Some thoughts on thoughts – the impact of thinking on emotions
When it comes to our thoughts, we sometimes feel as though we have very little control over them and their effect upon us.
Unbidden and unwanted thoughts of all shapes and sizes pop into our minds at all times of day – how irritating it is to get one just on the verge of sleep, right? Sometimes they are formed around an event or an interaction, sometimes around a conversation or even a memory. The thoughts that get repeated and take a hold sometimes form a belief or a set of beliefs about ourselves, certain situations or other people. Just like a little weed that pops its head out of the ground, easy to ignore, until it starts to self-seed all over your garden that is.
And how powerful are those thoughts? Powerful enough to change your emotional state. To make you feel hopeless, irate, joyful, fearful, loving. Our minds and bodies are faithful to one another – if I think it I feel it, if I feel it I think about it. For example, if a shop assistant ignores me I might instantly think that they are being rude, this leads to other thoughts about them not valuing me as a customer, this thought might reinforce a belief about how little that company values its customers – particularly if I have heard other people sharing similar stories. And how am I feeling at this point? Indignant, angry, hopeless. My emotion shows on my face and in my demeanour.
So if I don't want to be feeling those things at that particular time I need to change the thinking that led to them. So, how can we challenge those thoughts? It’s very difficult to tackle them head on without unwittingly reinforcing them. You all know not to think about a pink elephant right? There is also the danger of creating blame for yourself or others and becoming stuck in a downward spiral: “I’m so miserable, I always overreact and think the worse, I can’t help jumping to conclusions.”
So, what would be a more useful way of achieving a more desirable state of mind and emotion?
Let’s start with a simple substitution. When you notice that you are having a thought that you know leaves you feeling exactly how you don’t want to be feeling, try asking yourself a simple question. Is this thought helpful to me, or is this thought unhelpful? Try to avoid labelling thoughts as ’good’ or ‘bad’ because there really is no such thing. Thoughts are thoughts, that’s all. Step back a little and simply ask, “Is this thought helpful or unhelpful?”
Going back to my shop assistant and my initial thought that they are being rude, I will interrupt myself here and ask, “Is that though helpful or unhelpful?” Is it? Well, no. I want to be served and I don’t want to be feeling angry or hopeless. Anger or hopelessness are emotions that I sometimes feel, and they are entirely appropriate in certain situations, however I absolutely don’t need to be feeling that way when I am simply shopping. So, no this thought is not helpful. What would be a more helpful thought? Perhaps a question, “I wonder if they heard me?” That’s a helpful thought, it will make me feel that I have some control over the situation, or, “I wonder if they are having a terrible day?” That’s a more helpful thought because I am feeling sympathetic, I can then understand that it’s not about me, it’s because they are having their own problems. Perhaps I can even help – I feel a bit more powerful again.
So give it a go, the next time you’re are experiencing emotions that you just know are out of proportion or not what you want to be feeling in that particular situation, step back a bit from the thought, substitute an alternative and notice the impact on your emotions. This will not always be easy, but possibly a little easier than being overwhelmed by those unwarranted emotional rollercoaster rides. So try it, go on, see what happens.