Dealing With Unhelpful Thoughts
When we are experiencing moments of pain, challenge, or difficulty in life, unhelpful thoughts are often present.
“What if this never goes away?”
“This is happening because… “
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
They appear like little add-ons, as our mind attempts to make sense of our experiences and protect us from future pain and suffering.
How we deal with these thoughts when they arise can make a big difference in our experience. Often our initial reaction, when confronted with unhelpful thoughts, is to push them away. We recognize that they’re not helpful and we want them to disappear.
But what we invariably find when we pay attention is that pushing unhelpful thoughts away doesn’t help. We're granted temporary reprieve at best. Because when we push something away, it’s still there. And in fact, it often pushes back, amplifying our suffering.
There’s a classic formula that lays out this very predicament:
Suffering = (Pain) x (Resistance)
Finding Another Way
So what can we do when faced with the barrages of unhelpful thoughts that tend to accompany moments of pain or difficulty in life? Is there another approach we can take?
I’m going to outline 3 strategies for dealing with unhelpful thoughts without resistance. The common thread between all of them is the notion of treating thoughts as objects. What this means is creating some distance between us and our thoughts. Treating thoughts as just that—thoughts, and nothing more. The way we choose to deal with our thoughts is ultimately up to us.
Let’s look at these 3 simple strategies for dealing with unhelpful thoughts when they show up.
1. Thinking thoughts through
Perhaps the most direct way that we can deal with thoughts without resisting them is by thinking them through. By not simply taking them at face value, but rather investigating them, we can choose whether we want to listen to them or not.
The process simply looks like noticing the thought and thinking it through instead of immediately taking it on board.
Thinking through the thought, “What if this never goes away?” might look like answering the question with honesty:
“I don’t know what will happen if this never goes away.”
“I’ll deal with it one step at a time, just like I’m doing now.”
Thinking through the thought, “This is happening because…” might look like questioning its validity:
“Do I know that for sure?”
“Is that true?”
“Could there be other factors at play as well?”
Thinking through the thought, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this” might look like checking in on what we know right now:
“Can I do this right now?”
“All I can do is take it one step at a time.”
“If things change, I’ll figure it out.”
Meeting unhelpful thoughts with some objectivity and thinking them through can empower us to choose whether we want to take them on board or not. This is a choice we always have.
2. Allowing thoughts to be there
As opposed to thinking thoughts through, this strategy is much more passive in nature. If the above strategy is like thumb wrestling with our thoughts, this strategy is like waving at our thoughts from across the room.
Sometimes the mere act of engaging with our thoughts makes them seem more real than they are. But at the end of the day, they’re just thoughts. So the more we can let the thoughts be thoughts—without resistance—the less we suffer (per our equation above).
This process simply looks like noting when thoughts come up and allowing them to be there as long as they want.
Let’s say the thought comes to mind, “What if this never goes away?” In response, I can simply say to myself, in my head, “Thinking.” I’m merely acknowledging that this is a thought, and doing nothing more about it.
This doesn’t mean that it will necessarily go away. But I don’t care—it’s just a thought. It’ll go when it’s ready.
Then, maybe the thought arises, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” And in response— “Thinking.”
No matter what comes up, mental noting is always there to pull us back; to give us a little breathing room between us and our thoughts so that we can see them for what they really are. From this vantage point, we can simply wave at our thoughts from across the room as they come and go.
3. Thanking thoughts
This strategy is a bit of a blend between the first two strategies. It’s both direct and passive at the same time. If thinking thoughts through is like thumb wrestling with our thoughts, and allowing thoughts to be there is like waving at them from across the room, this strategy is like giving our thoughts a hug.
Even our most unhelpful thoughts are there for a reason. They’re trying to protect us. They see a threat and want to mitigate that threat. The problem is that they often offer short-term solutions at best. But, just like a child who cannot see the big picture, they are doing their best and trying to help.
So how do we deal with a child who’s trying to help but might be making things worse in the process? We acknowledge their efforts, thank them, and let them know they are loved. We can do the same thing with our thoughts.
We can respond to unhelpful thoughts with kindness, gratitude, and love, responding in ways such as:
“Thank you for trying to protect me.”
“Thank you for trying to help.”
“I love you.”
The most important aspect of this strategy isn’t what we say, it’s how we feel. It matters much more that we genuinely feel kindness, gratitude, or love toward our thoughts. Otherwise, we’re just saying nice things to our thoughts as a way of trying to get rid of them—a mere subtler means of resistance.
Feeling genuine kindness, gratitude, and love toward our unhelpful thoughts isn’t often easy to do, as they can—and do—cause us much turmoil. But it’s important to realize that thoughts only cause us suffering to the extent that we believe them.
Just as we can recognize a child’s efforts to help, yet realize that what they’re doing might not be the most helpful, we can recognize the thought’s efforts to protect us. And for both the child and the thought, we can say, as we give them a hug, “I see you. Thank you. I love you.”
What all three of these strategies have in common is that they help us to see our thoughts as objects. They help us to see our mind as the sky and the thoughts as mere clouds passing through. With this perspective, we can change our relationship with our thoughts and indeed change the amount of suffering we experience by reducing our resistance to our thoughts.
Each of these strategies offers something different and can be selected based on what you feel will help you to deal with the thought(s) without resistance. Perhaps the trickiest part of this process is sidestepping all the subtle ways that our minds resist that which we don’t like. This resistance can serve as a reminder—a cue—to pull back and see our thoughts as mere clouds in the sky of our awareness.
Good luck out there,