What we very rarely realize is that when we feel bad, it is our thinking that keeps us feeling bad, despite the fact that the reason for our thinking is to try to help ourselves extricate ourselves from the pain. We think because we’re ‘problem solving’, because we’re ‘looking for solutions’, because we’re ‘looking for a way out’. We never just have a bad feeling on its own therefore (which is the helpful thing) but rather as soon as we start to feel any sort of emotional pain a whole web of conscious and semi-conscious thinking springs up all around that perpetuates and entrenches the rottenness of it all. We do not generally have any insight into the way in which we are making things worse for ourselves – in fact quite the opposite is true because as we have just said we believe that the thinking is helping us.
Naturally we believe that the thinking is helping us; that is of course why we do it – the whole point behind all my mental activity is that it is going to somehow extricate me from my pain, or at the very least ease it in some way. The emotional pain that I am experiencing acts as the trigger for the thinking (or mental maneuvering) that follows it. First comes the mental pain (whatever it is) and then comes my reaction, which is in essence my futile attempt to free myself from this pain, or at least make it more acceptable or palatable to me.
In practice the original bad feeling and the mass of thinking that surrounds it is all very murky and cloudy and confused. What makes it particularly hard for us to see what is going on as we spin the web of thoughts that envelops us is the curious relationship we have with our thoughts – it is if our thoughts are so close to us that we can’t actually see them for what they are. We produce these thoughts all the time just like a spider secretes the thread that goes to make up its web, or just like a snail secretes the mucus that makes up its ‘trail’ – wherever the snail goes it brings along its trail of slime, and wherever we go, there too go our sticky thoughts. We secrete thoughts constantly, but the very instant we think them the thoughts ‘trap’ us without us ever realizing what is happening. The reason that our thoughts ‘trap’ us is simply because they dramatically influence the way we see the world, without us realizing that they are influencing us.
OUR THOUGHTS CONTROL US
This is a bit of a peculiar idea, but it is very important to grasp all the same. What we are saying is that the process whereby we produce thoughts is more or less automatic, and more or less effortless, but as soon as they are created the thoughts ‘trap’ us into seeing the world in the particular distorted way that they make us see it. So on the one hand we think the thoughts, but on the other hand the thoughts that we think ‘reach back to us’ and as a result they influence and control us without us realizing it. Therefore, even though we might feel like we are, through our thinking, in control, actually the complete opposite is true.
Our relationship with our thoughts is a bit odd really because we think so prolifically, and ‘immoderately’ (like a man whose tongue has been loosened by drink and who talks far more than he ought to), and yet at the same time we don’t have any caution at all about this amazingly prolific production of thoughts. We think non-stop just about all the time, but we never pay any real attention to ourselves thinking, and we never pay any attention to the question of what the consequences of all this automatic thinking might be. For this reason we can say that most of our thinking is ‘unconscious’.
We might not give it much attention, but the consequences of our ‘heedlessly incontinent thinking’ are very serious because we get caught up in a very narrow way of seeing the world, without realizing that anything strange has happened. ‘Worrying’ is a perfect example of this – the type of thinking that we call worrying is thinking that is designed to help us, to extricate us from the mess that we think we are in. This is obvious – the only reason I think this type of thought is because I am trying to find a way out or a solution to my problems. ‘Worrying’ means that I am repeatedly going through all the possible solutions to a problem or to a number of problems. This may not sound too bad in itself but the thing is that none of the solutions that I come up with look as if they are going to work and so I am left with this nasty feeling that actually nothing is going to work.
This lack of confidence in the effectiveness of all my possible solutions to the problem doesn’t mean that I give up however – far from it in fact because the bad feeling causes me to worry even more. The point we are making is that if I am worrying about a problem that I don’t know how to solve then this – as everyone knows – makes matters worse rather than better. The reason it makes matters worse is because thinking causes me to lose perspective – in other words, the more I carry on with the type of thinking known as worrying, the more important the problem that I am thinking about seems to get. The more I worry, the bigger the molehill becomes, until in the end it turns into Mount Everest. I keep on thinking because it seems to me that my thinking will help me, but actually the more I think, the deeper the hole gets that I am busy digging for myself! Really, all I am doing is ‘digging my own grave’ and so very obviously I would be a hell of a lot better off not thinking at all.
