How To Let Go Of Unpleasant Thoughts – The Art of Self-Observation

In our quest for a successful, happy and ultimately fulfilling life we eventually come across a lot of promising advice from high performers and inspiring, intelligent people, who seem to simply get it.

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There are countless books, articles or seminars about the habits and mindsets we have to implement in our lives to achieve what we want.

So by now, we should know what is right and what we need to do.

We know the good habits.

Take care of your body, be positive, have goals, be disciplined, work hard, give back to your community, …

… and don’t forget cold showers.

Everything has been said, hasn’t it?

Just implement these habits, put in the work and you’ll be all set.

…But, wait.

Why isn’t everybody simply doing these things?

Is it because they don’t know about it?

Do we not know that exercise and healthy eating is good for us? That reading is an important tool to expand your horizon?

What is holding us back?

There is one really fundamental thing that is very often neglected and overlooked.

It is the ability to control your mind.

A Continuous Stream of Thoughts

As you go through your day, pause for a second and try to become aware of all the thoughts you had in the past five minutes.

Chances are that the mind is always running, that it produces a continuous stream of thoughts and can hardly ever shut up.

Maybe you were about to do something, but you are lost in your thoughts, giving in to the wandering mind, daydreaming and losing every bit of focus.

It is also the source of the voice in our head that produces negative emotions and thoughts auch as doubts, worry, fear, aversion to risk and is the reason why we subconsciously give in to engrained old patterns and impulses.

Thus, when trying to establish a new habit these patterns and impulses are what makes it so difficult to change and stick to our desired habits.

Rationally you know that vegetables might be more healthy, but when the thought and the association of a delicious cookie kick in, you are often controlled by subconscious patterns and impulses and go for the easier path.

Instead of consciously and proactively deciding, we are mostly reacting.

That is when our mind is controlling us.

The problem is that we are giving in to these negative emotions, thoughts and impulses that the mind presents to us by identifying with them, by believing they are part of us.

Why am I even talking about “we” on the one hand and the “mind” on the other hand?

Is it not part of us?

The Dualist Position

Author Mark Manson presents in his “Guide to Self-Knowledge” the idea of the two minds. These are the thinking mind and the observing mind. While the thinking mind produces all the thoughts in your head, the observing mind is responsible for the feeling of being “You” as it watches the thoughts in your head.

This idea goes hand in hand with several other teachings, such as Eckhart Tolle’s idea of the mind as a tool on the one hand and the observer, the silent watcher or the true You, on the other hand.

How can you use this idea to no longer be controlled and stopped by your emotions and thoughts?

Well, by first having a realization. It is the realization that the negative emotions you feel and the nagging thoughts you have are produced by the thinking mind.

The key is that these emotions and thoughts can be observed by You, which is the observing mind or the silent watcher.

You can practice becoming aware of this realization during meditation, where you essentially recognize, observe and acknowledge thoughts.

This dualist position, You on the one side, your thoughts and emotions on the other side, in a relationship only through observation, allows for the powerful disidentification from your thoughts and emotions.

You are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You rather have thoughts in your head. You rather feel negative emotions arising.

By observing instead of identifying with these thoughts and emotions, you create a distance between them and You, as the silent watcher. As they thrive on identification, they lose all their energy due to the created distance via disidentification.

This realization grants incredible power. You can now, in any situation, feel and recognize negative thoughts and emotions, observe them and by not identifying with them, remove all their power over you.

The Circle of Control

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”   — Viktor Frankl

As Frankl said in his famous quote, you can never fully control what happens to you. So there will always be negative emotions and thoughts popping up in your head. What you can control, however, is both your interpretation and reaction to these thoughts and emotions.

1. Interpretation

View these thoughts and emotions as helpful reminders. Reminders to live more consciously, to have more moments of mindfulness and presence in your life.

2. Reaction 

Express gratitude towards these emotions for being around and helping you through their function as reminders. Coming from a position of gratitude is the most secure way to not identify with their negativity. Then, consciously decide to take right action. Do what you know is right and you were about to do anyway.

After mastering this, you will always be able to act in spite of or even because of your negative emotions and thoughts.

To be able to follow the process of conscious observation, disidentification and channeling into right action, regular practice is needed. As with everything important, it takes time to cultivate this skill.

The first step would be to implement a consistent meditation habit in your daily routine. In the beginning it can be as short as 5 to 10 minutes. This should be enough to practice mindfulness and especially awareness of your thoughts and the ability to watch them arise, locate them, feel the accompanying emotions and watch them fade away again.

You could call it “Know your enemy”, even though we invite them to become our helpful servants.

A Side Note For The Rational Sceptic

The field of consciousness is still to be researched and explained. There are many theories but hardly anything has been proven yet. Mark Manson summarizes it nicely when he writes:

“There is a lot of data. And that data is being debated.”

So as with most believes one can have, ask yourself:

What is more important? The objective truth or the subjective belief that can help me in my daily living?

Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether what you believe is right or wrong, but whether it is helpful.

The Prime Belief

This holds true for believes you can have in many areas of your life. Basically you can summarize the premise of the whole self-help industry along these lines: have a helpful belief about yourself and act according to it.

Whether it’s priming of the subconscious mind, positive thinking, auto-suggestion, visualization or self-image psychology in psycho-cybernetics. They are all grounded in a helpful believe and through some form of self-fulfilling prophecy achieve objective, measurable results.

Mark Manson has one such special belief in mind, which whether true or not, serves as powerful transformer in life:

“That you are responsible for everything you do in your life, no matter the external circumstances.“

Combining this belief with thought from the Roman stoics and Victor Frankl, I would expand this belief to the following one:

You are 100% responsible for the action you take and 100% responsible for your interpretation of and reaction to the observed outcomes. 

So if everything follows these three steps,

  1. Action (Input)
  2. Result (Output)
  3. Interpretation + Reaction

you can only control the first and the last.

There are external factors which influence the outcome, which you can never control and cannot change, whether you call it fate, chance, randomness, destiny.

What truly matters, is how you interpret the outcome and thus how you react. It is important that your believes about the outcome lead to what you consider right action while not trying to control the outcome.

By clearly defining and being aware of your sphere of control, you know where to focus on and are able to avoid being overwhelmed by external things that are outside of your control, which include the thoughts and emotions produces by your thinking mind.

Call To Action

Try to have more moments of presence and mindfulness in your life.

Start with a daily meditation practice as part of your morning or evening routine and try to expand the gained mindfulness and presence throughout your day.

It can help to set reminders to pause for a second in whatever you do and stop the stream of thoughts.

Become aware of the thoughts you had and try to condition yourself to use the negative ones the right way.

Whenever a negative impulse, thought or emotion arises, try to disidentify from it through observation and do what you know is right through an act of conscious decision.

Good luck and enjoy!

Kilian

Do you already have some mindfulness practice, like meditation, in place? What is holding you back most? Let me know in the comments below!

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[…] Assume responsibility through the Prime Belief. […]

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[…] The responsibility to make a decision to change and to take action is part of the “Prime Belief”: […]

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