Would you be surprised if I suggested that negative thoughts themselves do not cause depression? A negative thought is only destructive if you choose to believe it. The idea that suffering is a choice may sound ludicrous if you are depressed right now. After all, why would you voluntarily go into that dark place if you had a say in it, right? You didn’t sign up for this. But bear with me here. If you practice what I call “conscious thinking”- that is, having the self-awareness to notice your thoughts without believing or being defined by them- you can stop depression in its tracks. Conscious thinking is key to self-love and empowerment. In this post, I show you how to question your negative thoughts so that your mind is free and your heart is at peace.
When we are depressed, our negative thoughts are all-consuming. We feel like prisoners to our thoughts as if they are controlling us, not the other way around. But the truth is our thoughts are actually the one area we have the most control of in life. You may not be able to control the circumstances that triggered your depression, but you can control the way you think about and respond to them. There may even be tangible actions you can take to change your circumstances, but your thoughts need to change first and then your circumstances will follow. Negative thoughts lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, if you believe the thought that you will fail a test for school, you are more likely to perform sub-optimally due to your anxiety. There is a difference between saying “I think I will fail that test” and saying “I believe I will fail it.” You can think something without believing it to be true.
Conscious thinking is the premise of The Work, by bestselling author Byron Katie, “a simple, yet powerful process of inquiry that teaches you to identify and question” your thoughts, understand what is hurting you, and to address the cause of your problems with clarity.” The Work does not ask you to change or resist your thoughts; it simply asks you to question and turn them around so that you don’t turn them against yourself. If you have a tendency to over-think everything or “think too much about your thoughts” like I do, The Work can be a powerful tool to investigate your thoughts and use your analytical skills to your own benefit. It allows you to meditate on your thoughts without actually “clearing your mind” as in traditional meditation, which is a challenge for us intellectual/cerebral types. What you resist will persist, so don’t repress a thought or try to push it away. If you do that, the thought will become even more bothersome. Instead, listen to the thought while keeping some distance from it. Visualize the thought as an object floating across the surface of your mind. Do not internalize it. Do not assign a value to the thought. It is not “good” or “bad.” It just is.
For each thought that is causing you pain, ask the following questions, as explained in Byron Katie’s facilitation guide. She also has a blog where she applies The Work to different areas of life. To learn more, read her book Loving What Is: Four Question That Can Change Your Life. (No, she did not pay me to advertise her book on my blog)!
1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, more to #3).
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no).
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
Once you have asked yourself these questions and written down the answers, the next step is to find the “turnarounds.” A turnaround is simply another way of looking at the original thought.
For example, when I was sick with OCD as a teenager, a thought that caused me immense pain was “I will never get better.” If I had done The Work with that thought, it might have looked something like this:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know it’s true?
(At the time, I had every reason to believe this thought was grounded in truth since several Harvard doctors had told my parents I would have to be put away in an institution for life. They were obviously wrong)!
3. How do you react, when it happens, when you believe that thought?
This thought makes me despondent. I have no hope. No reason for living. I feel physically ill, imagining myself living in some padded room for the next fifty years in my current state. I want to kill myself. I am basically dead anyway because I’m not living my life.
4. Who would you be without that thought?
I feel alive. I have hope. I am so much happier without this thought. If only I could get rid of it!
Now, for the turnaround…
I look forward to finding a way to better. Doctors are not always right. There might be a way for me to get my life back if I believe in myself. (And indeed, that is what happened once I stopped believing the thought that I would never get better).
The Work has helped me many times when I have been on the edge of falling down the slippery slope. There have been times when the more energy I devoted to improving my circumstances, the more trapped I felt. So, I wondered “what is the point of even trying?” When I reach this tipping point, I write down my thoughts, think consciously and ask myself how much truth there is to them. As an over-analytical person, I may find myself thinking “I don’t want to believe this is true, but if it is true, I would rather accept the truth than believe a happy fallacy and end up even more disappointed.” I do a turnaround by saying “I am willing to accept the truth whatever it may be.” This does not negate or resist my original thought, but also leaves the door open to the possibility that there may be another way of looking at things that I have not considered. I am human after all. You can do the same thing. Try it and let me know if The Work helps you!
Photo credit: Adlinda Navartierre