Why Trying To Control Your Thoughts Creates More Mental Misery (And What To Do Instead)
Let’s face it: our thoughts and feelings are our best partners and, at the same time, our worst rivals! Every one of us experiences moments when our brain has a mind of its own, making it necessary to deal with all sorts of complex thoughts and feelings.
Negative feelings can be about us, others, our circumstances, the world in general, the past, and the future. Situations and other people’s interactions with us can cause and reinforce emotional states such as distress, low self-esteem, personality hatred, depression, and anxiety.
But is trying to control our emotions really helping us in these challenging times to keep calm, be less anxious, and better prepared to solve problems or achieve our goals?
I think not, and I believe that the many (often well-intentioned) control strategies not only don’t help but can worsen your situation.
Read on to discover what helps when you’re losing your mind.
Pessimistic thoughts and destructive feelings lead to unconstructive behavior! Really?
Many say that, e.g., if you always say ‘I am worthless’, you are apt to fall into a depressed mood and isolate yourself from people, so they don’t see how useless you are.
Then, if you are alone, frustrated, and unhappy, you are more prone to negative thoughts. Your attitude affects how you feel, and your loneliness means you’re not around people who might explicitly or implicitly challenge your self-assessment. Thus, you end up being trapped in a vicious cycle.
Challenge your mind to stop your destructive thoughts and feelings
The same people will likely say that eliminating pessimistic feelings through various exercises leads to more positive moods, self-confidence, a more positive lifestyle, and healthier relationships.
And how are you supposed to stop your destructive emotions? By challenging them in your mind.
The idea is that you had these feelings because you lost control of your brain. So an analytical look at your feelings by sticking to concrete, factual squads is supposed to help you make sense of them without triggering destructive emotions.
For example, instead of saying, ‘I’m so bad with people that it’s my fault I don’t have a girlfriend’, say, ‘I haven’t found love yet because I haven’t met anyone who’s right for me.’
Mind control by questioning how valid, genuine, and rational it is
A typical mind control advice is to challenge your thinking by questioning how valid, genuine, and rational it is. Several types of questioning can be used individually or in combination.
Here are some of the most common proposed questions to ask yourself:
- Do I have enough details to come to this conclusion? If so, stop thinking negatively and get the facts.
- Given all the facts, have I reached a reasonable and balanced point of view? If not, what would be a fair and balanced, more accurate way of thinking?
- Did I underestimate my chances because of my fear?
- Did I underestimate my ability to deal with a potential difficulty?
- Plus: by answering various what-if questions, you may create opportunities that can help you reduce your distress.
And here’s the trick: once you have analyzed and challenged your views, you should replace them with more constructive, logical, and objective thoughts.
Apart from the emotional relief this is supposed to bring, it is believed to improve your attitude and self-esteem as you talk more positively about yourself and your condition.
‘Just go for a walk!’ or ‘Sit down and meditate!’
Another common piece of advice is to temporarily distract yourself from your thought process with another task – go for a walk, watch a funny movie, or call a friend – or with positive self-talk like ‘Be happy for a few things that you can always take for granted.’
Or how about meditation? Over the years, for more and more people meditation has become the go-to method to try to calm their minds and regain hold of their emotions.
This all sounds very plausible, doesn’t it? But is it possible to replace pessimistic feelings with positive ones by questioning them or improve your mood by distraction?
We consider our destructive thoughts and feelings as evidence of the truth
I can understand where all this well-meaning advice is coming from. It’s indeed a problem that we tend to look at our destructive thoughts and emotions as evidence of the truth about ourselves or our circumstances. For example, ‘I feel terrible, so I must have done something wrong’, or ‘I feel so negative that I must be a bad person.’
Don’t get me wrong! Distracting yourself from your headspace with a good movie or a walk in the fresh air may sometimes be exactly the right thing to do.
However, the key question about how we respond most effectively to our difficult, internal experiences is whether our actions will help us in the long run, not just provide short-term relief.
What did it cost you?
Think about how many of these methods, like challenging your thoughts or distracting yourself from your internal struggle, relieve you of your pain in the short term but keep you stuck or make your life worse in the long term. None, a few, most, or maybe even all? Take your time and think about it thoroughly.
If they really help you, then that’s great. However, if you’ve invested a lot of time, effort, and energy (and maybe even money) in trying to change, avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, and it didn’t make your life better long-term, then it’s time to change strategies.
Negative thoughts and feelings are normal
Many people believe that happiness is our natural state. But that’s not the case.
Our natural state is that we experience a constantly changing flow of thoughts and feelings – both pleasant and painful – that vary throughout the day depending on where we are, what we are doing, and what is happening.
You can compare your feelings and sensations to the weather: they constantly change from moment to moment.
So if we want to live a fulfilled life, we actually need to feel the full range of human emotions: the pleasant ones – like love, joy, and curiosity – and the painful ones – like sadness, anger, and fear. All these emotions are a normal, natural part of being human.
The key is to learn to let your emotions come and go without holding on to them, rather than suppressing them when you don’t want them (by the way, the thought of ignoring something never works; you naturally think about it whenever you try not to worry about something).
Here is how to do it.
Learn to open up and create space for your thoughts and feelings
So first, let’s consider what thoughts and feelings actually are: they are nothing more than mere words and ideas that your mind conjures up. Of course, you can, but you don’t have to accept these ideas as the plain truth – the decision is yours!
Therefore, learning to open up, create space and take them as they are (and only follow them if they’re helpful to you) is a necessary first step.
The benefit of such an accepting approach towards your challenging inner experiences is that it ends your internal struggle and saves a lot of energy, which you can use to do what’s truly important to you.
Unfortunately, we often reinforce the impact of our negative thought patterns on our behavior because we fail to notice them. So to let go of struggling with your thoughts and feelings, you first need to catch yourself in the act by learning to be more mindful of your thought processes.
Stay in the present
Instead of constantly brooding over the past that you can’t change and dreaming into the future you can’t foresee, rely on the here and now, the most current state where you can cope and your feelings can follow.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to practice a quick grounding exercise, such as sitting on a chair and focusing on how your feet feel when they touch the surface. This will help you tune in and relate to what you are doing right now.
Pause and take a deep breath
Once you have given your out-of-control thought or feeling space, take a few deep breaths. Focusing on your breathing helps you detach from what’s happening in your mind.
Don’t try to control your thoughts and emotions, but observe them as they occur without judging them.
Remember, the human brain is an extraordinary organ, able to create, remember memories, and search for ideas in an instant, and you can never control every thought.
So it’s not about eliminating unpleasant thoughts and feelings; it’s about creating space and letting them flow freely while not getting entangled in their story.
Be a little patient
Studies suggest that it takes 90 seconds for neurochemical stimuli to fade from the brain and return to normal brain chemistry, so focus on your breath for about 2 minutes.
Learning to open up to your thoughts and feelings, the positive and the negative ones, is a process that needs to be mastered and practiced like any other. But, over time, you will become stronger and better able to notice and allow your challenging internal experiences to be.
And then you will find that they are much less scary than before because they are just concepts that your mind is used to conjure up.
Always keep in mind that there are a lot of things you can’t influence. So don’t be obsessed with things you can’t control, like other people, the weather, or the media.
If you are worried about something you cannot control, remember that you can manage your response to what’s happening – so focus on your actions.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t strive to influence the world around you, but that you realize that you will still have the best influence on your actions.
A Simple Way To Regain Control Over Your Racing Mind At Night (And During The Day)