Often people aren’t really aware of what they think and feel - they take care of their daily business, they perform their tasks and obligations, while in their mind all kind of thoughts arise, like a movie or a story, some of them having a higher "volume" and others a lower one. These thoughts are the ones that create, in a conscious or unconscious way, our emotional states. Many times we feel one way or another and we don’t realize why, but the cause is represented by our own thoughts, by the way we relate to certain stimuli, to certain situations.
These thoughts of ours can come from our "inner critic", from "the one who worries" or the anxious one, from the "perfectionist", from the "wounded one" and so on. These are parts of our self that generally trigger negative emotions, but as well we have within us "a counselor" or "a friend" from whom positive thoughts and emotions come.
What can we do to control our thoughts and emotions?
The first step we have to take to get our thoughts under control is to become aware of where they come from. For example, the inner critic encompasses the voice of those who criticized or devalued us when we were children (usually our parents’ voice that we introjected), the thoughts through which we express our lack of self-confidence and self-blame: "I am a fool", "I am a loser", "I will fail", "I will make a fool out of myself", the thoughts that make us feel inferior to others because we compare ourselves to them etc. The "wounded one" will be activated every time he faces a negative situation similar to a situation experienced in the past that caused him a wound that he hasn’t yet been able to heal. He will react impulsively, emotionally, following the same patterns as before. The "perfectionist" tells us that we can never be good enough the way we are, will make us be dissatisfied with ourselves, or will sabotage our attempts - "why should I start a project if I won’t obtain perfect results?". Thus, if our inner dialogue is a negative one, of course our emotions will also be negative. If we constantly criticize ourselves or are too harsh with ourselves, how can we expect to feel good? Even with regard to certain aspects for which we criticize ourselves, if we manage to change our perspective, to look at them from another point of view, that is, to reframe our thoughts, our emotional state will automatically change. For example, if you are a very organized person, obsessed with the smallest details, which sometimes causes you trouble, maybe this can help you develop a career in a field where attention to detail comes first. Or if you are a person who doesn’t like too much to participate in all kind of events, to always be in the heat of the action, but you are more introverted, this can help you develop your ability to observe more accurately, to develop your inner world, to discover your talents and make them profitable. Thus, what seems to be a shortcoming, viewed from another perspective, can turn into a quality.
Notice what events/circumstances trigger your negative thoughts and feelings. Is there a common factor? With what are they related? Maybe there is something in your life that needs to be changed and these thoughts and feelings are a red flag or maybe you need to find new adaptive and functional strategies to face certain stimuli. Suppose you work at a travel agency and you have to sell holiday packages. The problem you’re facing is that you get shy in front of your customers, you become insecure and anxious, you are afraid that you will make a mistake or that your boss will not be pleased with the way you interact with your customers. Maybe you are afraid of authority, of making mistakes, of being berated, as you were in your childhood. You respond from the Child ego state, because all these situations trigger you some childhood fears that you failed to manage in a functional way. Instead, if you become aware of this and choose to change it, the next time you are put in the same situation, you will strive to adopt and remain as long as possible in the Adult ego state. You will think about how an adult thinks and reacts in such situations and you will adopt those behaviors. For example, if an adult makes a mistake, he/she takes responsibility for that mistake, learns something from it, apologizes or tries to fix it if possible, but maintains a firm and dignified attitude. He/she doesn't loses himself in guilt feelings, he doesn't repeat how stupid or incapable he is, he doesn't judge himself so harshly, he's not afraid that he won't be liked by those around him - as a child does when he makes a mistake and is berated by his parents.
Notice how you feel and try to figure out why you feel that way. What thoughts are behind that emotion? If we feel anxious, let’s ask ourselves what triggers these feelings, what thoughts we feed in our mind. For example, we may feel this way because we are going to have a job interview, and in the past we have had some similar negative experiences related to this that we remember and we are afraid that history will repeat itself. So we can see that in the background of our mind a story is already beginning to run - a story that tells us what to do and how to do it, how we should be, what we can and can’t do. Unfortunately, most of the stories we tell ourselves are negative and are usually based on certain false beliefs, but which we have come to believe to be true. Because we have repeated to ourselves or we have been told countless times that "we can't", that "we won't succeed" or that "we aren’t good enough" we have come to believe that we really aren’t.
