So, what IS the difference between thoughts and feelings? Which ones are real? Which ones can you act on? Which ones should you ignore? Great questions when you’ve just split from someone and miss them terribly and feel like your brain is tricking you in all sorts of ways you can’t control.
Such as, coaxing you into rewriting history, and only focusing on the good stuff you had with your ex. Or, telling you that you’ve made a mistake and should try to reconcile immediately (even if you know it was the right decision and there’s no going back).
It’s easy, when you’re in heartbreak hell, to fall down that rabbit hole.
So I just want to share with you some principles from a book that completely changed my life once upon a time. It’s called You Can Be Happy by Richard Carlson. A little book. One that’s easy to miss on any shelf. But so powerful. If you can get your hands on a copy I highly recommend it. The author is so wise, I was completely floored when I learned he had died at the age of 45 – I wrote here about the spooky way I found out. Anyhow, the book has many lightbulb moments, but here are a few that really resonated with me. I hope they help some of you, too.
You are the thinker. In other words, we’re in charge of how we think and feel, but we often forget and feel that thinking is determined by what’s happened to us, or is happening, says Carlson. ‘But it’s actually the other way around,” he writes. “Our thinking shapes our experience of life.” It’s easy, though to become very disassociated from this fact – that we are thinking and often manufacturing our own misery until we’re in a full-blown ‘thought attack’. “To break this cycle we must understand that it’s our thinking that’s creating our upset.” We can stop thinking about something. It might take work to become a habit, but we can do it.
Thoughts are not reality. A trap I am so guilty of falling into, even about the most mundane stuff. “Most of us assume that if something comes to mind it does so for a reason; it must be representative of reality, worthy of our attention, and dealt with. [But] our thinking is not ‘reality’, but only an attempt to interpret a given situation. We fill our heads with false information, which we then interpret as ‘reality’ instead of ‘thought’.” Do you have to follow every train of thought that comes into your head? Believe it? Allow yourself to spiral over it? Of course not. The trick is learning to ignore our thoughts more often, says Carlson.
Feelings are just a barometer. And, in the case of negative feelings, a sign that we’re slipping into dysfunctional thinking, says Carlson. “We shouldn’t refer to our thought systems to solve important issues in our lives. Wisdom and common sense come from a more positive feeling state – from a quiet and rested mind. If you’re feeling depressed, angry or frustrated, those feelings tell you that your thinking is dysfunctional.” That’s not to say you should ignore those feelings, but rather that it won’t serve you to deal with them in that particular moment. Which brings us to…
Distrust your feelings in a low mood. “When our mood is low we don’t have access to our wisdom. The confusing part of this principle is that it is in our low moods that we will want to solve our problems and confront other people. The seduction will always be there. Low moods breed confusion and resentment. They encourage us to ‘want to get to the bottom of something’, ‘read into what others are saying’ and ‘express our feelings’. But the feelings you have in a low mood are not your true feelings… they are negative feelings; thus, it makes no sense to trust or act on those feelings. If we attempt to solve a problem or make an important decision while our mood level is low, we will likely disappoint ourselves and regret our behaviour.”
Don’t give fuel to negative feelings. Especially ones that you know are unhelpful or obsessive – even if it’s easier said than done – because pursuing negative feelings as a viable route to problem solving and happiness is not the way to go, he writes. “If we leave negative feelings alone, they will disappear quickly enough. Once you understand healthy [mental] functioning you are no longer tempted to analyse or think your way to happiness. Happiness is already with you – only it is covered up by your negative, static thinking.” It’s like white noise, if you like – it’s a case of turning it off to get back to a more positive mindset.
Change your relationship to your emotions. If you can realise you control your thinking, and that your thinking can impact how you feel, and how it’s nuts to act on how you feel during low moods, you can teach yourself to gravitate towards that positive mindset more regularly, until you find things don’t upset you as much anymore. And, what you’ll naturally change is your relationship to your emotions, too. “Rather than feeling overwhelmed by them, you will experience them with understanding. In instances such as grief over a loss, it’s perfectly natural to feel profound sadness. Accessing your healthy functioning allows you to experience even the difficult emotions with compassion for yourself, an understanding of what is happening inside you… which can help heal and guide you back to where you want to be.”
Are you an overthinker? Do you feel like you’re a slave to your thoughts and feelings? How do you deal with all the thought attacks and spiralling? Share your strategies in the comments.