Mental Exercises for Negative Thoughts

I haven’t posted much here lately about the mental work I’ve been doing to combat my bad brain habits. I’ve found that I tend to discover particular conceptual tools that help with particular issues a lot. Which ones I’m actively using or even actively able to remember changes rapidly based on my attention span for each particular exercise and other factors, so I thought I should start recording them explicitly so I don’t forget useful ones. Hopefully also other people may find them interesting or useful. Here’s two I’ve been using recently.

First:

The Problem: Worrying about doing the right thing/being a good person

The Helpful Tool: Spending time focusing on the fact that you’re pretty much always doing your best

This is a hard thing for me. I’m incredibly hard on myself. I’m perfectionist about being honest, about not hurting people, about being a good, supportive person, etc, etc. I agonize when I’m not able to live up to my standards. One of the things that’s been helping me lately is focusing on a few facts:

1) That I’m pretty much always doing my best, and that’s all I can do.

2) That if I consider having done my best to still be a failure, success is impossible.

3) That the worrying itself rarely changes anything for the better, and is therefore counterproductive. In fact, it likely (to a degree) undermines my ability to do better at the things I want to do better at—VERY counterproductive.

3.5) Relaxing about all the anxiety, on the other hand, is productive. More productive for solving those very same problems I’m worrying about than the worrying itself is.

4) In spite of all the time I spend worriedly concentrating on problems, the worry-time rarely produces useful insights.


Second:

The Problem: Jealousy about other people being in relationships

The Helpful Tool: Pretending that relationship labels don’t exist.

This is an unexpected and interesting one for me. I’ve been ranting a lot lately about how I think relationship labels (e.g. friends with benefits, significant other, girlfriend, etc.) are less useful and more problematic than people think. I’m not against them in principle, but I’ve been choosing to use them less than I used to. In part because everyone seems to define them slightly differently and that creates communication issues, and in part because I want my interactions with people to be about what we, the people, want, and not about what the expectations are for people who apply the relationship label we’ve chosen to themselves.

In the course of thinking this way, I’ve realized that stepping outside of the relationship label tradition is just as useful for thinking about other people’s relationships as thinking about my own. If I see two people in a relationship, and I imagine they live in a world with no relationship labels, then they’re just two people interacting in a particular way. I’m able to remember that all interactions with all people are different, and that there are a lot of relationships (in fact probably most of the ones I see) that I, personally, would never ever want to be in. Even the ones that are good for everyone involved, I’m able to think of them in a way that acknowledges their uniqueness. In a way that take away all of the stupid, wrong assumptions that come with labels.

I think everyone, to a degree, has an image attached to the word “relationship” in their mind’s eye that’s hard to escape. Mine tends to be a vision that’s happy, carefree, effortless, hierarchically primary, and carries an implication of various restrictions placed on people lacking relationship-level status with either of the people involved.

But of course, not all relationships are happy, carefree, effortless, or hierarchically primary (or even hierarchical in any sense). And any boundaries they may involve aren’t even remotely standardized. In my brain, killing the label helps kill the assumptions. Killing the assumptions helps me see relationships more as unique combinations of personalities—like what they really are. This seems, in many cases, to have an ameliorating effect on jealousy.

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