FEAR AND HOPE
Everyone who has ever worried about anything (which is all of us) knows very well that worrying doesn’t do any good, but knowing this doesn’t seem to help because we just don’t seem to have the power to stop. The reason I can’t seem to stop worrying is because there is an overwhelmingly powerful ‘itch’ to carry on. This itch is made of two ingredients:
 The fear that that something terrible will happen if I don’t fix the problem.
 The hope that if I keep on trying hard enough I will be able to think of something that will help me.
If we consider this more carefully we can see that these two ingredients are really two aspects of the same thing because my fear of the risk of the bad thing happening is exactly the same as my desire for safety. ‘Fear of risk’ and a ‘craving for safety’ are the two ways of talking about the same thing. The crucial point to understand about this is that when I experience ‘fear-plus-the-hope-of-escaping-fear’ it is absolutely no good at all acting on this because the more I try to ‘solve the problem’ the more I feed the underlying fear. Actually, the urge to try to fix the problem is the fear.
NOTICING HOW YOU FEEL WITHOUT THINKING ABOUT HOW YOU FEEL
Normally, as soon as I experience the first twinge of fear that causes me to start thinking straightaway. The feeling of fear is the trigger, and the thinking (which equals ‘looking for safety’) is the reaction, and so the one leads straightaway to the other without any break in-between. I feel fear, and I react by trying to think my way out of it, which makes the fear grow. This makes me react more, which makes the fear grow more, and so on and so forth. From this we can see that it isn’t actually the fear that is the problem, but rather the problem is my reaction to the fear, which creates a vicious circle.
The answer is simply for me to notice how I feel without doing anything about it. ‘Noticing’ is a very gentle, non-aggressive thing to do – if I am feeling fear, then all that I do is notice myself feeling fear. I see that I am afraid in other words, rather than trying to control myself so that I am not afraid. Of course if I am feeling very fearful or very anxious it is going to be very unlikely that I can just all of a sudden notice my mental state rather than reacting to it – but if I practice ‘noticing how I am feeling without thinking about how I am feeling’ on a regular basis with less overwhelming feelings and emotions then it becomes possible to work in the same way with stronger feelings.
NOTICING THE FUTILITY OF NEUROTIC THINKING
What we are talking about here is ‘separating thinking and feeling’ and the way to do this is simply to take time out from whatever you are doing and noticing exactly how you feel. When this happens it happens so naturally and easily that we might think it takes no work at all but in practice it is not easy because we tend to experience automatic resistance to ‘the way that we are’. What this means is that as soon as I notice the way that I am feeling I automatically start thinking that I shouldn’t be feeling that way. There are a million different ways of having this basic thought but they all come down to the same thing – “I don’t like this”; “It isn’t right that I should feel like that”; “It’s bad that this should be happening”; “Why is this happening to me?”; “Isn’t it terrible that I am feeling so awful”, and so on and so forth.
These thoughts are evaluations of my situation and they happen as we have said more or less automatically, which is to say, they pretty well happen by themselves. As soon as I think these thoughts, they bog me down in looking at things in a particular way, and I end up well and truly stuck in my misery. I think these thoughts without reflecting very much (if at all) on what I am actually doing – if I did reflect on the matter I would see that all these thoughts are absolutely absurd, and absolutely futile.
Something happens, and I straightaway think, “That shouldn’t be happening…” But what kind of a thing to think is that? Something happens and I think that it shouldn’t have happened. This certainly doesn’t get me anywhere, and it doesn’t help me in the least, so why do I do it? The obvious reason is that I can’t get beyond my automatic objection to reality: things are a certain way and I can’t get over the fact that they are that way. In the case of anxiety there is a problem (or more likely a bunch of problems) that I can’t fix, or that I suspect I might not be able to fix, and I can’t get over this. Once again, things are a certain way and I don’t like them being that way.
It helps a lot to pay careful attention to the sort of thinking that we engage in when we feel bad. It helps because when we actually pay attention to our automatic thoughts we see that they are not only a waste of time, but also that they are detrimental to us. In the case of typical ‘worrying-type’ thoughts, we all know that the worrying is useless, but we still don’t focus on how scarily futile it is to be thinking the same old thoughts over and over again like some kind of broken machine. The reason we don’t fully see this is because we still have some ‘hope’ that the thoughts will help us escape from the hole we are in. We still have faith in our thinking, we haven’t yet seen through it completely. If we did see through our thinking completely, then we would start to be free from it – and conversely, if we aren’t free from our neurotic thoughts then the reason is that we still believe that these thoughts can help us escape from our predicament. As we keep saying, neurotic thinking can’t help us, and in fact it is the neurotic thinking that creates the predicament in the first place.
