Learning to feel better

It’s been a while since I last posted. We’ve been a bit preoccupied with our new baby, and some days my ability to put words together seems to have deserted me entirely.

In the meantime I’ve been working more on positive thinking, and experimenting with how changing my thoughts can change my feelings and my whole experience of life.

Thoughts that feel good

Being interested in mysticism and spiritual traditions gives me a different perspective on this stuff.

But in a way, thinking about God, ultimate reality, metaphysics and so on becomes just another interesting topic that I can feel good about.

It’s very easy to feel good when thinking about the divine being that underlies all reality, and ultimately the metaphysical implications of (good) positive thinking material seems easily reconcilable with my own understanding derived from comparative mysticism.

So at the moment I seem to be relying on two processes or ways of improving my thoughts.

The first is to take that transcendent, divine perspective and see that “Everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The point of this is that if you appreciate everything as perfect, you get better at doing that, whereas we usually focus on the problems and irritations in life, which means we’re highly practiced at finding faults.

The positive thinking stuff points out that if we practice finding faults then we’ll continue to find more faults, create more faulty situations, and fail to see how situations are actually perfect for us.

But if we start looking for things to appreciate, we become more skilled at finding things to appreciate, creating appreciable situations, and increasingly fail to see faults and obstacles in our lives.

Typically we avoid doing this, because we assume that reality is a fixed, objective thing “out there”, and our experience is more or less an accurate reflection of that reality.

I used to think this as well….or at least, I acted as though it were true despite my broader theoretical understanding.

But in the past few months I’ve proven to my own satisfaction that it isn’t true at all.

I’ve found that if I change my thoughts – my actual thoughts – on a given topic, I feel differently about it, and mysteriously my experience of that topic changes in ways that I would have thought defied reality.

In brief, things have gone better, because I changed my thoughts in ways that made me feel better.

Obviously I don’t mean that I simply told myself falsely optimistic things and tried to believe them. That doesn’t work.

Thoughts that feel better

What I’ve been doing instead is identifying the thoughts that I genuinely think about a particular topic, and stating them as clearly and as negatively as I fear them to be.

When I do this, part of my automatically comes to my defense, as if bringing those negative thoughts into the light of day shows how incomplete and unwarranted they are.

Sometimes the negative thoughts have turned out to be excessive… For example, thinking “I can’t work out the answer to this problem!” makes me feel bad, but if I think “I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” then I feel just a tiny bit better about it.

This “tiny bit better” isn’t enough on its own, but at the same time I can choose to take it as evidence that the process works.

It provides evidence that I am able to improve my mood by focusing on more positive thoughts.

That thought in itself is more positive too, and gives me a feeling of hope.

And since I now feel a bit better, I have access to other thoughts that feel better still.

“I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” “but I’m working on it now with a new approach and a better understanding”, for example.

Again, it’s not a case of just saying stuff that sounds better, if it doesn’t actually feel better then it’s not going to do anything for you.

The whole point is to feel better, after all.

A practiced skill

So I’ve been using these two basic methods: finding thoughts that feel better than my current thoughts, and focusing on a transcendent sense of appreciation, that “everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The latter works because I believe it on a theoretical level, so it too is an example of focusing on better-feeling thoughts. The reason why this alone is not sufficient is simply that I don’t spend every waking moment on the subject of metaphysics and divine reality.

As my skills increase with practice, I find I’m gradually closing the gap between this transcendent view that everything is perfect exactly as it is, and my views on a range of other subjects.

I’m now much more aware of when I, or other people, focus on things that make us feel bad.

Now that I have the choice to feel better, it’s so much more obvious when I instead focus on the negative.

I’ve also found that I have more of a tendency to look at things according to how I feel about them, rather than the “reality” that is supposedly informing those situations.

For example, if I’m worried about how a brewing process is going, whether I made the right choice with my recipe, I once would have sought reassurance by going over the procedure and revisiting my decision-making process.

Now I’m more likely to notice that this worry doesn’t feel good, and become conscious of where I’m putting my focus. Am I focusing on not screwing up the brewing process and the many ways it could go wrong? Well no wonder it feels bad. Why not focus instead on the final product and wonder how good it is going to taste?

Again, this is not a case of wishful thinking, it’s a deliberate choice to change my focus, emboldened by the knowledge that the resultant experience is far far more malleable than we imagine.

Telling yourself “it doesn’t matter, how you think won’t change the outcome” is simply not true.

Be good to yourself

Underlying all of this is an intention or decision to feel better, and to put feeling better at the forefront of your concerns.

That’s one of the things that struck me when I examined some of my negative thoughts….before I even thought to rebut it or provide counter-arguments, I was struck simply by how cruel and unwarranted the negative thought was.

If someone said your most negative thoughts to you, you’d be taken aback by the hostility and apparent malice or lack of empathy within them. But we tell ourselves these things all the time.

That’s why the choice to feel better and make that the measure of your thoughts and focus is such an important first step.

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A process for personal change

I’ve been thinking recently about the process I used to lose weight, as described in my book on weight-loss.

When I first set about trying to lose weight I did so with determination but also with confidence in my ability to solve problems in my own unique way.

Losing weight was just one application of a process I’ve slowly developed and refined. Maybe it’s a process uniquely suited to my own temperament and experiences, or maybe it has broader application for others?

Recently I decided to apply the same process to the goal of feeling good.

Why feeling good?

