep inside, or you hide away from people, places, situations, or activities that cause uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Have you ever dropped out of a course or canceled a social event to avoid feelings of anxiety or unworthiness? That’s exactly that – a control strategy which gave you some short term relief.
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It may also be that your control strategies are mainly tied to your thinking, including excessive worrying, dwelling on the past, fantasizing about the future, or imagining escape scenarios like leaving your job or your partner.
When can control strategies become problematic?
If you use any of these strategies moderately only in situations where they work, and if they do not prevent you from doing the things you value, they aren’t a problem. But if they are used excessively in situations where they cannot work, they can become problematic and sometimes even harmful.
For example, if you have lost a loved one, you will grieve. The grieving process has different phases during which various challenging thoughts and feelings emerge. That’s natural. If you distract yourself or avoid these experiences by building bad habits like drinking too much alcohol or heavily relying on tranquilizers, you are in trouble.
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Because no matter how hard you try to push your feelings away, deep down, they are still there. If suppressed, they will keep encouraging you to repeat your destructive habits. And one day they may come out so intensely that your suffering will increase even more so and you’ll face more severe conditions like a long-term depression.
How much control do we have over our thoughts and feelings?
As I said before, it’s not that we don’t have any control over our inner world. The amount of control we have over our thoughts and feelings depends mainly on how intense they are and our situation. Generally, the less intense the feelings and the more stress-free the situation is, the more control we have.
For example, if we deal with typical everyday stress and find ourselves in a safe, comfortable environment such as our house or a yoga class, a simple relaxation technique can calm us down immediately.
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But the more intense our thoughts and feelings are, and the more stressful the environment we are in, the less effective our control attempts will be. For instance, imagine trying to feel utterly relaxed while going to a job interview or arguing with your boss. While you can pretend to be calm in such situations, you won’t feel relaxed, no matter how much you practice your relaxation techniques.
We have more control when things aren’t that important
We also have more control over our thoughts and feelings if the things we avoid aren’t too important for us. For example, if you avoid cleaning out your closet, it’s probably quite easy to distract yourself from it because it’s just not a significant factor in your life.
But imagine you suddenly detect a lump or area of thickening under your skin, and you avoid going to the doctor. Would it be easy to distract yourself from that? Sure, you could watch a movie or meet up with friends to stop thinking about it for a while. But sooner or later, you will inevitably start worrying about this lump because the consequences could be severe if you don’t act.
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So because many of the things we avoid are not so important, and because many of our negative thoughts and feelings are not so intense, we find that our control strategies often work and make us feel better, at least for a while. Unfortunately, this leads us to believe that we have much more control than we have.
What are the costs of our attempts to control our thoughts and feelings?
Our attempts to control our thoughts and feelings have three high costs:
- They take up a lot of time and energy and are usually ineffective in the long run.
- We feel stupid, faulty, weak, and lacking willpower because the thoughts/feelings we want to get rid of keep coming up.
- Many strategies that reduce unpleasant feelings in the short term reduce our quality of life in the long run.
These unwanted results lead to more unpleasant feelings and, thus, to even more attempts to control them. It’s a vicious circle of constant efforts to avoid, escape, or eliminate unwanted thoughts, feelings, and memories, making their effects even more harmful and costly. Therefore, avoidance is a major cause of depression, anxiety, drug, and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, and various other psychological problems.
In a nutshell, the more we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, the more bad feelings we create.
Exercise: How to determine the cost of avoidance
There is a simple 4-step-process of how to determine the cost of your unhelpful control strategies:
First, ask yourself which thoughts and feelings you would like to get rid of. Be specific and write down these thoughts and feelings.
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Next, take a few minutes to write down a list of all the things you have tried to avoid or get rid of these unpleasant thoughts or feelings. Try to remember every strategy you have ever used, like for example
- avoiding people, places, or situations where the feelings occur
- distracting yourself by focusing on something else (e.g., watching TV or Netflix, smoking, eating, or shopping)
- numbing your feelings by using (prescription) drugs, alcohol, excessive sleeping
- arguing with your thoughts (“Come on, it’s not that bad”)
- bullying yourself (“I’m such an idiot!”) or blaming others
- using visualization, positive affirmations or reading self-help books
- seeing a coach or therapist or discussing it with friends
- postponing important decisions or essential changes
- throwing yourself into work/socializing/hobbies/exercises
Once you have done this, go through your list and ask yourself the question for each item:
- Does it make my painful thoughts and feelings disappear in the long run?
- What did it cost me in terms of time, energy, money, health, relationships, and vitality?
- Has it brought me closer to the life I want?
Do not rush this exercise; take your time, and think about it seriously.
Focus on control strategies that reduce the quality of life in the long run
If you do this exercise thoroughly, you will probably discover three things:
- You may have invested a lot of time, effort, and energy to avoid painful thoughts and feelings.
- Many of the strategies you have tried have made you feel better in the short term, but you have not gotten rid of your painful thoughts and feelings in the long run.
- Many of these strategies have had significant costs in the form of wasted time, wasted money, wasted energy, and adverse effects on your health, vitality, and relationships. In the short term, they made you feel good, but in the long run, they reduced your quality of life.
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If your control strategies have not caused high costs or have brought you closer to the life you want, then, of course, they are not problematic, and you do not need to stop them. You only need to be concerned about control strategies that reduce your quality of life in the long run.
Focus on your actions
Keep in mind that this is not a one-time activity. It is essential to increase your awareness continually and to notice all the little things you do every day to avoid or get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings, and recognize the consequences. Spend a few minutes each day thinking about them. You may also want to keep a diary. Journaling is an excellent way to sharpen your awareness and to identify your thought and behavior patterns.
Does this mean that you simply have to accept bad feelings and have a life full of pain and suffering? No! We may not have so much control over our thoughts and feelings, but we have an enormous amount of control over our actions. And there are some practical ways (you can read about here) on how to deal with your unwelcome thoughts and feelings that help to take away their power so that they have less influence on you.