NEUROTIC THINKING IS ‘PAIN AVOIDANCE’
There is a reason why thinking and feeling are so intertwined and the reason is that our habitual patterns of thinking are in fact all about pain avoidance. The automatic thinking that sets in when we start to feel bad is our way of trying to escape the unwanted feelings. We are trying to ‘wriggle out of it’, to ‘find a loophole’, to ‘side-step the issue’. The neurotic pattern of thinking is how we try to ‘wangle it’. If this escape attempt actually worked then that would be okay but the thing is that not only does our attempt to escape pain by thinking in a particular way about it not work, it actually works against us.
We can give an example of the way in which we use thinking in order to avoid emotional pain. A typical example would be where something unfortunate happens to me – such as my partner leaving me. If something like this happens to me I do not usually just feel the ‘hurt’, instead I react to the hurt by thinking in a particular way. I might think in the particular way that ends up with me feeling sorry for myself. Feeling sorry for myself is how I try to comfort myself with my thinking, but as we all know, it doesn’t actually make me feel any better – actually I just end up digging a hole for myself, and then spending a long time languishing in that hole. I might also react to the hurt by thinking to myself in such a way as to vindicate or validate myself and blame my partner. This is called ‘getting angry’. This also is ‘self-comforting’ and so it is of course another way of digging a hole for myself. Really what I am feeling is sadness, but because the emotional pain of the sadness is too hard for me to bear, I turn it into anger instead, which is pain avoidance. In this case we can say that ‘anger is a mask for sorrow’.
It is important to understand that the type of thinking we have when we feel bad is pain-avoidance because when we understand this it is only a small step to seeing that our thinking is ‘self-deceiving’. When we see that we are deceiving ourselves with our thinking then we are no longer deceiving ourselves, and so we are free from the captivating ‘spell’ of the thinking. Another way of explaining this is to talk about the natural (unforced) process of disillusionment:
When we see neurotic thinking for what it is, then we are naturally disillusioned with our thinking, and when we are disillusioned with our thinking then this means that we no longer believe in its power to help us.
YOU CAN’T STOP THINKING ON PURPOSE
I can’t actually force myself to stop all the thinking that I automatically engage in when I feel bad. If I noticed the fact that I am thinking (or worrying) automatically and then reacted to this by thinking, “It isn’t right that I should be thinking thoughts like this” then this in itself would be a futile automatic thought. All I am doing is noticing that things aren’t the way I want them to be, and then getting totally stuck on the fact that things aren’t the way that I want them to be. In other words, I become totally unable to move on.
The way to separate thinking and feeling is not by thinking about things, or automatically evaluating the situation that I am in, but by noticing exactly what is going on in my head, and seeing how that makes me feel. I cannot cut my thinking off dead (unless I knock myself out in some way, which isn’t really helpful in the long-term), but what I can do is to see that fact that I am thinking whatever it is that I am thinking. Instead of thinking about the fact that I am thinking – which increases the amount of thinking and makes me feel worse – I just notice the reality of what is happening. Noticing is the key because noticing is not reacting.
So for example if I am feeling sad and thinking despairing or self-pitying thoughts, I see that this is what I am doing. If I am anxious and busy worrying about all the problems that I have in my life at the moment, then I see that this is what I am doing. By seeing that I thinking whatever it is that I am thinking I separate thinking from feeling, which is another way of saying that ‘I notice how I feel without thinking about how I feel’. When I notice how I am feeling this frees me from the trap of compulsive thinking, and when I notice that I am thinking this also frees me from the trap of compulsive thinking.
The reason for this is simple. We have said that the reason I am thinking in a neurotic way is because I am trying to avoid the underlying emotional pain. We have also said that this attempt to avoid the pain causes me to get indefinitely stuck in misery. I get stuck in misery because basically I am trying to escape reality, which is impossible. But if I pay attention to what I am doing and allow myself to notice the underlying pain, then I am no longer avoiding and so there is no longer any need to keep on compulsively thinking. Therefore, we can say that noticing what is actually happening, and feeling whatever it is that I am actually feeling (rather than merely thinking about what I am feeling), is without any doubt whatsoever the absolutely infallible ‘cure’ for neurotic conflict.