The Key to Distancing Yourself from Your Negative ThoughtsNone None
I recently led a webinar for Happify on Overcoming Negative Thoughts, where I outlined four strategies for loosening the grip negative thinking has on our minds. This article is part four of a four-part series reviewing these strategies in more detail.
On days when we’re being pulled down by the weight of our negative thoughts, it can seem like we have little control. But equipped with the right strategies, we have the power to redirect and right our minds. We’ve already discussed the strategies of Assess (listening to what your negative thought is telling you that you might need to hear), Distract (focusing your attention somewhere else and letting the negative thoughts fade), and Combat (facing your negative thought head-on and proving it wrong). But if you like a little extra security, there’s one more tool for your kit: distancing.
Acknowledging Our Monkey Mind
It often seems that our thinking defines and colors our entire world. What we perceive and how we tell stories about what's happening to us feel like the foundation of our reality. But our minds are running all day trying to make sense of the complex lives we lead, sometimes getting everything right—but other times, getting it very wrong. Have you ever had the experience that your mind is in a completely different place from you? For example, when you’re in a meeting and suddenly can’t stop thinking about your sister whom you haven’t called in months—or when you're out to dinner with friends and a random memory from your childhood vividly pops into your mind.
In Buddhist practice, there’s the concept that we all have a monkey mind, meaning our minds are constantly flitting about from one idea to another, creating a noisy chaos in our head. Simply acknowledging that our brain works in this way can help us understand that any one thought we hold in our attention is simply the product of this busy monkey mind. And if the thought isn’t serving or helping us right now, we can let it go and distance ourselves from it. While the strategy of distancing can require a little more practice than the other strategies, it is incredibly powerful and worth devoting time to master. In distancing, we acknowledge the negative thought for what it is: just a thought.
Make Observations from Your Lifeguard Chair
A long-practiced tradition to practice letting go of our thoughts is meditation. In most schools of thought about meditation, the first goal is to observe your own mind and to notice the chaos and busyness within. This ability can often take multiple meditation sessions to experience. When I began meditating, I started to envision myself sitting high up on a lifeguard chair, above the thoughts in my mind. Gradually, I was able to watch the thoughts from a different perspective, to see that they weren’t all powerful or necessarily true, but just thoughts bouncing around on the beach below me. Developing that perspective from the lifeguard chair up above allowed me to separate myself from my thoughts, to create distance between myself and my thinking.
Meditating regularly can help you develop the ability to distance yourself from your thinking in everyday life. If you are a beginner and need some guidance on how to get started meditating, check out our two-minute video. Once you know how to meditate, prioritize your practice. Many people find that setting 15 to 20 minutes aside for meditation every morning can help ground them before facing the day. Particularly if you are experiencing recurrent negative thoughts, maintaining a regular mediation practice will be key. And if you miss a day or two, don’t worry. Just get yourself back on track. If you need a little extra accountability, check out Sharon Salzberg’s four-week track, Real Happiness: The Meditation Transformation, or Denise Clegg's Mindfulness Meditation for Everyone track.
Defusing Negative Thoughts
Another distancing strategy is to separate a recurring negative thought from its meaning. Ultimately, it’s what the thought means that is affecting you. One way to do this is an approach developed in cognitive behavioral therapy called “cognitive defusion”—literally to “un-fuse” the meaning of the thought from the words. If you’ve ever repeated a word over and over again until it sounded funny, you were experiencing cognitive defusion. When a negative thought plays in your mind, you might try saying it out loud and repeating it over and over (even if it feels awkward at first), until the words begin to sound funny or ridiculous. You might also sing the thought. I particularly like this strategy when singing an awful thought to a completely mismatched, upbeat tune. Imagine “I’m always messing up, I’m always messing up” to the melody of “Singin' in the Rain.” Writing your negative thought on paper can also help; just getting it out of your head can sometimes give you enough distance to recognize how untrue or unhelpful it really is.
Act Despite It All
Finally, another one of my favorite strategies for distancing yourself from a negative thought is to act despite it. This works particularly well for those “I can’t…”–type thoughts. Even though you might fear something and your mind is telling you that you can’t do it, when you act despite the thought, you prove it completely wrong. I find many of my clients make excuses for why they’re not doing certain things they want to be doing, like exercising more or taking more time for their family. They think, “I can’t make it home for dinner with my family because I have to work,” and the thought persists until the day they leave work in time to make it home for dinner. It’s hard to keep up “I can’t…” when you’ve got “I did…”
Putting It All Together
Across this four-part series, we’ve discussed how and when to assess, distract, combat, and distance ourselves from our negative thinking. It’s important to recognize that the common theme in all of these strategies is understanding the control we have over our own thoughts. Negative thoughts will always be part of our mental lives as human beings. But when your conscious awareness lands on a thought that doesn’t feel good, you can decide how to process it and what to do about it. This power is always yours. When you use this power, negative thinking is no longer the enemy of happiness. It becomes a tool to inform you and help you gain more intention over the way you live your life. We encourage you to live it well.
Derrick Carpenter, MAPP, coaches individuals on living engaged and inspired lives, runs experiential corporate leadership programs, and trains US Army personnel on resilience. He's researched what makes people great in psychology labs at Harvard, Yale, and UPenn, where he received his Master of Applied Positive Psychology.
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