“You are the cause of your suffering, but only 100% of it.”
— Byron Katie (paraphrased)
One of my favorite authors is Byron Katie, the originator of a self-help technique known as The Work. The Work is series of 4 questions that allows anyone to discover that the real cause of all his or her suffering is internally sourced.
When I first learned about this method, I was amazed at both its simplicity and logic. It almost seemed too easy to believe that a set of 4 questions could solve all of one’s problems. And after working with the technique for some time, I discovered that it was definitely “easier said than done”.
What Works, What Doesn’t
The Work is a great method for discovering that all mental pain is self-inflicted. More specifically, it makes it easy to realize that pain isn’t caused by what happens to us, but how we think about what happens to us. By reading Katie’s books and doing The Work, this concept becomes perfectly clear.
But once this realization is made, the process of The Work becomes a lot more challenging. The next step of The Work is to stop believing the negative thoughts that are producing the pain. In fact, each time such a thought appears, The Work suggests that this thought should be questioned.
But questioning negative thoughts is a habit that is not easy to develop. No matter how hard we may try, most of us will continue to believe our negative thoughts before we think to question them. Therefore, it is helpful to also have a method for what to do in cases when you find yourself in mental pain over a thought that you have (once again) already allowed yourself to believe.
You Have A Thinking Problem
From 1957 until 1959, a lady by the name of Eva Pierrakos channelled a series of psycho-spiritual lectures that came to be known as The Pathwork Lectures. One of the significant things mentioned in the lectures is that if an activity did not contain any pleasure in it, humans would simply stop engaging in it of their own free will.
The reason that we can’t just stop thinking our negative thoughts is because even though they give us pain, we also derive a certain amount of pleasure from them. In the Pathwork Lectures, this type of pleasure is called “negative pleasure”. It is this negative pleasure that keeps us addicted to our negative thoughts, which means a part of us wants to believe them.
Until the negative pleasure we derive from our negative thoughts is recognized, these thoughts will persist. So although the first step is to realize that it is one’s thoughts that are causing the pain, the second step is to discover how these same thoughts are also giving oneself pleasure. The good news is that once there is an awareness of the negative pleasure, a choice can then be made to let these thoughts go. But as long as one thinks that negative thoughts produce pain only, giving up the desire for negative thoughts is not possible. This is very important to understand.
Dealing with Negative Thoughts
Not long ago, I created a simple strategy for dealing with and eliminating negative thoughts. This method can be used anytime you find yourself thinking about a thought that is causing you pain.
Step 1: Take a moment to ask yourself: “Do I want to be happy?” Confirm that the answer is yes.
Step 2: Go back to the thought that was making you unhappy and repeat it in your mind.
For example: “My daughter should not have done that.” “My husband does that to annoy me.” It could also be a fantasy about something awful that happens to you or a family member. It is important to work with any thought that is causing pain.
Step 3: Ask yourself why you were thinking this thought if it doesn’t give you happiness. In other words, if you truly wanted to be happy, then why not choose to think a happy thought instead? For example, why did you think “my sister hates me” instead of “God loves me”.
Note that it doesn’t even matter if the negative thought is true or not. For instance, even if your sister does hate you, it doesn’t mean you have to think about it. The fact is that you thought about something that made you sad when you could have been thinking about something that makes you happy.
Step 4: Note that there are two possibilities:
- You do not actually want to be happy OR
- You MUST be deriving some sort of pleasure from the negative thought.
Since you already confirmed in step 1 that you want to be happy, it is fairly safe to suggest that the 2nd possibility is true. I.e., the thought that is causing you pain is also giving you some sort of pleasure.
Step 5: Investigate how the negative thought is giving you pleasure. At first, this step will take a lot of courage and honesty. But only at first. Once we begin to admit to ourselves the pleasure that is derived from our negative thoughts, the process becomes very easy in general.
Also, there is a pattern to all negative thoughts that makes the pleasure relatively simply to find. All pleasure derived from negative thoughts is related to inflating the ego.
#1: “My sister hates me.” This thought makes you angry, resentful, hurt, etc. But at the same time, it gives you an excuse to feel that you are better than your sister. More importantly, your ego loves to feel that it is a victim; it gets intense satisfaction from any thoughts that endorse this idea.
#2: “I should have gotten the promotion instead of Mike.” With this thought, you are gratifying your ego by suggesting that you were obviously better than Mike. Furthermore, the fact that such an injustice occurred makes you feel that other people should notice that you were wronged, and as a result feel sorry for you.
#3: Fantasies about an accident happening to your child. Although these thoughts make you worried, anxious, and afraid, they also inflate the ego. In such fantasies, you become the center of attention. People would feel sorry for you. This is ego “tripping” at its greatest.
Step 6: Once the negative pleasure is identified, we can now make a choice to give up this thought. Note that we can’t give up negative thoughts when we refuse to see the reason that we think them. But once the reason is recognized, we are able to decide that the pleasure derived from thinking such thoughts isn’t worth the pain. Now we can choose to think happy thoughts instead.
This method is a powerful yet simple tool for overcoming the addiction of thinking negative thoughts. Just as in all other addictions, it isn’t possible to give up a problem until we admit that there is one. So a crucial step is identifying negative thoughts as the source of our mental pain. But just as crucial is recognizing our “need” to have such thoughts. And once this need is made conscious, we can then make the conscious choice not to use such an unhealthy means for acquiring pleasure.