We therefore notice that the focus of our attention has turned to the negative (negative situations, feelings, memories), because people, in general, are more likely to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. That is, instead of imagining a positive scenario about that interview, we imagine a negative one, hoping that through our turmoil and rumination we will find a solution to avoid pain, ie the discomfort caused by the situation we feel we can’t control. But what is important to remember is that we shouldn’t focus on the situation, but on how we relate to it, on our emotions and thoughts, that is those aspects that are really in our control.
To change a thought, we need to confront it with the truth, to realize whether it’s a rational or irrational thought. For example, when we say to ourselves that "we will not be able to succeed", let’s think of at least three positive things about ourselves that counterbalance this belief – let’s remember the obstacles we have managed to overcome, our achievements so far, no matter how unimportant they seem, our qualities.
And even if in the past we had such less pleasant experiences that now make us doubt ourselves, they were opportunities to learn certain lessons, to discover certain things about ourselves. Then we behaved in a certain way because we had a certain set of data, knowledge, a certain life experience. Now we have enriched our experience and knowledge, we have other information at our disposal. Why do we think things will be the same? In addition, things may not have been as serious as they seemed to us. Maybe we saw them that way precisely because we were insecure and afraid.
Pay attention to your lifestyle - the way we feel physically, how much we sleep, what we eat, if we live in a pleasant environment, if we relax, have fun, have satisfactory social relationships, all these things influence a lot our mental wellbeing. If we don’t get enough rest or we are too stressed, we tend to perceive things in a distorted way, they seem to us more difficult than they are and, no matter how hard we try to control our thoughts, in these conditions it will be much harder.
Observe your thoughts - detach yourself for a few moments and simply observe what you are thinking without judging. You may notice that a thought is negative, another thought irrational, you may notice that a thought is absurd or even funny, but don’t judge yourself for what you think. Just observe your thoughts and realize that through them you write your own personal story, a story that can be changed depending on what you choose to think.
So, after you have noticed your thoughts and become aware of them, do something to make a change, act differently - suppose you are worried that you have too much work to do and even in your free time you still think about it, failing to relax or rest. Make a plan so that you can clearly delimit your free time from your work time - for example, after 6 pm you no longer answer the phone, you no longer check your e-mail; plan activities that you enjoy and follow your plans etc. It often happens that we can’t get rid of our negative thoughts because we are afraid to act. For example, we are afraid of public speaking and every time we are faced with this possibility, we begin to think about all sorts of catastrophic scenarios, but if we act differently and face this fear, both the thoughts that worry us and the negative emotions will significantly decrease or they will disappear.
Sometimes we just have to stop and breathe - say "stop" and focus on your breathing. This can be an extremely useful exercise because this way we learn to discipline our mind. At first, it may be difficult to keep your attention focused on your breath because your thoughts are rising and seem to overwhelm you, but by practicing it will be much easier to stop or slow down your thoughts in those moments when your emotions escalate and you feel overwhelmed and you have the feeling that you can no longer think clearly.
The purpose of this article is to make you realize that although your thoughts or emotions seem to come out of the blue, they are actually in your control - our thoughts cause our emotions, and if we don't always manage to control our thoughts, to stop them, to change them (because they have already become automatic), to improve our emotional state, we can do the opposite - we become aware of how we feel, why we feel this way (we notice the thoughts behind) and we confront them with the truth – are they thoughts / beliefs that others have instilled in us, but which don’t represent us, are they still useful in the current life situation, are they rational or irrational, do they limit us or help us to develop?
The moment we understand that the way we feel depends on the way we think and that often our thoughts are not based on the truth, but on our subjective perception that can be distorted by certain less favorable life experiences, we can begin to work on this very perception, to cleanse our mind, to discern the truth from illusion, from self-delusion, to learn to reframe, to accept and overcome certain life experiences that we couldn’t get over and which still affect us.
The power is in our hands! Do you trust yourself and your inner strength?
Dr. Ursula Sandner