3. Fighting Thoughts leads to Defeat

November 28, 2023

Many people unknowingly wage a ceaseless battle against their thoughts, especially negative thoughts. Such battles are often doomed to failure. Yet, many people, unaware of this fact, walk down a path that is destined to fail. One in three people will encounter significant mental health issues in their lifetime. One in five Americans take antidepressants. Can you imagine how many people are embarking on a futile battle?

The battles they wage manifest in three primary ways.

The first battle is 'Surrender'. It's a battle in its own right, albeit in a self-affirming, negative sense. People often concede to the thoughts that arise in their minds. "I'm a coward," "What can a person like me do?", "It's hopeless anyway". The moment such thoughts arise, many people react with "Yes, that's true," or "Exactly." The result is predictable. They succumb, became depressed, and anxiety grows. As a result, such thoughts like "I'm a coward," "What can a person like me do?", "It's hopeless anyway" arise more frequently in their minds. After a few months of repeating this process, they invariably end up stuck in a deep rut. Using the popcorn metaphor, negative thoughts that pop up in one's mind are like burnt popcorn. People who wage the 'surrender' battle collect and pile up the burnt popcorn that pops up in their minds, and they gaze at it while living their lives.

Figure 1. Some people accumulate negative thoughts and focus solely on them.

The second battle is 'Overcompensation'. Overcompensation entails striving to prove that a thought that comes to mind is wrong. For instance, consider a person who often harbors the deep-seated thought "I am not enough." This person would strive to prove this notion wrong. They work hard, strive to do better, and even achieve actual productive outcomes. At a glance, overcompensation may seem harmless as long as it works, even potentially beneficial. However, it's not. To start with, even if it works, people usually run themselves ragged in the process of constant overcompensation. Trying to satisfy an insatiable feeling repeatedly leads to exhaustion, manifesting as burnout, feeling of meaninglessness in life, and other phenomena.

Moreover, the self-esteem built through overcompensation is precariously akin to a tottering tower. People hiding their negative thoughts through overcompensation tend to feel pressured, experience stress, and are likely to feel anxious. They also tend to exhibit lowered resilience when they face hurdles. When things don't go well, the tower they've built crumbles faster, causing them to hit rock bottom even harder. The moment of facing the futility of all the efforts to prove the falseness of the negative thoughts that came to mind can be intense.

Overcompensation is like painting white on a burnt popcorn kernel and asserting that it's white popcorn. However, as one can tell with a single bite, a burnt popcorn kernel is still burnt, no matter how hard one tries. No amount of effort can turn it into white popcorn. Such efforts are invariably destined to fail whichever way you look at it.

Figure 2. Some people attempt to forcibly change negative thoughts into positive ones.

The third battle is 'Avoidance'. Avoidance can take on various forms. Some may try to chase away the negative thoughts occupying their minds, telling themselves, "No, I shouldn't think like this. Let's think positively and correctly." However, such efforts often end up further strengthening the memory of the adverse thoughts. If you're told not to think of a 'pink elephant', a pink elephant is likely to be the first thing that comes to mind. The more we try to chase a thought away, the more frequently it crops up in our minds. Since we cannot chase thoughts out of our minds at will, we end up wasting our time on an impossible task. As a result, the theme of our lives increasingly shifts towards the thoughts we wish to avoid, which in turn has a stronger influence over us.

Another form of avoidance also exists. Some people try not to create situations that confirm their negative thoughts. Take, for instance, a person who harbors the belief "I can't fit in with others". This person finds it hard to face their thoughts and thus tries to avoid creating such situations. They opt not to attend social gatherings, and they seldom keep in touch with friends. While this approach may decrease the chances of encountering thoughts such as "I can't fit in with others", paradoxically, it only verifies and strengthens the belief "I can't fit in with others".

Avoidance is akin to attempts to hide burnt popcorn kernels that have popped out of the popcorn machine. Whether through covering them with cloth or desperately hiding them somewhere, the burnt kernels do not disappear. Perhaps, after hiding them well for a while, one might get struck with a greater shock upon confronting the reality of having numerous kernels within their bowl.

Figure 3. Some people act as if negative thoughts do not exist.

Interestingly, clinical levels of mental health issues often stem from such battles. In cases like PTSD or OCD, efforts to avoid invasive trauma memories or compulsive thoughts are included in the diagnostic criteria - the process of fighting the thoughts that come to mind becomes the problem. Panic disorders often start and develop from attempts to avoid feeling anxious. "I feel chest tightness. What should I do? There are too many people. What if I pass out? I need to escape from here. I feel like I could die." The thoughts inside a person with a panic disorder accelerate at an alarming rate, heading towards the conclusion, "I feel like I could die." Such a conclusion induces panic, leading to a panic attack. In depression, avoidance of thoughts like "The world is hopeless" or "I am incompetent" lead to a decrease in activity and eventual non-participation in life, often spending time only on beds. Going outside would inevitably confront them with these thoughts again, thus precipitating depression into a reality.

Any battle waged, if it's against thoughts, it's destined to end in loss. This applies to everyone. Even if you're currently winning a battle against your thoughts, it will eventually culminate in a significant loss. Yet, many people are unaware of this. They believe they think freely and battle the negative thoughts that come to mind in various ways. As a result, despite the rapid advancement of science and technology, the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders is continuously rising. Even to the point where one-third of the population grapples with these issues at least once in their lifetime.

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