The truth about thoughts and emotions is that they are all equal and they are all therefore arbitrary. That is, thoughts and emotions are not inherently imbued with significance, specialness or meaningfulness. They just are. We as humans have an insatiable desire to want to classify and label everything that we come across and we do exactly this with our thoughts and emotions. We categorise and evaluate our thoughts and emotions as ‘positive’, ‘neutral’ or ‘negative’ and it is through this process of categorisation/evaluation that we give our thoughts and emotions much more meaning and significance than they really deserve.
It is this categorisation/evaluation process, rather than the thoughts and emotions themselves, which causes us the most stress and distress. We are indeed the creators of our own suffering and we are suffering much more than we ought to be simply because we have either not been taught how to categorise/evaluate our thoughts and emotions properly or we are not in conscious control of our categorisation/evaluation process. Let me explain more. We are born into the world without language. We are taught language by those around us. Our parents, families, peers, authority/officials (teachers, police, politicians, etc) and media.
If we are only taught language which is imbued with negative connotations (won’t, don’t, can’t, bad, silly, stupid, etc) we become reliant upon this negatively infused language to categorise/evaluate our surroundings, ourselves, others and thus our thoughts and emotions. For example, if we are raised in unhealthy, invalidating, abusive or adversity prone environments, we are less likely to be exposed to situations which we can cognitively and emotionally categorise/evaluate as ‘positive’ or ‘neutral’. This is because our parents and siblings are most likely only using negatively infused language and emotions “Don’t do that”. “Why are you so stupid”? “You’re a loser”. “Go away”. “Lose some weight”. “Why can’t I get ahead in life”?
Consequently, when we are only ever exposed to ‘negatives’, we quickly fall into the habit of unconsciously categorising everything as ‘negative’. If we can be taught how to consciously use positively and neutrally infused language and emotions more frequently, we can begin to categorise/evaluate our thoughts in a much more balanced and equal way. The aim of consciously using positively and neutrally infused language and emotions to influence our cognitive and emotional processes is not to eliminate negative thoughts or to eliminate negative emotions. This is unwise. We can continue to categorise/evaluate some thoughts and some emotions as negative BUT NOT ALL OF OUR THOUGHTS OR ALL OF OUR EMOTIONS.
The aim therefore is to achieve equality between thoughts and emotions because once they are equal, they are no longer seen as special and once they are no longer seen as special, they return back to their arbitrary state. The aim further down the track is to then learn how to detach our emotions from our thoughts (and vice versa) under specific conditions (to recover and heal from flashbacks and trauma memories/thoughts/emotions, etc). The ultimate aim is to ‘re-program’ yourself. I will now list some strategies and techniques that you can use to help you to regain control over your cognitive and emotional categorisation processes and thus help you to achieve cognitive and emotional balance, peace and contentment.
1.Cognitive reframing/restructuring; The aim of this task is to improve your cognitive flexibility. To hep you to see beyond your fixed pattern of thinking and feeling (negatives only). The more perspectives of any given situation you can identify, the greater your ‘odds’ are of ‘hitting upon’ positive and neutral thoughts and emotions. If you are hyper focused on sheep then you are only ever going to see sheep right.
2.Positive affirmations; Positive affirmations are, as the name suggests, statements which are intentionally infused with positive (or neutral) language. Positive affirmations are directed towards oneself or others. Whilst affirmations can be used at any point during the day/night, I find them quite useful to use as soon as you wake up. Most people will find that as soon as they wake up…BAM, they are hit with negative thoughts and emotions. Positive affirmations don’t require much thinking if you have a prepared list of statements.
3.Managing your environment; This is aimed at consciously controlling the cognitive and emotional state of your environment. Again, if you are surrounded only by ‘negativity’, you will find it much harder to ‘look’ for the positive and neutrals. Managing your environment can be achieved in one of three ways. Reducing the negativity surrounding you, increasing the positives surrounding you or a mixture of both. This also involves monitoring your media usage.
4.Schedule negative thinking time; If you have gotten into the habit of negative thinking, it is time to start reigning those negative thoughts in. After all, why should your negative thoughts be having all of the fun? Why should your negative thoughts be getting all of the attention and be allowed to roam freely through your mind whilst your positive and neutral thoughts sit on the sidelines watching but not participating? By restricting how often you engage in negative thinking, you are giving the positive and neutral thoughts a chance to ‘play’.
5.Re-evaluate your language use; Expand your vocabulary. This can be quite challenging to start with. You will most likely find that you rely upon a very small sub set of words or phrases which you rely upon to categorise/evaluate your entire life. Think of it this way… painting or drawing can be much more appealing if we have a vast array of colours or shades to choose from. Word use is much the same. Different shades of words can invoke different ‘shades’ of emotions and vice versa.
6.Practice mindfulness; Mindfulness involves learning the art of arbitrariness. Mindfulness involves recognising and accepting your thoughts (and emotions) as they are without attaching undue significance or meaning to the. Mindfulness requires detached awareness. Mindfulness can be achieved through meditation, focusing on the breath, relaxation techniques and much more.
7.Consider medication; Negative thoughts and negative emotions can have a lasting effect on the brain and nervous system which may require medication prescribed by a licensed and accredited medical professional. This may involve SSRI’s, SNRI’s, MAOI’s, etc. Ideally, medication should a not be viewed as an ultimate ‘cure’. Pharmacotherapy for example incorporates the use of both medication and talk therapies simultaneously. With this approach, medication use is constantly monitored and assessed in conjunction with progress made in therapy.
8.Practice gratitude and contentment; Both gratitude and contentment can help you to reduce negativity bias. You can enhance both of these attitudes/perceptions by using gratitude and contentment journals. The simple idea is that you begin making a conscious effort to identify aspects of your life for which you are grateful and recognising how you can feel content.