If you are experiencing emotional pain, it is because you are thinking about the unwanted aspects of a situation.
Many people feel they have to resolve painful or difficult issues, and for that reason they spend too much time thinking about things that do not make them feel good.
As just discussed, one of the primary premises of FDT is that thoughts grow.
What you think about gets bigger.
When you think about painful things, it brings more painful emotions.
You can habituate yourself to a painful thought by thinking or talking about it so much that it starts to lose some of its sting, in the same way that your nose starts to lose its sensitivity to a smell. But while your nose gets used to a smell after about three minutes, the process is much slower with your thinking. All of us, however, once we develop the awareness, have the power to redirect our thinking away from a painful thought almost as soon as it occurs.
Some people feel that when they redirect their thoughts, they are simply distracting themselves or avoiding the issue.
In FDT, however, redirecting your thinking constructively is not the same as avoidance; in fact, it is one of the most positive coping strategies that you can develop! While there are times when looking back at an unpleasant event to figure out how it could have gone better or how you could do it differently in the future is very useful, allowing yourself to ruminate on painful events can cause significant distress.
One of the reasons why redirecting your thoughts is so important is that the neurons in your brain work on an activation/inhibition model.
When you activate one neuron, that inhibits the activation of a competing neuron. When you activate a positive thought, that inhibits the activation of a negative thought, and vice versa. If you want to turn a negative thought off, the only way to do that is to activate a different thought. It is almost as if your brain has no Off button, only an On button.
For any thought to occur, negative or positive, you must turn it on, or activate it, with your attention.
Redirecting thought is not just distracting yourself; it is about turning on a stream of thinking that takes you in a better direction. No matter how much time you spend focusing on painful things, you will never improve the way you feel until you learn to redirect your thinking to what you want. Though it may seem difficult at first, everyone has the ability to do it.
The first step in redirecting your thought process requires awareness about your thoughts.
Without awareness, there is no choice. The practice assignments at the end of this chapter, including the “What Am I Thinking?” worksheet, are in- tended to help you increase your awareness. You’ll learn to check in with yourself regularly so that you grow accustomed to paying attention to your thoughts at any given moment.
Redirecting does not mean stopping your thought process.
If you tell yourself to stop thinking about something, you are likely to think about it even more. I want you to think about a pink elephant. Now stop thinking about the pink elephant. Hmm, what are you thinking about now? You’re probably still thinking about the pink elephant.
Instead of trying to stop your negative thinking, the goal is to find something else to think about that is more in line with your desires.
If you wake up in the morning thinking about how much you hate your job and all the reasons you don’t want to go to work that day, your feelings of dread will grow bigger unless you actively choose to focus on something else. As you become aware that you are thinking about something unwanted, you can actively decide to refocus on some- thing more pleasant, which will help you start to feel better and prevent you from growing more negative feelings.
Redirecting does not mean thinking the opposite, either.
If you don’t like your job, the goal is not to start thinking about how much you do like your job; this thought wouldn’t be true, and it would feel almost impossible to hold in your mind. The goal of redirecting is to simply move your thought process to a subject that is more pleasant. Doing so accomplishes two things. First, it stops the negative stream of thoughts, and second, it changes the direction of the thought pattern you are growing.
You can do many things to redirect your thinking.
Bringing your thoughts back to the present moment, which you will learn more about in chapter 6, is one technique. You can use the worksheet “My List of Positive Ways to Redirect My Thinking” on the next page to help you keep a list of the things you know generate positive feelings, such as your dog or eating ice cream or the memory of your daughter’s first laugh or a party you are looking forward to. You can also keep a list of your favorite words — such as love, friendship, peace, and beauty — and use those to refocus your thinking.
One simple and highly effective technique is to start with the first letter of the alphabet and think of something you like that starts with that letter, like apple pie.
Then go to the letter B and find a word for something you like that starts with that letter, like beauty. Keep going until you get to Z. By then you will have completely forgotten any negative thoughts you were having.
Another great technique for redirecting your thinking is to practice gratitude.
When you focus on what you are thankful for, you are thinking about things you want that already exist, so this is a great place to spend your thoughts if you want to quickly improve your mood. As you will read about in the next section, your eventual goal, as you work through the chapters, will be to learn to actively redirect your thinking toward the things that you want. What is important to know right now is that even if you have no idea what you want, you can redirect your thoughts away from things that generate negative emotions so that you are not growing more of them.
Redirecting Your Thoughts to Your Improved Future
From the FDT perspective, the single most important thing you must do to improve any unwanted situation is to identify a desired solution, a place you would rather move to. This place becomes your identified future destination, no matter how near or far that future is.
Once you have an identified desired destination, a cognitive dilemma is created: How do I get from point A, where I am, to point B, which is where I want to go? When you ask yourself this question, in order to solve this dilemma the problem-solving part of the brain, the executive network, gets activated.
As discussed earlier in this chapter,
Attention is a key method for activating the brain.
The more attention you allocate toward getting to point B, where you want to go, the more active the problem-solving part of the brain becomes as it works to come up with a way to get you there. This is because if B is a desirable state, focusing on B increases the motivation to get there.
For example, if you have the thought My life is stressful (point A) and I’d like to go on vacation (point B) and then go back to focusing on all the stressful things in your life, the likelihood of your going on a vacation is low. If, however, you stopped focusing on the stressful events in your life and instead redirected your thoughts toward how to take a vacation, your brain’s problem-solving mechanism would go to work and start to generate solutions to help you get there. You would start to think of places you would like to visit; then you might start to look up some of those places online, and as you did this, you would start to visualize what it would be like to actually be in those places.
Perhaps you would imagine yourself lying on a warm, sandy beach in Tahiti sipping a refreshing drink. The more you thought about this, the more motivated you would feel to get there. If you believe you can get to Tahiti and the drive is high enough, you are likely to take some action toward making it happen. Whenever you find yourself faced with a situation you don’t like or want, rather than focus on it, stop and ask yourself:
Where do I want to be instead?
A______ > ______ > ______ > ______ B
How can I get there?
All solutions come from asking some version of these questions. Once you have identified a target, you have something to work toward, and as you begin to spend your precious resources of thought and attention on your intended destination, your brain will go to work to help you get there. As you will learn more about in chapter 4, because we human beings spend resources only on what we believe to be possible, you need to choose a point B that you think you can realistically get to, not somewhere that’s far out of your reach.
While having fantasies about things you know to be impossible can make you feel good in the short term, the goal is to create a destination you can work toward so that you can turn it into a reality you live. Learning to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be will require the use of many skills, which you will acquire as you keep reading. However, simply giving more of your attention to point B and spending thought there can lead to rapid improvements in how you feel about any situation. As long as you have something to look forward to that feels like an improved condition, there is hope — and hope is what we thrive on.
Hope is what we thrive on.
About the author
To know more about Dr. Vilhauer, visit her website www.futuredirectedtherapy.com.