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By John Andersen
Have you noticed how often we feel that, “If I am not happy, something is wrong”? I mean, after all, we have never been so well off. We live in an era of affluence, comfort, prosperity and plenty that is unparalleled in human history. Yet, our age is known as the age of anxiety. And we are hearing more and more of the increasing extent of violence, depression, stress and anxiety. Something does not compute....
While this suggests that there are hidden costs to the prosperity we are pursuing and enjoying, in terms of higher expectations, and the stress of relentless work demands and financial pressures, there is another subtle factor. As prosperous Westerners, we have fallen for the expectation that we should be happy all the time, and that if we are not, something is wrong.
Consequently, sadness, flatness, weariness, anxiety, and other negative emotions no longer are acceptable. They do not rightfully belong, and should be gotten rid of, or removed. “I should not feel that way...” Consequently, when we have negative feelings, we do not tolerate them or allow them to be; rather, we try to distract ourselves from them, suppress them, avoid them, or argue ourselves out of them using popular psychological tricks and strategies. One of the common misperceptions that we fall into that make negative thoughts and feelings more terrifying than they really are is that we take them for reality. We lose sight of the fact that thoughts are only thoughts; feelings are only feelings. To use an analogy, when we see a TV report of an event, what we are seeing is only an account. We are not experiencing the event itself. You may recall the movie Inception. The peril in the movie that Dominic Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) faced was no longer being able to distinguish between dream and reality. And as a result, he could become trapped in the dream.
Likewise, we face the peril of confusing our thoughts for reality. As a result, we become trapped by our thoughts. A common example is the negative thought “I am a failure.” The fact that I have a thought “I am a failure” does not establish the fact of me being a failure. Yet, we frequently take such negative thoughts as reality. So we conclude that we are “no good”, “not good enough” “hopeless”, “depressed”, and so forth. What makes these common negative thoughts so distressing is we frequently mistake them for reality, that the occurrence of the thought itself makes it real.
We have lost sight of the fact that a thought is only a thought. A thought is not an event, any more than a story or a report is an event. Events are caused by actions. Only events are reality. Thoughts do not create events, so thoughts are not real, no matter how intense or compelling they are.
To appreciate the difference this perspective makes, try making this comparison the next time you are distressed with a negative thought. Rather than, “I am a failure,” try thinking, “I am having a thought that ‘I am a failure.’” A thought is only a thought. So thoughts are not things to be afraid of or distressed by.
Thoughts are part of the stream of my awareness. They can be perceptions, deceptions, reflections, imaginations, considerations. Thoughts have all sorts of different functions. Thoughts vary immensely in their truth and accuracy. Because a thought is emotive or vivid does not make it real. It only makes it emotive and vivid. This means that we can allow our thoughts to simply be, and be an aspect of our awareness that we can interact with, rather than be defined by.
So then, how do I regard the range of emotions that I experience. A useful analogy is to compare our emotions to the weather. Weather changes. Indeed, we need weather to change. We need a balance of sunshine and rain, wind and stillness, warm days and cool ones. Our emotions are like the weather in our internal world. Like weather, they come and go. Like weather, we have good days and blue days, days we feel terrific, and other days we just have to plod through. An emotionally resilient person has learnt to tolerate the range of his or her emotional states, just like we have learnt to accept and tolerate the weather. There is no point complaining that it should never rain. Rather, we simply dress for the rain and get on with it. So it is when we have negative emotions, we “stay calm and carry on”. Happiness is like sunshine. We enjoy it, but do not expect that we should feel that way all the time. Like other emotional states, it comes and goes.
And remember Ecclesiastes 7:14
In the day of prosperity be happy,
But in the day of adversity consider –
God has the one as well as the other.
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