One big indicator of mental health is not fearing any single thought you may have.
It’s easy to become obsessed with our thoughts – especially what we consider “negative thinking.” We try to wrestle with these negative thoughts inside our heads, or push them down so they just go away and we no longer have to think about them anymore.
But this aversion to “negative thinking” is actually a tremendous weakness.
If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve engaged in a lot of “negative thinking” over the course of my life. And many thoughts I’ve had were just downright scary, grotesque, and obscene – thoughts I probably wouldn’t want to share with anyone.
I used to believe that I had to completely eradicate this type of thinking from my life. I saw every negative thought as a symptom of my corrupt and sick mind, and I kept trying to find a cure so I’d never think a negative thought again.
However, my perspective on “negative thinking” has changed a lot since that time.
What I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t always the content of my thinking that needs to be fixed or changed, but my response to my thinking that makes all of the difference.
The myth of “cognitive agency”
One of the most important findings in psychology is the myth of “cognitive agency.”
Cognitive agency is the idea that we have complete control over our thoughts at anytime and that we can consciously change them whenever we want.
Nowadays most psychologists recognize that we only have control over a small part of our minds at any one time, but most of our mental activity takes place unconsciously.
If you’ve ever tried meditation, or just observing your thoughts as they unfold, you’ll often find that random thoughts seem to pop in and pop out without much logic or reason. This is a fundamental aspect of our minds that can be very important to accept.
The myth of “cognitive agency” is one topic I covered in my article 7 Ideas in Psychology That Must Die, and it’s one of the most important things I’ve discovered throughout my self growth.
In self help circles especially, we often believe that our thinking is something that we have complete control over – and that we can just change our thinking on a whim – but this false belief actually makes us weak and incapable of accepting how our minds actually work.
Your mind is just playing
Our minds are designed to play with new ideas and imagine hypothetical scenarios.
Dreams are one of the best examples of this. Most of the time there is no real logic or reason behind our dreams, because it’s our minds just throwing together different experiences and trying to prepare for imaginary situations that will likely never happen in the real world.
Driving a monster truck through the city with Hulk Hogan? Throwing toys at a T-Rex in my living room? Showing up to school naked while riding a skateboard?
These are just some of the things my mind has cooked up on its own while I’m dreaming, but none of them ever seemed very relevant or practical to my life (I don’t even skateboard!)
The point is: Your mind likes to play and create just for the sake of playing and creating. It’s like a child with a bucket of red paint, a white wall, and no adult supervision – eventually, it’s going to create a mess.
This creative aspect of our minds can be both good and bad. It can become a source of inspiration and motivation (like when we imagine all the good things that can happen to us), and it can also become a source of sadness and despair (like when we imagine all the bad things that can happen to us).
However, if you recognize your “negative thinking” as just a byproduct of your mind’s inherent creativity, you begin to realize that there’s nothing actually wrong with you – it’s just your mind doing what it does best.
Recognizing this playful nature of our minds plays a big role in my article Free Won’t: Why You Shouldn’t Take Any Single Thought Too Seriously.
How to respond to “negative thinking”
Once you accept that “negative thinking” is just a part of how your mind works – and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with you – you can then take a step back and choose how to best respond to this type of thinking.
Here are 2 main pathways for how to respond to negative thinking:
- Make Note and Disengage – Tell your mind “That’s an interesting thought you had there,” and let the thought just pass you by. You don’t need to think more about it. You don’t need to dive into the depths of your mind to figure out where every single “negative thought” originates from. Just thank your mind, let it knowing your paying attention, and move on. If anything, think of it as a temporary “mental hiccup.”
- Play Along and Engage – “Negative thinking” is also worth engaging in from time-to-time. Your mind can often bring things to your attention that you’ve been ignoring – and just because it doesn’t feel good to think about something doesn’t mean it isn’t worth thinking about. Ask yourself, “What is this negative thought trying to tell me? Is there something I can do about it?” Play along with the thought for awhile – it doesn’t mean you need to act on it, but it might be worth entertaining before you dismiss it.
Acceptance is the foundation to both of these pathways when it comes to managing our negative thoughts. It isn’t until you fully accept a negative thought that you can choose whether to properly “engage” or “disengage.”
Clearly, there is no point in pretending our “negative thinking” doesn’t exist when it actually does – we need to be honest with ourselves – and even the most positive minds in the world have their fair share of negative thoughts.
By trying to ignore or deny the “negative thinking” in your life, you are only making yourself weaker because you’re not allowing your mind to do everything it is naturally designed to do.
As I point out in Reframing Your Dark Side: Embracing Your Shadow is Key to Genuine Mental Health, our negative thoughts and emotions can often serve an important purpose in guiding our lives. And although we may not realize it, we’d often be lost without them.
When you try to only think positively, it’s like a bird trying to fly with only one wing – we need to accept both the “positive” and “negative” to have an honest, balanced, and fully functioning mind.
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