Did you know our minds can only have one thought at a time?
Go ahead, try it. Try to think of two things at the exact same time. It’s not possible.
Even when we think we are thinking of multiple things at once, it’s just one thought after another, and another, and another, to infinity and beyond. These thoughts come so fast and succeed each other so smoothly and imperceivably that it can seem like it’s just one big thought.
This might seem like a downer, but it is actually the opposite! How we can use this fact to our advantage will become apparent when we look at negative thoughts. Because no matter what you do, negative thoughts will continue to arise. It is about what you do after that.
Replacing negative thoughts
Let’s say you’re thinking the thought: “This guy is really annoying me right now!” Usually, what would happen then is: we would drag this thought out, adding onto it or just letting it go on and on in our heads, letting it ruin our mood. Wreaking havoc on our state of mind.
Using the one thought at a time perspective, this is surprisingly easy to change though.
The moment you become conscious of having the thought: “I am annoyed right now”, is when the initial thought: “This guy is annoying me!”, is replaced. The realization is a thought in itself. We just don’t see it that way without being conscious of it.
If this sounds too far out, try the good old pink elephant example:
Please think about a pink elephant.
Now notice the thought of yourself thinking about the pink elephant. One of the thoughts is a picture of a pink elephant, the other one is you thinking: “I am thinking about a picture of a pink elephant.” It’s sort of a ‘meta thought’.
And therefore it replaces the first thought since we can only have one at a time.
These two thoughts are not the same. The thought about a thought is one in and of itself. And thus it replaced the original thought. You might go back to thinking about the pink elephant, but that is just a rapid succession of thoughts.
Are you still with me?
Awareness ≠ Positive thinking
“This guy is annoying!” is not the same thought as “I see myself being annoyed”. And herein lies the beauty. The moment the negative thought is replaced by another one, that means it’s gone. Usually, people will tell you to do this by thinking positive thoughts.
Good luck with that…
Suppose someone has just insulted you to your core. If they just touched on something so dear to you, so valuable, there won’t be a lot of incentive to think those positive thoughts. This, however, isn’t necessary.
Just noticing the fact that you’re angry makes you less angry.
Noticing that you’re annoyed makes you less annoyed. Those emotions all come from thoughts that trigger them. You can’t have those thoughts if you’re thinking about the person having them (you).
That being said, if you can replace the negative thought with a positive thought, then go for it! This is always a good idea since it will also increase the likelihood of the following thoughts being positive and thus improving your day.
How can we use this in daily life?
This is going to take some practice. It may seem complicated; however, it all comes down to this simple structure:
Having a negative thought followed by a coinciding emotion?
Become aware of the thought. See yourself thinking it.
See the emotion get less intense and eventually disappear.
Repeat this often enough and the awareness of the negative thought will slowly start to replace the negative thought itself almost instantly after you think it.
Like any other skill, it just requires conscious effort and training to start with. We have to go through the competence process, which is described as the 4 stages of competence.
After reading this article, you reached conscious incompetence stage (you know how to do it, you just can’t yet).
Eventually, you will become unconciously competent though, and it will just happen automatically when the situation presents itself. Some situations might be more challenging than others, but the principle stays the same.
Is the process clear to you? Can you see how this can help you in daily life?
Let me know what you think about this! (pun intended)