Strong negative emotions suck. Sometimes my mind is a terrible place to be. I can be tortured by worry, jealousy, or anger or insecurity at times. My brain kicks out all kinds of unhelpful things, gut-punch thoughts about how everything I’m doing is a mistake or “they are better than me,” or other such nonsense. Maybe I just can’t stop thinking things I don’t want to think, or I have these feelings I can’t stand.
Well, first, obviously I need to do some work on myself sometimes and do some thinking about the roots and causes of things and unsnarl them. But after or during that work I still have to “handle my own shit,” right? I mean… I have done the reflection and talked at length and I want to be non-monogamous and I want to have adventures and love and passion and I want those things for my loves too, but what do I do with these little lingering thoughts or feelings I run across sometimes as I am working on them?
I stop entertaining negative, hurtful, unhelpful thoughts. I have a bad habit of running a litany of my faults through my mind. Knock it off. Or if I sit there and think jealous and insecure stuff, I feel awful. Stop it. If I keep thinking stuff that hurts me, seriously, knock it off.
But… but it’s so hard.
Daniel Wegner, author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession and the Psychology of Mental Control, has done research that shows it is very hard not to think about something and in fact, this almost guarantees that we will think about it. “The funny thing is that when you're trying not to think about things, you have to remember what it is you aren't thinking about,” says Wegner. “That memory, that part of your mind that's trying to keep it fresh, in a way is going to then activate thought.” He says further “There are a whole range of cases when we become desperate to control our minds. The more we try to control them, the more they do what they want.”
Okay. Fine. How do I control my mind?
It’s a simple two-step process that isn’t easy, but is very simple:
Step 1: get it out.
Step 2: give your brain something better to chew on.
Step 1, by the way, does not mean screaming every horrible thought at unwitting victims. This does not mean telling our wives every horrible thing we think when we are jealous or dialing our boyfriend’s number 27 times to leave alternating vicious and weepy messages when he is on a date. Step 1 can be telling a trusted friend what we are thinking, or writing about it.
Thoughts that are deep dark dirty secrets gain power bouncing around in our skulls. Our brains like to associate thoughts. It’s what they do. If I ask you to say the sentence “dogs are better than cats”, or “red is the best color” in your mind, see what happens. Your brain will immediately go to work giving you evidence of dog superiority or how red has so many uses or is bolder than other colors or makes people feel passionate. This is what brains do. They find associated things and tie them together and trouble shoot and give us examples. So if something bounces around in our heads enough it gathers evidence and support and gets entrenched, even if it’s bullshit. Exposing deep dark niggling little thoughts takes away some of their power. It brings the thought to the level of reason.
Step 2: Giving your brain something better to chew on. This is vital. Just pulling up the thought and saying we’ll get rid of it doesn’t work. The more we wish to will it away the more we actually strengthen it. Holding on to the need to let go of a thought holds onto the thought. It keeps it circling around in our heads. “I will stop thinking about how she is better than me” IS STILL THINKING about how she is better than me. It keeps it hovering there. Unless you are an advanced meditator who is skilled at emptying the mind you are always thinking. You might be thinking about Gumby or saying “la la la” in your head, but you are always thinking. Again, this is how brains work. They are endlessly running there in the background processing everything we see and hear and feel and working out our random thoughts. So to get rid of an unhelpful or damaging thought we have to give our brains something better to chew on. We can’t just stop thinking, (most of the time), but we can choose what thoughts we entertain.
There are lots of practical ways to do this, but here are a few I find helpful. You can think about something positive. Make your brain think up reasons your relationship is awesome or fun things you might want to do together or all the things you like about your body or whatever. Substitute a negative with a positive. Or if you really need to leave the neighborhood of your troubling thought, consider playing a “name 5” game with yourself. Think of 5 of a bunch of things; laundry soap, classic cars, brands of sex toys, words that start with the letter Q.. whatever. Name 5 of stuff over and over every time you catch yourself thinking unhelpful thoughts. Try other thought stopped techniques like math games or Sudoku. Maybe even do something with your body while you think of something else. Jog. Walk. Vacuum the house while singing Motown songs. Whatever. Maybe look up progressive muscle relaxation and do that. (It’s an evidence based practice that helps with troubling thoughts and is VERY effective). There are lots of resources for progressive muscle relaxation, but here is one http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/Progressive_Muscle_Relaxation.pdf.
The point is we CAN control our minds and can use relaxation and thought stopping techniques to ride out times when our thoughts are troubling, and get rid of bad thought habits. Strong negative emotions and thoughts can be triggers to work on things, but they can also just be unhelpful and un-useful thinking that I need to learn to manage. When that is the case, practice a little mind control. Making my mind work for me increases my peace and pleasure. Now having said all that, is it just me or did you hope talk about mind control included Vulcan mind melds or hypnosis?