In my previous blog post, I mentioned talking to yourself is not a sign of madness; it is quite the opposite. It falls under the ambiguous banner of mindfulness and, when used correctly, is an exceptional skill. It is even a critical tool used in various therapies, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
We think all the time – we don’t need to be told to think, and certainly can’t be told to not think. If we were told not to think, we would only think more. There have been plenty of scientific experiments conducted to verify this. So, we can conclude that thinking is categorically out of our control.
We think. It’s what we do!
The challenge, however, is can we control what we think?
Before we can consider this, it’s essential to understand that we think about things from the past and often fantasise about the future. Both are important as we learn valuable lessons from our past, and we need to envision our future to help make decisions in the present.
This, however, becomes a problem when you get stuck in the past. When you find past experiences hard to leave where they belong – in the past. It usually occurs with traumatic or emotionally intense events – events that you have perhaps still not fully digested or made peace with.
I dislike the saying “bury the past” as it is, in my opinion, aside from metaphorically, impossible. Burying something doesn’t mean it never occurred. Also, burying it means that you might also try to bury the lessons from it. I completely understand that referring to the past in such an inconsequential manner might be triggering, especially if you are still struggling with a past traumatic event. Thus, it might be fitting for me, at this point, to express that self-help is not always a suitable method for getting over extremely traumatic events, and it might be advisable, even necessary, to get professional help. The important part of what I’m trying to say is that you don’t want to brush it under the carpet if you suffer from post-traumatic stress. Skeletons in the cupboard have a tenancy to mutate into zombies and chase after you. It’s better to know that they exist and can’t harm you if you lock the cupboard and swallow the key.
That being said, I appreciate sayings such as, “I forgive, but I never forget”, as they are achievable as well as meaningful. As humans, and as an oversimplification, we have two structures of memory: temporary and long-term storage. We need both to survive. Temporary memory saves trivial experiences for the short term while our heavy-duty storage archives and compartmentalises more complex and valuable memories. It is crucial to store essential memories because they are a reference point.
The key, however, is not to allow them to take siege of the ship and surface whenever they feel like it. Although this is much easier said than done, it is not impossible. Remember, despite not controlling many external factors in your life, your mind is solely yours. You are the master, chief and commander of your mind and thoughts. This is a dominion where you are the sovereign ruler with the power to incarcerate unwanted and unpleasant thoughts. When you are aware that specific thoughts are toxic and stand in the way of you living a fulfilling life, and capital punishment is not a viable option, you are left with no choice but to extradite the thoughts to the deepest dungeons of your mind.
The first part of achieving this is acceptance. We must accept this event happened. We can’t change that, irrespective of how much we want to; fantasising about rewriting a historical event will only lead to further disappointment when we reface reality. Unfortunately, this can also result in us becoming overwhelmingly sad, depressed, and bitterly resentful.
Once we have accepted this event has happened, we must acknowledge that it is not happening. This is a crucial step towards the imprisonment of negative thoughts and painful memories. You can’t control the past, but you can control your thoughts about the past.
It is much easier to compensate negative thoughts from the past with positive ones instead of just trying to “bury” them. The power of association is a force to be reckoned with.
We sometimes associate events with timeframes, places, and our senses. For example, whenever my siblings and I would get together at our parents’ home, we would automatically think about food. This was because we associated my parents’ house with eating. This happened irrespective of whether we were hungry or not. In a similar vein, my friend James who had quit smoking for over two years said that he still craved a cigarette when he dined at a particular restaurant because he had fond memories of socialising and smoking with his friends after a meal at that restaurant. Smoking was linked to his nostalgic memories of past events.
Associations and patterns can sometimes govern our lives – we can act and feel emotions based on things we have consciously or unconsciously associated with other things. If we can be mindful of the chain of associations, we can disrupt or even break the links.
If we apply this method to negative thoughts, we first identify the cue – what elicited the emotion or thought. We then need to investigate how we have made the association and then think of ways to prevent the association from occurring. The simplest way would be to avoid the trigger altogether, but this is not always possible, especially if you are triggered by a person or place that you cannot avoid. It might then be a good idea to think of an alternative action when you feel the cue. This is where talking to yourself might be effective.
You are more likely to understand yourself and what triggers you if you look at yourself from outside. It is much easier to notice other people’s pain points and even offer sound and effective advice to others than would for yourself. Some clinical psychologists go as far as to say that most people look after others and even their pets more than themselves. Hence observing yourself from the outside might prove to be helpful. Looking at your thoughts instead of through your thoughts (cognitive diffusion) is an effective way to let thoughts come and go without attaching yourself to them.
Remind yourself that you control your thoughts by changing what you would typically do next. For instance, let’s say you feel an emotional cue and your immediate response is to find comfort in food or light a cigarette; instead, look for comfort in something else. This could be anything, go for a walk, try some exercise, you could even try cooking a new recipe or go and see a friend.
Of course, this isn’t easy, and it will take your brain a while to adapt to the change, but it will get there eventually. There have been countless studies on the parts of our brains, particularly the basal ganglia, responsible for forming and storing habits. Much of the data suggests that making simple adjustments to how you respond to your cues can help reorient your thoughts to change your habits.
When people quit smoking, the physical act of smoking outlives the nicotine addiction and craving. Therefore, finding an alternative action that also offers an alternative reward can be helpful. Some people start chewing gum to keep their mouth busy; others think of using their hands to keep themselves busy. James told me that he would spend approximately twenty minutes opening pistachio shells to keep his hands occupied. Every time he thought about the act of smoking, he grabbed a hand full of pistachios and snapped them open one by one.
This does not mean you need to rush to the shop and buy an endless supply of pistachios; you might be allergic to the damn things! Instead, it would be best to think of something that you can easily do and will engage your attention.