We live in a society that loves the idea that our thoughts can manifest our reality and “positive thinking” is the cure to depression. We’re told to “just think positive thoughts!” and we’ll be blessed with a life of unwavering success and serenity.
This “positive thinking” setup is a trap. It suggests a few things –
1. That you’re able to control your thoughts.
2. That positive thinking leads to positive feelings which lead to positive experiences.
To address number one, let’s do an experiment to see how well you can control your thoughts. Ready?
Here’s the experiment: For the next minute, think about whatever you want, but don’t think about a pink elephant.
You probably thought about a pink elephant (that’s okay, I did too). As much as we want to believe we can control our thinking, we really can’t. Sure, we can work to consciously add positive thoughts into our inner narrative, but we can’t control the thoughts that come up automatically (which are often negative).
Neurons are firing in our brain every second, and we’re not choosing which thoughts to have or not have. If we could control our minds like that, probably no one would need therapy and I’d be like, an astronaut reaping the benefits of 20+ years of controlling my mind to only have thoughts about science and math. Or whatever.
To address number two, we have to think about thinking and feeling, and how strong their connection to behaving really is.
So let’s say you hate tomatoes. It’s a texture thing. You just aren’t into it. You order all your sandwiches “no tomato, please,” and you won’t go near a caprese salad.
So you’re just strolling about on the street, living your tomato-hating life, when there is, really unfortunately, a zombie apocalypse. You find shelter in the nearest home, which has been entirely abandoned. You start locking your doors and setting up a camp, finding your way to the kitchen – only to discover that this house is entirely empty, except for the bountiful collection of tomatoes these previous tenants (tomato farmers?) were hoarding. You’ve got nowhere else to go and nothing else to eat. Of course you’re going to be feasting on those tomatoes!
Though it’s a silly example, the point I’m trying to make here is that sometimes our thoughts and feelings may inspire us to behave a certain way, but it’s all in context.
We often act like our thoughts and feelings control our legs and feet. For example, “I didn’t make a speech at the wedding because I was scared I wouldn’t be well-spoken,” or, “I didn’t ask her out at the party because I was insecure about how I looked that day.” Having uncomfortable feelings or self-critical thoughts definitely can make it more challenging to take certain actions. But “more challenging” doesn’t mean “impossible.”
Thoughts and feelings don’t directly cause actions or experiences. On paper (or screen), that maybe seems obvious. But really take a moment to reflect on how frequently we act according to our thoughts and feelings. We often don’t even notice we’re having them. They just show up in our minds and shape our perspective. Then, we act according to that perspective. We simply don’t stand up to make a speech because we’re so entangled in the thought that we’re going to mess it up. We don’t even realize that we’re acting like our thoughts and feelings control our behaviors.
But – we don’t have to! We can learn to hold the feeling of nervousness while standing up to make the speech. We can learn to notice that our mind is having the thought that we look bad today and say “yeah, thanks Mind, but that thought doesn’t actually help me ask this girl out, and I really wanna ask her out, soooooo…I’m gonna just not listen to that one.”
Your thoughts aren’t you. You have so much more power than them.