As the majority of my clients come to me seeking help with their anxiety, I’d like to offer a detailed approach for working with negative or unwanted thoughts. It’s important to recognize that working with difficult thoughts effectively is a lifelong and daily practice, meaning that large doses of patience are required from the onset. As is always the case when trying to change a negative habit, it takes time, commitment, and persistence. For those of us that are prone to negative thinking, changing this habit takes months, and each time you’re in transition you’ll be offered an opportunity to address the habit at yet a deeper level.
Roxanne wrote: “I’ve been good at thinking my way out of the thoughts and pushing them back down…but I don’t think that is enough anymore.” It’s critical to understand that the practice is not about pushing the thoughts away or pushing them back down. These thoughts need to be acknowledged or else they’ll just keep returning, as Roxanne wrote in her comment. Pushing them back down is just a form of denial and won’t do anything toward addressing the root cause of the thoughts or working with them spiritually.
Here are three categories of ways to address thoughts. All of them can be utilized at different times and, again, all of them require repetitive practice before you notice a shift.
1. Cognitive Approaches
A. Challenge the Thought: When you find yourself thinking something like, “I don’t really love my fiance,” challenge that statement with something like, “Are you 100% sure that’s true?” Fear-based thoughts are not rooted in reality, so when you challenge them by questioning their veracity, they loosen their hold. This method also shows the thought that you’re in control, as opposed to the other way around where you bow down to the thought’s feet thereby showing fear that its in the driver’s seat. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what you say when you challenge the thought; just the very act of challenging shows the thought that you’re onto its bluff.
B. Change the Channel: It’s easy when you’re prone to negative thinking to find yourself stuck on a loop station where all you’re thinking about is the negative. Once you notice this tendency (and noticing it is a practice in itself), you can actively change it. Imagine that the thought is like a television show called “Negative and Catastrophic Thinking.” You’ve been watching this show for a long time, possibly years. The volume and frequency with which you’re watching has been cranked up since you’ve been in transition (such is the nature of transition), but it’s a show that you’re familiar with. It’s probably a show that has been handed down to you for generations, from worry-wart grandmother to negative-thinking mother to you. The baton is passed and now you have a chance to change it so that you don’t pass it on to your kids. So when you find yourself watching this negative show, see yourself standing up and walking over to the television set (a 1950s set without a remote control) and see your hand turning the dial to a new station. Decide ahead of time what show is playing on this new channel: Is it called “My fiance and I on our happiest day together” or “The time I was lying on a beach perfectly at ease and full of joy”? You get the picture.
C. Choose Not to Indulge: The fear-based thoughts are coming from your wounded self. In the language of Inner Bonding, this self was created to protect you as a child from feelings that were too overwhelming for you to handle. Now, as an adult, you must re-train yourself to learn that you can handle your feelings and that it’s not loving to yourself to listen to this wounded part of you that is trying to keep you separate from love. Listening to this part of you is like indulging a petulant child; it only pours fuel on the fire and increases the negativity. When you choose NOT to indulge the thought by challenging it or changing the channel, you’re sending it a clear message that you’re no no longer willing to listen to its fear-based lies.
2. Psychological Approaches
A. There are dozens of psychological approaches that address working with negative thoughts, but the most effective I’ve found is Inner Bonding. Through the six steps of Inner Bonding, I help my clients explore the false beliefs that are infiltrating their minds and creating their anxiety and depression and connect with the core feelings. Once the six steps are consistently implemented, people invariably report feeling significant relief from their intrusive and negative thoughts. They also begin to understand that the thoughts are often an addiction in the sense that they cover-up the core feelings of grief, uncertainty, confusion, disorientation, existential fear, and loneliness that characterize transitions (and life). The question to ask when you find yourself addicted to a negative thought is: “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”
3. Spiritual Approaches
A. Adopting a Spiritual Philosophy: At the center of the worldview inherent to transitions as well as the core of any spiritual belief system is an understanding and eventual acceptance about life’s mysterious and uncertain nature. There’s a basic and natural human need to know and have certainty about life’s most unknowable and uncertain realms. When you address this need and learn to accept the uncertainty, you feel more internal space and freedom and the intrusive thoughts that center around, “How do I know he or she is The One?” start to diminish.
B. Meditation: As a daily and lifelong practice, meditation is about training your mind and working with the thoughts that Buddhists call “monkey mind” or “busy mind.” As the Dalai Lama writes in his book, How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, “In this book I offer you, the reader, valuable techniques from Tibetan traditions which, if implemented in daily practice, lead to mental peace. As you calm your mind and your heart, your agitation and worry will naturally subside, and you will enjoy more happiness. Your relationships with others reflect these changes. And as a better human being, you will be a better citizen of the world.”
A few pages later he says, “I know from my own experience that it is possible to change these attitudes and improve the human mind. Though it is colorless, shapeless, and sometimes weak, the human mind can become stronger than steel. To train the mind, you must exercise the patience and determination it takes to shape that steel. If you practice improving your mind with a strong will and forbearance by trying, trying, trying, no matter how many difficulties you may encounter at the beginning, then you will succeed. With patience, and practice, and time, change will come.”
C. Noticing the Thoughts: Alongside meditation is a practice that can be used throughout the day where you simply notice your thoughts as they occur. You don’t try to change them or alter them in any way, and if you judge the thought you just notice that as well. Noticing the negative habitual thoughts gives you, over time, the consciousness to make another, more loving and positive, choice.
For the sake of clarity I’ve delineated the approaches into three categories, but there is, of course, great overlap between them, and any good therapy modality should draw upon all three approaches. And again, I cannot emphasize enough that any practice you adopt for working with your thoughts is just that – a practice – and requires, as the Dalai Lama writes, patience and time in order to see change.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., pioneered the field of bridal counseling in1998. She has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her best selling books, "The Conscious Bride" and "The Conscious Bride's Wedding Planner," and her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com. She’s regarded as the international expert on the wedding transition and has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all types of transitions.