Negative thoughts are like termites that chew up and spit out our happiness. Many of us are frequently overwhelmed by such worrisome, anxious, fearful, and hateful thoughts. These thoughts gnaw at the fabric of our life, yet we're often oblivious to basic knowledge that can eradicate this intrusive infestation.
These thoughts often seem reality-based. Certainly, it's easy to believe the content of these thoughts. They seem to capture objectively the nature and extent of our plight. When they overpopulate our mind, they can produce an ugly reality, a self-defeating acting out of our negative outlook and worst fears. We must understand, though, that they represent a subjective, emotional impression rather than any deeper truth about us or our life.
Before getting to the liberating knowledge, let's look at a list of common negative thoughts. (This list is bleak and grim, and we can insert a little levity by reading this section as experimental poetry noir.) I've separated this list into three categories that are explained further on:
A. Negative thoughts associated with inner passivity:
-- No one understands me or knows what I feel; I'll never make it; I can't get started; I'm so weak, helpless, and out of control; I can't get things together; I can't finish anything; I don't think I can go on; I feel like I'm alone against the world; I know I have a serious disease; I'll never be healthy and happy again; What's the point of trying?
B. Negative thoughts associated with our inner critic:
-- I'm no good; My life is a mess; I'm a failure; I'm a loser; I hate myself; I'm also worthless and deserve to suffer; Why can't I ever succeed? How could I have made that stupid mistake?
C. Negative thoughts associated with inner defenses:
My life's not going the way I want it to; I'm so disappointed in myself; I've
let people down; My problem is I'm too lazy; I wish I were somewhere else; I
wish I could just disappear; Nothing feels good anymore; I wish I were a better
person; My future is bleak; It's
just not worth it; Something has to change.
This is just a small selection of what our psyche produces. Hundreds of examples could be provided dealing with rejection, betrayal, loss, abandonment, fear, envy, anger, hatred, and so on.
Studies have shown that "thought suppression" banishes negative thoughts only temporarily. We can't simply make these disagreeable thoughts go away by using willpower to push them out of our mind. Unpleasant thoughts are fueled by hidden dynamics in our emotional life. When we try to use willpower alone, we set up a battle between our mind and our emotions. Our negative emotions often win this battle because our mind, when it fails to access vital knowledge, can't expose the underlying dynamics that produce unwanted thoughts. In this losing battle, we're left feeling our weakness or helplessness even more intensely.
Most mental-health workers don't see the deeper problem. They offer only advice on how to stop these intrusive thoughts ( here , here , here and here ). Some of this advice, such as a recommendation to postpone the negative thoughts until later, is silly and useless. Other advice, such as encouragement to meditate, does have value. Meditation is the practice of concentration and focus. When done skillfully, it's able to quiet our mind and block unwanted thoughts. Yet the benefits tend to erode when daily practice stops. Meditation, in itself, won't necessarily produce a psychological understanding of the vitally important process by which we generate negative thoughts in the first place.
Negative thoughts are the means by which we mentally register our suffering, unwittingly facilitate it, and, through our psychological defenses, try to explain or rationalize it.
The first category of negative thoughts (the A group from the list above) relates to inner passivity. This inner weakness, dating back to early childhood, is associated with feeling helpless, dominated, controlled, and at the mercy of others or circumstances. In childhood, we were indeed quite helpless and powerless in many ways. As adults, an inner conflict still exists in our psyche between wanting to feel strong versus expecting to be weak or helpless.
So insidious is the temptation to experience life through old, familiar passive feelings that we end up plunging unconsciously into this emotional weakness. In doing so, we generate accompanying thoughts that frame our painful experience.
With more awareness, we can apply insight to our experiences. Whenever we become aware of having one of these negative thoughts in the A category, we can expose they underlying emotional attachment by acknowledging to ourselves that, "I'm choosing to experience myself through unresolved inner passivity, and doing so is producing my painful feelings of being weak, helpless, overwhelmed, and a failure."