On Negative Thinking

The following was first published in 2012 on HackerHaus.com.

muWe are often told that we shouldn’t think “negatively.”  This sounds nice, but what exactly does this mean?  What are negative thoughts, anyway?  And what effect do they have on us?

I see negative thought as manifesting in two forms:

  1. Self-destructive thinking that reduces us and leads to or worsens depression.  (I suspect this is what most of us think of when we hear “negative thinking.”)
  2. Thinking that emphasizes “don’t” rather than “do.”

Let’s take a closer look at these two different, but related, flavors of negativity.

#1 – I have heard that the average human has over 300 “negative” thoughts per day.  Assuming 8 hours of sleep per night, this comes out to roughly one negative thought every 3.2 minutes of our waking lives.  These thoughts don’t have to be dark or self-destructive in nature.  A simple “ugh” first thing in the morning… a sigh when you notice how tight your pants are getting… getting pissed off at the jerk who cut you off in traffic… all of these chip away and make you less.

In this form of negative thought, you create your own self-delusional echo chamber in which only an ever-worsening self image can bloom.  You will attract only further misery because your ego has determined that misery is all you are worthy of, and it will, by God, prove it to you because it cares about your well-being and doesn’t want you getting hurt (by something other than it).  We all know how much the ego loves to be wrong, right?

Make no mistake… this kind of thinking enslaves us to a life of exponentially diminishing returns and is nothing short of Münchausen by self-proxy.

#2 – This one may require some explanation.

I often hear people say things like “don’t do X” or “don’t screw up Y.”  These messages are negative in the sense that they don’t tell us specifically what to DO, but rather vaguely reference what we DON’T want to happen.  Unfortunately, our brains don’t work this way.  The only concrete parts of the messages like these which the brain can grasp are “do X” and “screw up Y.”

Don’t believe me?  QUICK!  Imagine a dog not chasing a car.

What did you see?  A dog sitting down?  A dog playing fetch with a frisbee?  Whatever it was that you saw in your mind, you did not see a dog not chasing a car.  You saw a dog doing something else.  Why?  Because your mind must see something, not the lack of something.  So, you replace “chasing a car” with any other activity.  It doesn’t even matter which.  Therein lies the problem: unspecificity.

Are you OK with potentially receiving any and every conceivable possibility in the universe except for the one you “don’t” want?  I certainly hope not.

I’ve successfully dealt with my own severe depression on more than one occasion.  Each time, there has only been one way out:  I replaced what I was doing that lead to and perpetuated the depression.  There’s an old saying: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.”  You cannot always control pain or the source(s) thereof.  But suffering is purely the result of how you choose to respond to that pain.

If you find yourself wishing that your depression would go away, replace it.  Do something.  It almost literally does not matter what you replace it with (within reason, obviously).  Break up the brooding and non-specific feedback with something positive (i.e. concrete, rather than vague or unspecific).  Rather than dwelling on what is “wrong” with you (answer: nothing), get up, get out of yourself, and go for a walk.  Or plant a garden.  Or do the damn dishes.  Do something.  Eventually, you will reprogram yourself.  Bit. By. Bit.

Replace the vague nothingness with concrete somethingness.

— Michael Hacker, 2009

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