Have you ever caught yourself ruminating about painful, negative thoughts and found that you just aren’t willing to let them go? Or have you been in the company of complainers who, despite your best efforts, simply continue with their self-defeatist story, on and on and on?
I don’t think any of us purposely chooses to bring ourself down. After all, we’re wired to want to grow toward the highest version of ourselves. But surprisingly enough, our brain is also wired to activate its reward system when we feel negative emotions, such as shame, guilt, and worry.
In another time, this response may certainly have helped us step out of our caves and hunt for food, or mend our ways so we didn’t get rejected from our tribe. But today, when our fears lie primarily in our psychological world, this evolutionary glitch may be causing us more harm than good.
The good news is that we don’t have to remain victims of our wiring. We have the ability to override it when necessary—and here’s how to do so.
Name the Emotion
Emotions arise in a part of the brain that’s nonverbal and conveys its messages through bodily sensations. This form of communication can be lost on us, since we’re so accustomed to our mental language centers. Simply naming the emotion (think: “fear” or “embarrassment”) moves it from the emotionally charged systems of the brain to the more rational areas, where we can make sense of what’s going on. Ask yourself whether it’s anxiety, worry, sadness, or frustration that you’re feeling. Verbalizing an emotion helps the brain feel in control of it, rather than at the mercy of its urge to act.
Identify the Thought
With every emotion comes a running mental commentary of what’s going on. This commentary helps us make sense of the world around us as we try to piece together what happened with what we know of the world. Strangely enough, even if the meaning we give a situation is painful but corroborates our mental frameworks, we feel a bittersweet sensation. “She refused to come over because she doesn’t like me” is not a cheery thought, but to a mind that believes in its unlovability and fears rejection, it initiates the release of the pleasure hormone dopamine.
Here’s where we have to be wise protectors of our mental space. Instead of letting our internal commentator have a heyday, we need to throw it off by coming up with the opposite of what it’s throwing at us. When it says, “She doesn’t love me,” we say, “She loves me a lot.” When it says, “I hate my job,” we say, “My job has potential for growth.” At this point, we’re simply playing the game of opposites, so there’s no point in getting caught up in the negative voice’s rebuttal of “Of course she doesn’t” or “No there’s not!”
Put on Your Detective Hat
Now the fun begins! Armed with this opposite thought, look for instances when it’s been true. It’s very likely you’ll find at least one example, however small it is. And when you do, build on it. Let it warm you, let it excite you, let it grow in your mind’s eye. Who were you with, what did they say, how did you feel, what did you do? The longer you think about it, the more it sinks into your long-term memory and subtly begins to change those mental frameworks that see the world through gray-tinted lenses.
Decide on the Next Move
Now that you have a more realistic view of the situation, what are you going to do about it? Will you continue to sit and sulk over situations that you’ve been blowing out of proportion? Or will you decide to get up and take positive action that moves you ahead instead of keeping you stuck? Will you call up a friend? Or brainstorm ways you can harness the opportunities at work? Remember, decision-making makes you feel in control—and that’s exactly what the brain needs when it’s churning through the same old thoughts over and over again.
Psst: If you think it’s just guilt, shame, and worry that feel rewarding in the brain, think again! Pride is the most powerful emotion for triggering activity in our mental reward systems. So go ahead and take positive action, then feel proud for having done so. Your brain will thank you for it!