Dealing with Unwanted Thoughts and Negative Narratives
(spoiler alert: it’s not about positive thinking)
It’s amazing how just one thought can change a day. Actually one thought can change an entire lifetime. Consider this: let’s say you have a pervasive thought like, “I am not that smart”. If left unchecked, that thought’s persistence turns it into a belief, and your fidelity to that belief turns it into a narrative. Then that narrative shapes your actions, which in turn shapes your life.
That one thought will spawn a life where you risk less, show up ambivalently and downplay your strengths. You will make choices that align with ‘not that smart-ness’ and surround yourself with people who treat you like you are not that smart. Those people will shape your life in significant ways and create conditions that reinforce that indeed you are not that smart. You may then encourage your children to believe the same, not through what you tell them, but how you live and what you model. And thus a legacy of ‘not that smart’ is born, and generation upon generation abides by this embodied and manifested sense of mediocrity.
The entire world started with a thought, an idea…from the wheel to the atomic bomb to the electric car. So being aware of the thoughts we entertain and knowing what they can create, helps us to avoid self-sabotage. It is also an essential part of deliberately cultivating happiness, wellbeing, and creating a life of meaning. While we are not responsible for the thoughts that pervade our mind (who knows where they come from?), we are responsible for what we do with them.
Some negative thoughts and beliefs are obvious when they appear in our awareness. If we’ve cultivated some level of self-awareness through mindfulness practices, when they show up we see through their deceit. But some thoughts and beliefs are so deeply embedded and ingrained into our psyche that we don’t even know we are operating through them. More than likely, these are historic imprints passed down from our ancestors as noted above. So instead of discovering them as thoughts, you might start to discover them through the patterns that emerge in your life. For example, is there a theme of betrayal in your relationships, or perhaps your entrepreneurial endeavors always flop, or your constantly feel unheard and misunderstood? Chances are you have a core belief that is perpetuating throughout your life. In this case it may be something like ‘I am not deserving of love’. Your rational mind might do a voiceover at this point and say something in response like, ‘of course you are deserving…’ but your life reveals that you believe something else.
When you discover limiting (or sabotaging or catastrophizing…) thoughts and beliefs, what do you do about them? Let’s start with a short list of what not to do with them below. Every one of these strategies only further embeds them into your psyche: [EMMA — please note indentation]
Ignore them — yeah, ignoring anything never works.
Numb them — often uncomfortable sensations arise alongside these belief systems. In order to deal with the discomfort, people often numb themselves with TV, social media, alcohol, shopping and the like.
Argue with them — watch your inner dialog if you find yourself wrestling with a negative thought. For example, let’s say you believe the thought, ‘I am not enough’, in response you mind might retort attempting to eradicate the belief, ‘Yes I am too enough! Just look at all I did for the football team in high school.’ Or ‘I am enough, look at all the friends I have!’.
Rush past them — the faster you run in your life, the more beliefs you are entertaining.
Overlay positive thoughts on them — this is a tricky one. The Spiritual Industrial New Age Complex loves affirmations. And by themselves they can be helpful to reinforce positive experiences. However, as an antidote administered directly on to the negative belief you are running, it only reinforces that there is a thought that needs an antidote because you still believe it.
The reason none of these strategies work is because you would only do them if you were still believing the thought. If you didn’t believe the thought, there would be no need for managing them in some way. When we still believe a thought we argue with them, overlay a positive affirmation on them, or maneuver around them in some way. The key is to dispel the belief is through transforming it, not through managing it.
Instead, try these practices and processes to transform a negative narrative:
Inquire — The uncompromising spiritual teacher Byron Katie gives us a powerful question in the face of beliefs: Who would you be without that thought? This is not a question to answer cognitively, it is designed to guide you towards an experiential awareness of what it would feel like in this moment to be without that belief. You are meant to stop and drop in and spend time with the somatic sense of that freedom. That embodied experience gives your brain a taste of what is possible absent that thought or belief — that is what unknots the hold it has on you.
Mindfulness — the venerable Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh invites us to practice daily mediation and mindfulness so that we can quiet our usual inner and outer pace, allowing ourselves to become more aware not only of the mental patterns we entertain, but also what is free from it all. He tells us that the energy of loving kindness can be applied to negativity to ‘take compassionate care of it’ thereby transforming it. He suggests doing this by practicing ‘mindful breathing’. When you breath mindfully, he says, you are not ignoring the thoughts or emotions, you are embracing them with loving kindness, and it is only through that compassionate embrace that they can be transformed.
Like Byron Katie’s work, this is not meant as an intellectual exercise, but a drop in to a somatic experience that changes our neurocircuitry.
Meditation and Presence — EQUUS Faculty member Adam Ramcharan is a lifelong practitioner of presencing meditation and facilitates online morning classes each Saturday through EQUUS. “The beauty of meditation in its true sense is that one learns to drop the conditioning which keeps us focused on benefiting or changing ourselves, and simply and naturally appreciate being in the moment,” he says. “Meditation improves your experience of life to the degree that you stop trying to improve your experience. The challenge of meditation is to stay present and cut through the conceptual overlay through which we habitually filter life.” It’s such a powerful paradox, that in resting in a state of ‘not needing to change ourselves’ we transform ourselves. In his Saturday Presencing Meditations, you’ll be gently guided to rest in the here and now without undue burdens and beliefs.
It is astonishing and humbling to learn that such an ephemeral thing as a mere thought can be so powerful as to pilot an entire life, even generations of lives. It is miraculous that there is a possibility to end that cycle and create the life you always deserved. How do you want to spend your one wild and free life?