Negative thoughts are like termites that chew up and spit out our happiness. Many of us are frequently overwhelmed by such worrisome, anxious, fearful, and hateful thoughts. These thoughts gnaw at the fabric of our life, yet we’re often oblivious to basic knowledge that can eradicate this intrusive infestation.
These thoughts often seem reality-based. Certainly, it’s easy to believe the content of these thoughts. They seem to capture objectively the nature and extent of our plight. When they overpopulate our mind, they can produce an ugly reality, a self-defeating acting out of our negative outlook and worst fears. We must understand, though, that they represent a subjective impression rather than any deeper truth about us or our life.
Before getting to the liberating knowledge, let’s look at a list of common negative thoughts. (This list is bleak and grim, and we can insert a little levity by reading this section as experimental poetry noir.) I’ve separated this list into three categories that are explained further on:
A. Negative thoughts associated with inner passivity: No one understands me or knows what I feel; I’ll never make it; I can’t get started; I’m so weak, helpless, and out of control; I can’t get things together; I can’t finish anything; I don’t think I can go on; I feel like I’m alone against the world; I know I have a serious disease; I’ll never be healthy and happy again; What’s the point of trying?
B. Negative thoughts associated with our inner critic: I’m no good; My life is a mess; I’m a failure; I’m a loser; I hate myself; I’m also worthless and deserve to suffer; Why can’t I ever succeed? How could I have made that stupid mistake?
C. Negative thoughts associated with inner defenses: My life’s not going the way I want it to; I’m so disappointed in myself; I’ve let people down; My problem is I’m too lazy; I wish I were somewhere else; I wish I could just disappear; Nothing feels good anymore; I wish I were a better person; My future is bleak; It’s just not worth it; Something has to change.
This is just a small selection of what our psyche produces. Hundreds of examples could be provided dealing with rejection, betrayal, loss, abandonment, fear, envy, anger, hatred, and so on.
Studies have shown that “thought suppression” banishes negative thoughts only temporarily. We can’t simply make these disagreeable thoughts go away by using willpower to push them out of our mind. Unpleasant thoughts are fueled by hidden dynamics in our emotional life. When we try to use willpower alone, we set up a battle between our mind and our emotions. Our negative emotions often win this battle because our mind, when it fails to access vital knowledge, can’t expose the underlying dynamics that produce unwanted thoughts. In this losing battle, we’re left feeling our weakness or helplessness even more intensely.
Most mental-health workers don’t see the deeper problem. They offer only advice on how to stop these intrusive thoughts (here, here, here and here). Some of this advice, such as a recommendation to postpone the negative thoughts until later, is silly and useless. Other advice, such as encouragement to meditate, does have value. Meditation is the practice of concentration and focus. When done skillfully, it’s able to quiet our mind and block unwanted thoughts. Yet the benefits tend to erode when daily practice stops. Meditation, in itself, won’t necessarily produce a psychological understanding of the vitally important process by which we generate negative thoughts in the first place.
Negative thoughts are the means by which we mentally register our suffering, unwittingly facilitate it, and, through our psychological defenses, try to explain or rationalize it.
The first category of negative thoughts (the A group from the list above) relates to inner passivity. This inner weakness, dating back to early childhood, is associated with feeling helpless, dominated, controlled, and at the mercy of others or circumstances. In childhood, we were indeed quite helpless and powerless in many ways. As adults, an inner conflict still exists in our psyche between wanting to feel strong versus expecting to be weak or helpless.
So insidious is the temptation to experience life through old, familiar passive feelings that we end up plunging unconsciously into this emotional weakness. In doing so, we generate accompanying thoughts that frame our painful experience.
With more awareness, we can apply insight to our experiences. Whenever we become aware of having one of these negative thoughts in the A category, we can expose the underlying emotional attachment by acknowledging to ourselves that, “I’m choosing to experience myself through unresolved inner passivity, and doing so is producing my painful feelings of being weak, helpless, overwhelmed, and a failure.”
As an example, many people who aren’t ill nonetheless entertain fearful thoughts to the effect, “I know I have a serious disease.” Hypochondriacs, for instance, “buy into” this recurring thought in order to recycle and replay the sense of being at the mercy of an (imagined) illness that will get the best of them. Their suffering is the price they pay for their underlying emotional addiction to the victimhood of helplessness and powerlessness.
With this awareness, we can take responsibility for what’s happening in our life. Remember that people resist taking responsibility for their suffering. We deny our complicity in our suffering. Instead, we try to blame it on others or on difficult circumstances.
The second category (B) is associated with negative thoughts generated by our inner critic or superego. This agency in our psyche is harsh and cruel, and it assails us with sarcasm, mockery, and other belittling accusations. When we feel this harassment, we create a corresponding thought that reflects our experience. The more chronic the inner harassment from our inner critic, the more we’re plagued by negative thoughts. Essentially, we feel or we say to ourselves, in the form of negative thoughts and impressions, what our inner critic is saying to us. As we absorb this aggression from our inner critic, we become an unwitting spokesperson for that part of our psyche. (Note that we can also be an unwitting spokesperson for inner passivity, as in category A, as well as an unwitting spokesperson for our defenses, as in category C.)
Category C is a list of statements that represent the duplicity of our psychological defenses. Each of these statements can be traced back to show the structure and operation of the underlying defense. For instance, this statement on the list—“My problem is I’m too lazy”—is a defense that pleads guilty to what our psyche’s accounting system considers “a lesser crime”. The defense reads, “I’m not guilty of indulging in feelings of being helpless. The problem is I’m too lazy.” The individual, however, pays a big price for employing this unconscious defense. In pleading guilty to being lazy, he or she suffers with guilt and tormenting negative thoughts having to do with the alleged laziness.
Eradicating inner negativity is a momentous achievement, and we need good knowledge of our psyche’s operating system in order to succeed.