A Practical Approach in How I Manage Negative Thoughts and Feelings
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7th Jul 2016

A Practical Approach in How I Manage Negative Thoughts and Feelings

By Ruairi Thomas

28th May, 2016

Part 1

Writing a Letter to Yourself, and Starting a Dialogue with Yourself

As a disclaimer to this piece I wish to state that I am not a doctor and I have no credentials or professional qualifications in that capacity. What I am writing about here is not a prescription or medical advice and I would strongly recommend that anyone who feels they would benefit from professional help seek it out without hesitation. This is more an autobiographical piece with revelations I have made that I find helpful and as a writer and journalist I merely wish to share that.

I have a friend who goes to ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (AA) and they encourage their attendees to employ a very useful exercise, almost from the outset, called a gratitude list. This practice can be a very literal interpretation as I understand it; meaning you quite simply write down a list of things that you are grateful for. The great thing about this exercise, I feel, is it can be reviewed an amended at any time and it serves as both a physical and intellectual activity that one can perform personally, that a) perhaps isn’t a familiar routine, and b) also affords an opportunity to consider, marshal and visualise what and how one thinks. (I would also add to this that it can be useful to start keeping a journal or diary of feelings, and to notate observations each day and to then consider where it is believed these ideas may come from).

A gratitude list does not have to be overly complicated or ambitious, and at first the less complicated the better. Because it’s a list do not immediately begin to feel pressured to fill the page or to invent things in order to feel the exercise has been a success. If all one can summon is two or three points, then that is perfectly acceptable. It may look something like what follows:

1.Today, I woke up in my warm bed, in a safe building and the lights are working, and for that I am grateful.
2.This morning I made fresh coffee and drank it by my window while watching the world, and for that I am grateful.
3.Of the contacts in my phone I know that there are people there who I can call upon for help, and for that I am grateful.

Now, some of these items listed above may not be possible or even at all relevant, and that’s okay. It may be that those three items are beyond what one feels able to commit to presently, and that’s okay. Again, there is not pressure to match one’s own gratitude list with another person, or, to invent items to feel that a long list is somehow more valid. The list may be something like the one below:

1.I am grateful because I washed myself.
2.I am grateful because books make me happy.
3.I am grateful because I heard a bird singing this morning.

It does not have to be especially elaborate or glamorous, or even material. It should be a time to sit down for a few moments and consider not what one does not have, or what one is not doing, but what beyond all those things there is to be grateful for. It will also be helpful to perhaps keep these items written in a diary or journal in order to formalise and even diarise the practice. Make it habitual as it were. And this is a technique I have found very useful even though I am not an alcoholic. I discovered this kind of positive reinforcement is the fundamental starting block to begin building the ‘affirmation muscle’. It is the formative and necessary steps to start developing a language, a way of channelling thought positively and to counter negative and learned ideas. Negative thoughts and ideas are not something one is born with neither are they inherent. They are often learned and when something is learned, because of the nature of learning a thing, it also becomes reinforced and practiced and then applied without much effort. The effort that is required to counter this behaviour is indeed double, because the goal is to unlearn certain negative habits and in their place erect positive reinforced affirmations that begin to form a strong basis for change and growth.

I recall feeling, as you may be able to empathise, that there was a time in my life where I was experiencing the same or similar situations (usually not positive) and there were almost signature emotions when these situations occur. For example: a relationship I had invested in didn’t work out and there was break up. I began to feel very intensely old familiar feelings of fear, dread, shame and guilt that were much more amplified than usual. I often used to describe it like music. When I was at a low point the music was loud and deafening; and other times it was merely turned down. You may also recognise this and that there were perhaps feelings of being deeply depressed. Well okay, let’s accept that these things may be true. Let’s try looking at the situation objectively, rather than through the prism of something that can be irrational and misleading like being highly emotional. Firstly, there is good research to suggest that all depression can be traced back to a loss. Here, with regards to a break up, there has recently been a loss. Let us now consider what are the effects or symptoms of loss? Grief. Sadness. Mourning. Crying. Loneliness. For a start it is important that one should not begin to blame oneself for having these very reasonable and common reactions to a loss, and if blame is the ‘natural’ position, notate it. There is after all enough pain and difficulty there already without adding to that shame, guilt and blame. When a negative situation occurs in our lives we tend, not always, but quite often to ascribe blame for that happening or to seek someone or something to blame. The anger may be projected outwards or indeed in various directions, but the person who tends to end up baring the majority if not the entire share of the blame is yourself. What did I do? Why does this happen to me? Am I a bad person? Yes. Why? Because this isn’t the first time. And so on. Again, return to looking at the situation objectively. These are all perfectly common and reasonable responses to a loss or to a similar situation and for that you can immediately grant yourself some slack. You could even say it out aloud: “I am sad because I have lost my boyfriend/girlfriend”. But one should also consider or say at the very least that something not ‘working out’ does not necessarily require that someone, namely you, be blamed. This isn’t an intrinsic character flaw in other words.

