The Myth of Controlling Our Thoughts and Emotions

| Carlos Bello LCMHC

There’s a popular notion in our society that we should only have certain types of thoughts and emotions. Namely, we should only have those that are deemed to be “healthy.” So if we have thoughts and emotions that are “unhealthy,” well then we’re in trouble (or so we are led to believe)! So what are these “unhealthy” thoughts and emotions? For a lot of folks, it’s anything other than pleasant and happy ones. So emotions like fear, anger, sadness, guilt, and grief would be examples of such “negative” emotions. Thoughts of failure, loss, or any type of pain would also be considered “negative.” The problem is that we all experience these types of thoughts and feelings, and oftentimes we have them repeatedly throughout each day! So what ends up happening is that we experience a sense of guilt and/or frustration because we keep on having these “negative” thoughts and feelings.

What many people resort to is trying to avoid having “negative” thoughts and feelings. While this approach makes sense, it can also limit us in significant ways. For example, consider a young man who has social anxiety. He experiences high levels of anxiety and has insecure thoughts about himself when he is out in public, so in order to prevent this from occurring he decides to simply stop going out in public and turns down all social invitations from friends. Problem solved right? Well, this may accomplish the objective of avoiding high levels of anxiety, but it prevents him from having any kind of social life or being able to interact with most people. 

Another way to attempt controlling our thoughts and emotions is by using distractions.  Common examples of this include watching TV, using social media, sleeping too much, and exercising excessively. Some people also resort to food, drugs, and alcohol to try to change how they feel. The bottom line here is that these are all ways to attempt to temporarily control our thoughts and feelings. 

All this begs the question: is it even possible to fully control our thoughts and feelings? Well let’s see shall we! Let’s try something: Recall what the first thing you ate today is. You got it? OK, now go ahead and delete that memory. Make it so that you can’t remember at all what you ate, at what time you ate it, and where you ate it…can you do it? I’m guessing you can’t. I surely can’t do it!

How about this: what if I gave you 10 million dollars to fall in love with whomever I say? You don’t need to actually do anything, like kiss them or go on a date with them. All you need to do is develop genuine, deep feelings of love for the person…can you do it? I’m sure you’ll try, and you might feel frustrated because you want all that money, but more than likely you won’t be able to force yourself to love someone. 

What these examples are meant to illustrate is that it’s nearly impossible to take full control of our thoughts and our feelings. We’re basically struggling with something that we cannot win against. So what’s an alternative to controlling how we think and feel? Well it’s acceptance. One way to think of this is having a willingness to experience distressing thoughts and feelings, even when we find them to be rather unpleasant. 

We can strive to have a clear sense of what our values are, and act in accordance with them. This may mean that we bump up against some thoughts and feelings that are distressing, or that some may consider to be “negative.” Decide to have a willingness to experience these things, and view them as being normal and harmless. Permit yourself to notice these thoughts and feelings, and then continue moving forward with your chosen actions (as opposed to living in reaction to your thoughts and feelings). 

So the next time you experience “negative” thoughts and feelings, simply notice them and become willing to experience them, and then direct your focus to useful behaviors. 

Today's the day to make a change.