Emotions are linked to related thoughts and behaviors – have a sad thought, feel sad, act sad. Sometimes we are not consciously aware of underlying thoughts and beliefs, but they are there.
The more these thought patterns have been repeated, the stronger those neural pathways have become. Like a well-traveled path, these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors become familiar. The longer this goes on, the more pseudo-evidence is collected to support them, as the brain tends to filter out anything that conflicts with existing beliefs. There comes a point at which repetition leads to automaticity, and then a comfortable, natural feeling. These beliefs may then exist beneath our level of awareness, feeling like facts that cannot be challenged or changed. The further back in time these go, the deeper the roots.
Our beliefs may feel like facts, however if they are amplifying negativity, they are judgments. Facts are neutral; it is our perspective of the facts that make them seem negative or positive. For example, look back at a time you were upset about something, and then you weren’t. The facts themselves, did not change – only your perspective did. Look at a situation during which people have various and conflicting opinions about – the facts are the same, but perspectives are different. This means the facts are not causing related emotions, the opinions are. The spilt milk does not make you cry, however your thoughts about it may.
At times we may put on a mask to change our behaviors, to hide thoughts and feelings from others, and sometimes even from ourselves. We may do this by distraction, avoidance, or numbing. When the thoughts come back, if they haven’t changed, we feel distressed again. Wearing a mask, stuffing our thoughts and feelings, is exhausting and unsustainable. When we are feeling calmer about something, we have calmer thoughts about it. The difference between wearing a calm mask and feeling calm, is having a different, healthier perspective.
The good news is, we don’t have to wait for this to happen by getting a good night’s sleep or talking with others to hear their viewpoint. We can unstick ourselves because we can use our minds to change our perspectives, to develop healthier thoughts, and to feel better.
It may seem strange and difficult to try to step outside of our own personal fishbowl, to even consider that our beliefs may be false. To do this, we can remember the fact that thoughts and beliefs are rooted in exposure, repetition, our genetic predispositions, and the lifelong fluid interactions of these, and may have little to do with facts or helpfulness.
This process can start with a simple but powerful question:
“Is it possible to look at this another way?”
I love this question, because the answer is always yes. It’s not about changing a negative to a positive, putting on rose-colored glasses, or ignoring emotions. It’s about separating facts from judgments, and developing healthier, believable thoughts about the facts, which may include neutrally stating the facts themselves, validating existing negative emotions, being kind to oneself, having empathy and compassion for others, considering possible alternative directions, and refocusing on efforts and goals. These are some of the steps to close the gap between negative and positive.
After developing these thoughts, it is essential to take deep breaths while focusing on them, and to repeat this frequently and proactively, to strengthen the healthier thought patterns that support related feelings and behaviors. When you do this, you are strengthening new neural pathways – you are rewiring your brain.
It is important to know this will feel weird at first (otherwise known as cognitive-emotive dissonance), but as with learning anything new, the weird feeling decreases with repetition, and the healthier perspective will become the automatic or natural state.
This does not mean the old thought patterns are going anywhere – we can’t replace thoughts; we can weaken identified unhealthy thought patterns and strengthen ones that support us feeling the way we want to feel. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Keep acknowledging the reappearance of old patterns (don’t stuff or mask), know that thoughts about failure are part of the old patterns, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, and keep refocusing towards the new ones. Repeat this as often as possible, proactively.
Unhealthy perspectives and feelings may unnecessarily last for months, years, or decades – or not. We do have a choice in the matter. If you find it difficult to get started, it may be helpful to ask yourself another question to which the answer is always no. “If I keep thinking this way, is it possible for me to feel better?”
This means it makes sense to give it a try. We can develop these skills ourselves, or for more support with this process, we can find a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Newburgh, New York. www.marshamandel.com