We all have embarrassing thoughts and feelings sometimes, ones that moral, rational people supposedly shouldn’t have. Whether it is resenting another person’s deserved success out of jealousy, vivid fantasies about killing somebody who makes your life miserable, or sexual dreams about someone you shouldn’t think about in that way, everybody at times has immoral and irrational thoughts and feelings.
The challenge is to deal with them in a healthy way. To this end we suggest three steps:
Stop taking your thoughts so seriously.
First, stop taking your thoughts so seriously. In our society we tend to view the mind as something we control, the core of who we are, whereas we view the body as something beyond our control. Few people get a headache and think, “What is wrong with me? Why would I make myself miserable by sending pain signals throbbing around my skull? Why wouldn’t I just shut off my stress hormones and relax my muscles instead? I’m so stupid!” Yet when a thought from their subconscious mind bubbles to the surface equally beyond their control they often think, “What is wrong with me? I shouldn’t think that about Victor. Does that make me a bad person?” or “Why am I so ungrateful? I have my health, a secure job, and a loving family, yet I feel depressed. I am so spoiled!” Like the stress response, many of our thoughts and feelings are outside of our conscious control, and only with diligent practice can we learn to control them with our conscious mind. Just as you would not beat yourself up for struggling to will your heartbeat to slow down, be kind to yourself when you struggle to combat unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Second, practice self-awareness. Never try to will your brain to replace unwanted thoughts and feelings with ones you prefer. Instead use them to gain a deeper understanding of yourself. Do not take them at face value, though. Rather, view them like they come from a small child. When two-year-old’s act up they rarely articulate a clear reason why, and their words and actions are sometimes completely unrelated to the cause. A two-year-old will scream “I hate eggs!” and throw his food on the floor rather than say, “Daddy, the attention you are giving the new baby used to go to me, and so I feel less loved.” Yet parents can often use patterns of behavior to figure out what is really wrong. Try to do the same with unwanted thoughts and feelings. Some are simply primal, such as sexual fantasies or anger if the coffee runs out. Others have a deeper meaning and can reveal issues that once solved will improve your sense of fulfillment with life. Depression with no cause can signal inadequate sleep or hormonal problems. Jealousy could reveal that it is time to move a deprioritized aspect of your life back to the forefront. Anxiety could be the result of a food sensitivity or past trauma. Anger often masks hurt, and could expose insecurities to be worked on. When you have a persistent unwanted thought or feeling, look inward, allow your mind to freely make connections, and discover why the two-year-old in your brain is misbehaving.
Finally, practice mindfulness strategies to gain control of your thoughts and feelings. Both religious and secular traditions have forms of meditation in which you try to keep your focus on your breath, acknowledging without judgment the thoughts that pop into your head and then letting them go. Deep breathing meditations foster inner peace while reducing negative emotions. Positive affirmations, when used correctly, help to change thought patterns. Choose affirmations you genuinely believe, so that each one is not immediately followed by your subconscious screaming “Bull!” There are even mindfulness strategies to foster compassion and gratitude. Explore books, guided audio meditations, video series, classes, and secular or religious groups to find a way of practicing mindfulness that works for you.
Instead of being ashamed of unwanted thoughts and feelings, realize that you have limited control over them. View primal reactions similarly to bodily functions. Embrace more complex thoughts and feelings as clues to what your subconscious needs in order for you to experience fulfillment in life. Similar to a two-year-old, know that your mind’s unwanted behavior might be irritating but it also is rooted in a hidden need.
By practicing self-awareness and mindfulness you can learn to identify these hidden needs and gain control over your thoughts and feelings. In doing so you will experience higher degrees of happiness and fulfillment in your life.