Negative Thinking: A Dangerous Addiction
Why we can't stop thinking about the things that make us feel the worst.
Posted Apr 15, 2019
Have you ever noticed how much time you spend thinking about negative or painful situations, ruminating and replaying what’s not working in your life? It’s not just you. The last statistic I read claimed 80 percent of our thoughts are negative, and 95 percent repetitive. Strangely, the more negative an experience, the more we return to it. Like vultures to a carcass, we’re drawn to what hurts. As the Buddhist saying goes, we want happiness, and yet we chase our suffering. Why? What’s at the root of our mind’s addiction to suffering, why do we compulsively cling to our pain, and how can we shift this unwise and unhelpful habit of ours?
We return to our suffering, because fundamentally we’re trying to make the negative experience come out a different way. Our mental replays are attempts to re-script what we don’t want into a new reality. If we can just understand our pain more clearly, spend more time with it, we’ll be able to figure it out—in other words, make it go away. If we can know the cause, who’s to blame and what needs to be done about it, we’ll be okay.
We hold on to our pain, paradoxically, in an effort to figure out how to let it go.
With pain, or any sort of negative experience, comes a host of uncomfortable feelings. In response to the feelings we don’t want to feel, our mind takes control and steers us in a more familiar direction. Over and over again, the mind restructures and reframes the contents of our pain in an effort to avoid directly feeling it. The mind will always choose thinking about pain over experiencing it directly.
So, too, we counterintuitively cling to suffering as a way of taking care of ourselves. Continually thinking about what hurts helps us feel that our pain matters, that it didn’t happen for no reason, and that it won’t be forgotten. Our ruminations award our suffering importance and value, which it doesn’t always receive from those it wants it from. To stop revisiting our pain can feel like abandoning it, moving on before it’s been truly heard or taken care of.
Pain is also profoundly intertwined with our sense of identity. We remind ourselves of our pain as a way of keeping alive our personal narrative, our story of me, what’s happened to me, and my life. We’re deeply attached to our stories of suffering; you could say we love our pain. As a result, we’re reluctant to let it go, to stop bringing it back into the present moment, even when it’s no longer useful or active. To do so would be to lose touch with who we believe we fundamentally are, what makes us us.
If we didn’t keep reminding ourselves of our story, we might forget who we are in our minds, and then what? Who would we be, and what would life look like if we didn’t relate from an already formed idea of who we are?
At an existential level, returning to our suffering allows us to feel a primal sense of I-ness, to feel that we exist. We experience ourselves as a distinct self when we’re thinking about a problem. With a problem in its craw, the mind can feel alive and working, and because we imagine ourselves to be synonymous with mind, our sense of self is also alive and strong in this process. It is actually through the process of thinking that we create a sense of self; we literally think ourselves into existence.
To give up ruminating over problems feels threatening at a primal level. How would we know that we were here if we didn’t keep engaging the mind in problems, the very activity that allows the mind to feel itself? How would we know who we are if not through the mind by which we know ourselves to be? What would happen if we stopped remembering and reestablishing who we are all the time? Without an agenda of what needs to be fixed, we literally lose our separateness from life.
Our addiction to suffering is at some level driven by a desire to feel better. But regardless, the result is that it makes us feel worse and causes us to suffer more than we actually need to. What can be done, then, to break this addiction to pain?
1. Develop awareness. The key to breaking any habit is awareness. Start noticing those moments when you’re actively choosing to revisit your pain, to literally direct your attention back to what could bother you. Become conscious of your tendency to insert moments of peace with morsels of suffering. Notice that you are doing this to yourself.
2. Acknowledge that you’re caught. When you notice that you’re down the rabbit hole in your story of suffering, velcro-ed to it, take a moment and acknowledge that you’re there, that you’re caught. Say it out loud: “Wow, I’m really caught”; “I’m really doing this to myself right now”; or whatever words fit. Stop for a moment, and with kindness, be with yourself exactly where you are, acknowledge the truth of feeling powerless or stuck inside your pain story.
3. Inquire. Ask your mind (without judgment) what it’s hoping to accomplish in luring your attention back to your suffering. Is it to figure out your problem, make it come out a different way, make your pain feel heard? Do you need to remember the pain to protect yourself from it happening again? Is it scary to just feel good? Does remembering your problem ground you?
Get curious about your mind’s intentions: Does the rehashing and ruminating lead you to peace? Does it make you feel better? Eventually, you will discover that trying to get to peace with the mind is like trying to open a lock with a banana; it’s simply the wrong tool. The next time you return to the scene of your pain, you can remind yourself that more thinking doesn’t actually work, and you will know this from your own experience, your own inquiry. Failure is a great teacher here.
4. Shift your focus from thinking about the problem to actually feeling it. Sense where and how in your body, in what sensations you are experiencing this pain story. You can place your hand on your heart as you do this and offer yourself some sweet words, perhaps even a prayer of healing for this suffering. Unhook from your head story and drop into a body-felt experience.
5. Say “no” or “stop” out loud. We can learn to say “no” to our mind’s inclinations, just as we say no to a child who’s doing something that will harm her. Sometimes a wiser and more evolved part of us has to step in and put a stop to the harmful behavior the mind is engaged in. Say “no” or “stop” out loud, so you can hear and experience it directly through your senses, rather than as just another thought inside the negative-addicted mind.
6. Ask yourself, what’s at risk if you let go of your pain? Investigate what feels dangerous about living without reminding yourself of what’s happened to you and what’s still wrong. Make the active choice to not fill your now with the past. Be bold: Create a new identity that’s not pieced together from your personal narrative, but always fresh and endlessly changing.
In the process, you will discover that you can be entirely well and happy at this moment without having to go back and make anything that came before it different.
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