Like trying to lose weight, I’ve tried for a long time to feel good without success.  A combination of temperament and experience has made it seem more complicated or elusive than it ought to be.

By “feeling good” I mean a consistent and persistent change in my emotional set-point. I’ve been describing it lately as a shift from a pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one.

1. You can’t see the answer from where you are.

If you’ve been stuck in a persistent, negative experience for a long time, then you won’t be able to see the answer from within that experience. You have to recognise that the answer or solution will be something different and new; it will require a true change in perspective.

2. The goal itself is easy to achieve.

Goals like weight-loss and feeling good are easy to achieve. To lose weight all you need to do is eat significantly less food. To feel good all you need to do is focus on thoughts and experiences that feel good rather than those that feel bad.

Recognise the simple, practical solution to your problem, and the real culprit will rear its ugly head as you realise:

3. You don’t want to achieve your goal.

You might start with “I want to feel good, but I can’t or don’t know how.” Or “I want to lose weight, but I can’t or don’t know how.”

If you accept the simple, practical method in step 2, then this thought has to change.

Eg. “I want to feel good. I know that if I just focus on good-feeling thoughts I will feel good. But nonetheless I don’t.”

Eg. 2. “I want to lose weight. I know that if I eat significantly less food I will lose weight. Nonetheless I don’t.”

I think most people implicitly realise this conundrum, but instead of concluding “I guess I don’t really want to lose weight/feel good”, they instead conclude “I guess eating less/changing focus isn’t really the solution”.

But what is the solution? Denying the obvious solution just leads us into endless pursuit of fads or gimmicks and demoralising struggle. It’s far more valuable to accept the obvious solution, and accept that:

4. You may not like your experience, but it’s what you want.

I never liked being overweight, but as I worked through these steps I came to realise that part of me was resisting the simple solution of eating significantly less.

Why?

Because that part of me wanted to escape regularly into the immersive experience of eating.

Somehow, my mind hadn’t joined the dots between this part that wanted to eat, and the part that was unhappy with the side-effects of so much eating.

Likewise, parts of me are resisting the simple solution of focusing on thoughts that feel good. Intrusive negative thoughts are serving a purpose for some part of me. I want to focus on them, even though I don’t like the consequences.

5. A total change in perspective.

There’s a whole lot of ancillary realisations and shifts in perspective that supported and facilitated losing weight. For example, I realised early on that I couldn’t control my weight per se, I could only control my eating habits.

I realised that there was nothing “wrong” with being overweight, considering that I was overeating. Overeating makes you overweight…that’s normal. So there was no point feeling bad about being overweight when in reality I should feel bad about my dysfunctional eating habits.

Likewise, it’s normal to feel bad when you focus on negative things. It would be weird to feel good about bad things, wouldn’t it?

We fixate on our feelings as if we can change them directly. But our feelings are actually responding to our point of focus, our thoughts and our beliefs. Focusing on bad things makes you feel bad, focusing on good things makes you feel good.

So fix your focus and your feelings will take care of themselves, just as your body will find its own balance if you stop overeating compulsively.

Being overweight feels bad, but really we should feel good about being overweight. If you could overeat compulsively and remain thin, there would probably be something drastically wrong with you.

So maybe we should also feel good about feeling bad, when we focus on negative things? Isn’t that a sign that your psyche is in good working order?

The real culprit is not your feelings, it’s your point of focus. Take your bad feelings as a sign that part of you wants to focus on something negative.

And if that’s the case, then you’re already where you want to be, right? You want to be somewhere you don’t like. Maybe you haven’t thought about it like that before. Maybe you have some misconceptions about how the world works. But this perspective shows that you really are in control after all.

I wanted to overeat, even though I didn’t like the consequences. I want to focus on negative things, even though I don’t enjoy feeling bad.

Being aware

I love looking at myself from this kind of perspective. It shows that I am actually in control, even when I really don’t enjoy my experience.

It’s a little disconcerting to find that parts of us are running on auto-pilot. I liken it to a computer with programs running in the background, consuming resources, conflicting with other software.

Until we go looking, we may have forgotten we set those programs running in the first place. We might wrongly assume there’s something wrong with the computer, that it’s too old or too slow, or that it’s just not compatible with the software we want to run now, or that the new software isn’t any good.

I think that once we become aware of the programs we’re running, the things we want but have forgotten about, then our mind can start to connect the dots. We realise there’s a trade-off, or better yet a trade-up.

If you learned to overeat when you were young, it might be because eating was your only accessible means of feeling good and having control over your experience. But when you’re an adult you have much greater scope for finding happiness and meaning in life.

The trade-off might be facing some of the negative feelings you’ve been escaping from. But the trade-up is repairing your relationship with food, bringing your body into balance, and finding healthier sources of enjoyment.

Likewise, you might focus on negative things because you thought you had no choice, or you thought it was important to be “realistic” or in the midst of negative experiences that seemed beyond your control, you sought to adapt to those negative aspects and find some consolation in them.

Perhaps you found it more bearable to feel like a victim? Or to harbour thoughts of resentment and revenge? Or to feel that you were persevering against enormous odds?

These might have been consolations at the time, but now that you know you can change your point of focus there’s a possibility of trading up. You don’t have to remind yourself constantly that you’re a victim, or that you resent life, or that you are still bearing up despite great adversity.

The only caveat is that you have to do so from outside the recurring patterns of thought, otherwise you’ll turn this effort into another instance of your negative experience. You need to first recognise that you want this negative experience, even though you really don’t like it.