You may, as I have, lost someone, or perhaps you broke off a relationship, or, you may have acted inappropriately. Fine, then let’s accept that and realise that although the situation is far from ideal or perhaps where we hoped it might have lead, there are perfectly intelligible and rational reasons as to why you feel a particular way about it.

Falling into a negative thought cycle can be all too easy and indeed very seductive. It is far easier to go straight to blame and to close down the idea (and the pain) than to accept the emotion and the reason and then to consider objectively what could be done to better manage this in the future. And already by doing this simple thought activity one has begun to change the way one thinks – if that is indeed one’s goal. Negative feelings and thoughts are in fact not very difficult to identify and empathise with, and therefore they can be as easily approached with logic and a fresh perspective, though it does take practice. A good example of a negative thought cycle from my experience was as follows:

“Things didn’t work out – this always happens – the world is against me – everyone hates me – I am a bad person – I have failed – this will keep happening – I should disappear – I should be dead – I hate myself”

At the height, or indeed the lowest, point of my own depression the thought pattern was not even this compartmentalised. So well established was this idea of myself that I went straight from ‘Things didn’t work out’ to ‘I should be dead. I hate myself’. This isn’t even ‘knee-jerk’ (as in instinctual), this was clearly learned, practiced and applied. Why? Because no one is inherently bad. I was not born bad. I was born human and therefore fallible and maybe a bit flawed. But not bad, or evil, or intrinsically dysfunctional. I had learned this idea of myself, so it stands that I could reasonably expect to unlearn it too. And this idea, once I became familiar with it, changed the way I felt about the ideas I held of myself.

I found that when I made a mistake or hurt someone emotionally, or failed to meet ‘my own expectation’ – which, by the way, are the highest and often the most unreasonable expectations – that I felt a terrible shame, and depression, and guilt, and anxiety and a profound dread of reprisals. Reprisals that, when I really considered it, had no real physical threat. They were like looming faceless shadows in my mind with no voice. They weren’t real.

Indeed I recently described my depression of the last decade like some absurd corruption of being pregnant. Like hosting a life, a cancer inside that I wanted to cut out, but instead found myself overwhelmed by passivity. Something rotten inside me that I was carrying needed to be extirpated.

So what I did, or began to do, to cope, was I began writing letters to the people I felt I had injured or caused pain. This could have been friends, family, old lovers or teachers. I wrote long, prostrating, self-chastising ‘confessions’ of a deeply and overly apologetic style that I felt encompassed my ‘crime’, my ‘confession’ and my punishment in one sweep. I thought I was handling the problem but I was not doing that at all. I was hiding from my responsibility, turning from a dialogue about the situation and assuming that I knew what the feelings and intentions of the other parties were. I was acting as Judge, Jury and Executioner and after that as tormentor to myself by never forgiving myself. I recently reread one such letter I had written to someone who I had witness an injustice done to, and I had carried a great and terrible guilt for not doing more to help them. As I read I realised that this could easily be a suicide note. So intertwined were my sentiments of guilt and shame, with fear and death I had failed to notice the relationship (which incidentally, there is none).

We are all our own worst critics and we know all the darkest things about ourselves. Added to that when I did something ‘bad’ or less than charitable, I immediately conflated this incident with other negative memories or painful incidents and compounded them as this long litany of charges that I would ‘answer for’. This it might be argued was the dark apparition in my mind that appeared as the faceless agent of dread, and perhaps death. This was a disproportionate response to say the least and I had to start to consider why in fact this so-called ‘behaviour’ may even be occurring in the first place.

In the end I had to seek private therapy which was just the right time because I genuinely wanted and need to be helped. It was perhaps the most life-changing and best refocusing of my energy that had ever happened and if you feel that it is something you could really benefit from I cannot recommend it enough.

What I decided to do, for myself, was to write a letter to myself and make a serious attempt to objectively explore and explain some of these behaviours. This is both an intellectual and proactive and practical activity and it required my full engagement. It is quite difficult to write about oneself objectively, perhaps seemingly impossible. But if you want to start taking responsibility as I did, I knew ultimately I would have to gain control of myself and manage that control if I were to have any success, and here is a technique.

I had to become the adult in my life. Parenting myself in the way I would like to parent my own children. I began to practice on myself. I realised that I was having a relatively, and consistently, ‘childlike’ response to negativity in my life. Considering death is, you may think, a very mature idea. Perhaps, but if my tendency when something goes wrong is to become obsessed with punishment; to make situations bigger than they are; to seek blame and to think things like ‘I’m bad’; to lock myself away and not talk or deal with a situation in a mature way; to avoid responsibility; to cry and run to anger, then am I not displaying rather childlike responses to my circumstances?

So I took myself to one side and talked to myself and worked through the situation as if I were the adult, or indeed, the parent helping the child to understand their situation from a mature and rational perspective. Being a parent to yourself does not necessarily mean to punish, or reprimand. That is a very particular parenting style; the authoritarian style. What I had to learn and practice and employ seriously, was the maternal style of parenting myself. I had to take the situation and say ‘Okay, you made a mistake and that’s okay. Now let’s look at how we can make things better’. In other words, I metabolised the world for myself in a more constructive and calm fashion. I do not take the very harsh and habitual authoritarian parenting style of, ‘Right, you’ve done it again. You’re a bad person and you should be sent away’. In time, and with enough practice I began to employ the more affirming style more readily until the ‘adult’ approach became the habitual. I handle things in an ‘adult’ way.

