*Note: The words “thoughts” and “feelings” are used interchangeably within this post.
Negative self-talk: the subtle and gross unkind words we say to ourselves (silently or out loud). Many of us are plagued by this at some point in our lives, if not regularly. There are several schools of thoughts on how to combat this. Today I will discuss two.
Psychological theories explore the idea of naming your thoughts and feelings. This idea goes moves from saying the name of the emotion (which is a good starting point), to really naming the experience. This allows us to face the thought/feeling and for it to become acknowledged, validated – giving ourselves permission to be experiencing it instead of avoiding it because it hurts (as is common with negative thoughts). Isn’t our first step to overcoming a problem, identifying it? This is the same thing. An alcoholic admits, “I have a drinking problem,” and this acknowledgement opens the door for a myriad of next-steps. Why? Because we cannot address an issue when we are not willing to admit its an issue. This requires a level of being deeply honest with ourselves and often naming things we do not want to name because just the thought hurts. But there is freedom beyond this hurt.
Cultivate the Opposite
According to eastern philosophy (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), when we are experiencing negative thoughts or feelings, we can cultivate the opposite. This is called “Pratipaksha Bhavanam.” For example, if you are thinking, “I am stupid,” or “I am scared,” you will replace this with, “I am smart,” and “I am not scared!” This is because thoughts become things. Thoughts MATTER, they are matter. They are real. So, when you say, “I’m scared,” you perpetuate your fear. But when you begin to say “I’m not scared,” you may slowly begin to believe this, and as you believe this it becomes real. Take for example how fake smiling (or putting a pencil between your lips to mimic the action) can trick your brain into thinking you are happy. Why? Because when your mouth curves in that special way, your motor neurons send a message to your brain saying, “I am smiling, therefore I must be happy!” We can do this with our thoughts, too. We can create our own truths about ourselves – you do not have to be a victim to the automaticity, the habits, and the beliefs that your mind perpetuates.
So how do we know when to use what? When will it be to our benefit to Name It, and when will it be beneficial to Cultivate the Opposite when it comes to our negative self-thoughts? I believe it is based on the circumstance. When we need to move PAST or OVER a feeling, Cultivate the Opposite. Why? Because there is a slight denying of our present state of feeling when you are saying the opposite. When you think “I can’t do this,” but instead say, “I got this,” you are denying feeling the former thought. You are not giving it space to exist. This is useful when a particular thought does not serve you and you must overcome it. It’s like saying, I see you, but I’m just gonna step over you and keep it moving. Name It when you must move THROUGH a thought. Why? Because it requires understanding and acknowledging in order for us to investigate it and then to evolve from it. It is like if our physical body aches, we cannot just ignore it or tell ourselves it doesn’t hurt – we inspect for the source, and say “Ah, my jaw hurts because I’ve been clenching it tightly all night – I should wear my mouth guard tonight when I sleep.” When we Name It, we acknowledge its’ existence in order to heal from that very same place. As you can tell, there is room for interpretation between these two. We have to get real with ourselves (or if we have someone we trust that we can talk to) to decide which one will work. In conclusion, when you must go THROUGH a thought or feeling (it requires deeper understanding) to heal, Name It. When you can go OVER, UNDER, or AROUND it, Cultivate the Opposite.
Here is a personal example, scenario: I’m getting older and I would really like to find someone to share my life with – to be in a relationship. This is my desire. To Name It, I can say “I am longing for a relationship.” This is a good start but underneath this longing there is a deeper feeling – fear. So instead, I might name the experience this way, “I am scared to end up alone.” Now what if I try to Cultivate the Opposite? I might say, “I’m not scared. I will not end up alone!” Can you tell which method might be more appropriate here? Telling myself I won’t end up alone will not secure that I will find someone, it will not help me conquer this feeling. Naming it is scarier – it feels much more vulnerable. But this is not a feeling I need to conquer, simply one I need to say, “hey, I see you… And now that I see you, you have a little less power over me.”
Why is any of this important? Because you are not your thoughts. You are sooooo much more. You are not your mind. In fact, your mind has a mind of its’ own and you can decide which way it will go. It can continue automatically as it has been, or you can choose. You can decide which of your thoughts will become things and you can decide how, too. Name It and Cultivate the Opposite are just two beginning tactics toward liberating yourself from your mind.