Have you ever tried positive thinking? You know…Like putting an affirmation on the mirror, or trying to get yourself to relax and look on the bright side when you’re feeling down?
I’ve found that this kind of positive thinking doesn’t really work. It might paper over the feeling in the short term, but you keep falling into the same rut. Over and over. The fact is that negative emotions and stress are really hard to fix. It can seem impossible.
As Mark Manson writes, “when you try to avoid or get rid of negative emotions you gradually disconnect yourself from reality. The key isn’t to get rid of negative emotions, it’s simply to use them well.”
But we keep trying because we LOVE trying to fix things. We see something that’s wrong and our brains immediately leap to the solution. It’s hard not to. If I feel a loose drawer handle, I use my brain to combine experience and the tools at hand to tighten it. But when it comes to the complex storm of emotions coursing through my body, the same logic doesn’t apply. Where do I find a permanent solution? And what tools should I use?
(And you can say the same thing about chronic disease. Fixing–like the attempts made by normal health care approaches, even natural ones, are woefully inadequate.)
Fixing emotions with behavioral therapies or positive thinking can be helpful, but I think we are using the wrong tool when we try. When it comes to emotions (and chronic disease), I think we need to use our brains less, not more.
Weird, right? Why would I want to use my brain less?
When I think less, I can feel more, and focused feeling is necessary to make room for intuition and self-healing. In other words, when I use my brain less, I get out of the way of my body’s subconscious ability to process and heal.
And that’s the whole problem with forcing yourself into positive thinking. I have patients who meditate by identifying a negative feeling or emotion and “breathing light into it” to relax. This attempt at fixing the emotion is well-intentioned and it makes sense, but it’s not helping you heal. You’re taking a naturally evolving process and forcing it to do something different; trying to fix it so that it feels better.
But when you feel an emotion, it’s just the tip of an iceberg. It’s the palpable part of a deeper problem or process that your body is working through. And the best way to respect this deeper self-healing process is to practice Mindfulness.
Emotions are like weather. They come and they go. Sometimes they’re lovely, and other times scary. Joy makes you feel like you’re on top of the world and grief can make you want to crawl into a hole. But regardless of the particular emotion, they are all, like weather, temporary. Your emotions are part of larger, unseen forces in your body that can combine with outside experiences and be carried into your mind and body, and then back out again.
We can use mindfulness to speed along the processing and digesting of emotions. And by mindfulness, I mean putting your brain on the back burner and allowing yourself to feel your emotions without judgement; to notice how painful or sad or mad you are, but not try to fix it.
In my example above, a person meditating in a mindful way wouldn’t try to change the emotion by “breathing light into it,” but rather focus on the emotion with curiosity. Mindfulness is allowing the body’s feelings to remain without trying to change them into something else. And if you do this successfully, you will be amazed at how quickly your emotional weather can spontaneously heal and change.
What do I mean? Try this handout and let me know how it works for you. It’s difficult at first to break the old “fixing” habits, but as you get better at it, you’ll find more joy creeping back in your life.
Soon I’ll post a video walking you through the steps. But for now, consider practicing on your own and let me know how it goes!