This does not come easily by any means and there was some initial resistance because I was so used to, or had learned so well the other style of the disciplinarian, to effectively brutalise myself. It definitely takes work and persistence and in time I realised it has just as much force than its counter; and further, I started to see that I was benefitting from this approach i.e. changing my circumstances. And I compound the new positive experiences with the new parenting style realising that I actually make significant progress by doing this and it therefore holds far greater value and power than its counter. I tricked myself. In my ‘unlearning’, flashes, little pockets of memory that were forgotten or perhaps buried were not burdens renewed, but old ones changing. The violence in these momentary flashes, these memories, had hitherto brought great pain and were indeed paralysing. Now, the violence is done to the perception of the memory, like little galaxies exploding inside me. They are gargantuan in their annihilation, and in their death create new life.

As previously stated, the method I found useful to begin this exercise was to write a letter to myself from the perspective of the adult, or parent, that I would like to be, and I used myself as the child that I wanted to have a positive effect on. This is not an easy task but it pays to be persistent and thorough. I simply pretended I was talking to a younger me and without being judgmental or critical I wrote a letter that used rationale to discuss painful memories and to make them more digestible. I metabolised them. I empathised with feelings about certain memories and I accepted that they were perfectly normal and forgivable. I recognised when my behaviour could have been handled differently and offered advice on what to do next time; I recognised when a painful memory brought up an emotional response and asked what I could have done differently, and whether I thought what I did was best at the time. I asked about how I was sleeping and suggested ways to remedy that that weren’t just turning to sleeping aids or alcohol. I asked what my passions were and if I had any hobbies, and whether I felt I had neglected them recently, and what could I do to reintroduce them to my schedule. And I asked about relationships and friends and again whether I had neglected them recently, and what I could do to improve and rebuild them. I also asked if whether I thought therapy would be useful and what my feelings were about having therapy, and if they were negative, why?

I spent time working through actually quite simple ideas and each time there was resistance or rebellion accepting it and then providing a solution – from the perspective of the adult or parent I would like to be for myself – that was not currently being employed or considered. In other words, I tricked myself into breaking habits of negative behaviour. And then I asked myself what I would like for the future. I asked what I would like to see change or happen and what small steps ‘we’ could begin to take to make it happen. I didn’t ask for elaborate or grandiose schemes, merely manageable goals at this point. For example:

1.I would like to be fitter. Well, how can we do that? We could go for a walk tonight, and tomorrow look at joining a gym.
2.I would like to meet someone nice. Well, how can we do that? I could join a dating website, or a group perhaps.
3.A group? Well, you are quite a gifted artist, aren’t you? What about a painting club? We could search using a local directory. What else?
4.I would like to get more sleep. Well, what do you do now that isn’t working? I drink before bed and usually because I’m worried about tomorrow. I also stay up late. Okay, well, instead of buying alcohol, why don’t we take that money and invest in a gym membership? If the gym also had a pool that would be a nice way to relax in the evening before going to bed. Good idea. Anything else?
5.No, for now I think that should be enough. Thank you.

I began to make myself my own project and in taking the time to consider what I want and not try to guess what other people might want from me or think of me. I shifted the focus from looking externally to internally and I identified that I knew exactly how much of what I wanted to achieve was manageable for me at this time, and accepted it. I didn’t take on more than I could manage. Incidentally, looking inward is not self-indulgent or selfish if the goal is to improve oneself. By addressing these initial goals listed above I began to make changes in myself that by proxy had a positive effect on my external life and thus the pressure to satisfy others is abated, or at least managed. If you decide to apply this method then be sure to note this down in your diary too. Be sure to congratulate yourself for having the courage to try. Congratulate the parent in you for doing a good job and for presenting sound advice. Be kind to yourself for trying.

Now, this is not an exact science and I do not have it all figured out. I still have to practice these methods every day and the process is still ongoing. I still see a therapist. And in truth, this piece in many ways is another way for me to reinforce and affirm my own practices and methods. But that is okay. It serves its purpose and as an initial step, if nothing else, is worth investing in. Anything will help you to get where you’re going, once you are clear about where you want to go. It is important to remember that you cannot do it all in one night and you cannot change everything at once and it is unreasonable to expect to do so. It is unreasonable to put that kind of pressure on yourself. Start with manageable pieces a day at a time.

Write a letter to yourself. And be mindful that dark times do come, but they also pass. And what at first seems opaque and perhaps fills you with a paralysing dread, may actually be an opportunity to learn. It might not just be the end of something, it could also be the beginning of something else. You will not feel this way forever and it is important to know that. It may not seem clear at present but you will feel differently about this time in your life, and you will use it as a life lesson or safeguarding in future. Like when a child touches something hot and they learn not to go rushing in and assume all surfaces are safe. We can choose not to be burned and cause unnecessary pain to ourselves.

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