Monday, August 30, 2010

Negative Nellie

I saw a statistic today saying over 80% of our thoughts are negative. Now I have to admit, I don't know what kind of study this statistic came from but I think it's probably fairly accurate for most people. I spend a lot of energy trying to counteract this tendency in myself most days! For example, I started today with a lot of crisis phone calls to answer. My thoughts immediately spiralled into doom and gloom: "Oh, this is a great start to a Monday;" "It's going to be a terrible week;" and "What else could go wrong?!" I even told my yoga teacher I was pretty sure I'd have to leave class to answer phone calls at some point. Talk about negativity! That didn't actually happen, by the way, and I felt much more centered after class. If I had turned my thoughts around before they went sour, I could've saved myself a lot of angst this morning.

Apparently negative thinking has been a problem for humans for centuries. It's even addressed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Verse II:33 says "To counteract destructive attitudes one should cultivate thoughts of the opposite kind." That sounds pretty simple, right? We all know in practice that it's not so easy. The first step is actually recognizing the thoughts as they come up. We can't do anything to change them if they stay largely unconscious, wreaking havoc on our emotions without our knowledge! One way to start to observe the thoughts is in meditation. Sitting in silence demonstrates very quickly how negative and ugly our thoughts can be. The goal then is to sit and observe and silently remain unattached to the stream of madness that flows through our brains in any given moment. Eventually the mind is quieter (or so they tell me, I'm still waiting!), and the angry or sad or anxious thoughts don't affect us as much.

Cognitive therapy uses the technique of writing down the thoughts as we notice changes in mood. This allows us to track how the "stinking thinking" brings us down, to recognize patterns, and begin to change the thoughts and behaviors to break the cycle. One of my favorite cognitive tricks came from a psychologist friend of mine: you can't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to a friend. This helps us observe the thoughts (bye-bye name-calling), and forces us to change the thought immediately. This is also hard work! These patterns have taken decades to form, and operate largely without our help. We have to step into the driver's seat and take control, all of the time. It's exhausting. Once again, it becomes pretty obvious how deeply the negative thought patterns are ingrained.

This sounds pretty negative so far... Ok, the good news is that the negative thoughts can be recognized and changed. Meditation and therapy really work. For less serious cases, such as a bad case of the Mondays, we can try Patanjali's route and simply change our attitude. It's helpful for me to recognize the ridiculous nature of my negativity. Of course I'm not doomed to a terrible week, my life will not be miserable because of a lot of phone calls, and a couple of pages don't equal a ruined morning. It's almost laughable how worked up I can get, but it may take me a while to shift the balance. I am constantly working on letting go of expectations of how things ought to be. I'm finding that reduces the negative attitude to begin with, because there is no "should be" to live up to. I will try again next Monday...

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