Why Forcing Happy Thoughts Leads to Shame
It is a common philosophy in the personal development/spirituality sector, to try to remove negative thoughts from the mind. The lesson goes that the problem isn’t in any situation, the problem lies in thoughts about a situation. For people starting on a spiritual journey, this rule can be extremely helpful, life changing even. The goal of this rule is to encourage people to become more self-aware particularly to their reactions to events. Eckert Tolle says, “the ego can’t distinguish between an event and our reaction to the event”. This rule in spirituality places most of the, if not all of the responsibility for negative reactions, on the individual thinking the negative thoughts and then having the negative corresponding emotions.
Some examples of what this looks like in different scenarios are below.
I’m on the way to pick up my kids from school and someone is driving very slowly in front of me. Immediately the thoughts start firing about what a stupid driver they are, and I worry about being late. Using the rule above, I would tell myself I don’t have much control in this situation and let it go for the time being. Getting worked up isn’t going to solve anything and I need to accept that it’s just going to take slightly longer to get to school. I can then shift my thinking, refocus on a song to distract myself from the slow driver.
I ask my partner to do a simple household chore and at the end of the day I notice they never did it. The thoughts would rush in at how lazy they are thinking about how much I do and wondering why they can’t just do this one simple task. It might even escalate from there, spiraling into wondering if it’s time to call it quits because they clearly don’t respect me and on and on. Using the above rule, I would notice the thoughts and make a choice to let them go, do the chore myself and try to give the benefit of the doubt or at the least acceptance that I might need to just do this chore myself for the time being.
I am out for a nice meal with a friend catching up which has been long overdue. She’s sharing some troubles she’s dealing with when all of a sudden, a loud group of women sit down next to me, completely distracting my attention. Thoughts immediately come about how rude it is, how the restaurant is too echo-y and probably the thoughts go on to critique the women in the group in some form of judgement, their clothes, their hair, or their sizes. With this new rule I am living by, I notice how my mood shifted and I try to release the thoughts and reframe. I try to appreciate the good time I am having and redirect my attention to my friend.
In each of the above scenarios I make the choice to not let the situation effect my mood. Another lesson personal development taught me a long time ago was, you can’t change other people, only your reaction to them. So, if I can’t change the driver, my partner, or the loud group of women, I must then have to change my reaction to them. If I am able to quickly return to a peaceful place using this rule, it’s a good rule to live by. If I feel I have been too quick to react in my circumstances in my life which keeps me in an unwanted state of frustration, irritation and annoyance which leads to a victim mentality, then this is a great rule to embrace in your life.
In my experience though, this rule has been worked simultaneously with therapy, books, retreats, podcasts and coaching to work on an overall improvement to my self-awareness, self-confidence and self-esteem.
After years of deep work on myself, it’s my experience that the above rule actually needs to be dropped and a new rule needs to follow after a certain amount of time. When I was at a retreat with spiritual teacher, Matt Kahn, he said that he doesn’t tolerate disrespect from anyone. Meaning, when he feels disrespected, he speaks up. This is the next rule that needs to be put in place for the middle of your spiritual journey.
The first rule is helpful for those who aren’t yet completely self-aware and don’t realize the choice we have in letting some of our thoughts go. It’s a beginner’s rule, but that is not what is taught.
What happens when you continue to follow the first rule is that you start to feel shame for having negative thoughts. Now that you are more aware of negative thoughts and your ability to change them, you start to get what is called a spiritual ego. The spiritual ego tells you that you aren’t spiritual enough. Your spiritual perfectionism kicks in. Then you start beating yourself up because you just can’t freaking let it go that your partner can’t just do the one freaking chore. Now, you are doubling down on negative emotions. First annoyance at your lazy ass partner and next shame towards yourself because you can’t be as zen as you want to be. Or think you should be.
The second issue with this rule, when used after you are no longer a spiritual beginner, is that it doesn’t provide space for you to stand up for yourself. Most people on the spiritual journey have work to do on their self -esteem. I had inner child work to do because I didn’t always feel protected in my life. I had to learn how to protect and take care of myself. That first rule risks keeping people small.
When a situation arose that frustrated me, the first rule can be interpreted that my frustration isn’t valid by pointing the finger at me, saying my reaction is out of balance with the situation. Time after time, for someone seeking enlightment, peace and increased self-esteem, this rule has the exact opposite effect. The rule teaches you can’t trust your reactions, that your anger is misplaced and unfair and you end up feeling shame.
I get really confused at this point because in the long run, I don’t want to allow others to easily frustrate me. I love the idea that no matter what is happening on the outside, I can feel peace and contentment on the inside.
I think that dropping negative thoughts and replacing them is a great tool in the beginning of the spiritual journey to do proactively, but then it needs to be dropped. Then, after we start to stand up for ourselves in those situations for a long enough period of time, as a consequence of how we begin to live, those negative situations either won’t be attracted to us energetically or we will be feeling so much love inside ourselves from the work we’ve done, that as a consequence of that work, we will feel more peaceful and naturally move to more positive thoughts.
In the middle phase of spiritual development, the situation with the driver might stay the same. I mean apart from being a total jerk and tailgating or flashing your lights repeatedly, there isn’t much to be done. But with your partner, if this is a reoccurring issue, you are allowed to speak up and ask why a simple household chore hasn’t been done. You are allowed to feel frustration and anger. Anger is an important emotion as warning sign of when our boundaries are being crossed and when we are being disrespected. And with the ladies in the restaurant, you have the choice to move tables or leave all together to find a quieter spot. There are options you can take to either make a change or leave.
The single most important change one needs to make on the spiritual path is loving oneself to the fullest extent. Part of loving yourself completely, comes from giving ourselves permission to trust our reactions to situations. The message I am telling myself when I stand up for myself is that I matter. My opinion and feelings count. And if I don’t like the way I’m being treated, I’m allowed to say something about it. This doesn’t mean you aren’t loving, it doesn’t mean you aren’t being “nice” or spiritual. And you don’t have to stay in this place for the rest of your life, always going around telling every single soul if you feel disrespected. It will happen for a certain period of time and you’ll learn to trust who the people are and which situations you want to spend that energy on. It will take energy and practice to stand up for yourself instead of trying to let go of the negative thoughts. You’ll do it messily at first because you haven’t had practice. You’ll probably say something to someone, they’ll have a very defensive reaction, it’ll be awful and you’ll retreat again. You’ll say it wasn’t worth it, but know this – it is worth it because you are worth it. You can’t progress on your spiritual journey until you start standing up for yourself and letting others know how you feel. Your inner child needs to know that your adult self will take care of them. This is crucial. Give yourself permission to accept and trust your reactions.
A good practice is to talk to a trusted friend or therapist/coach to gauge your reaction to a situation to see if is right-sized. It’s possible your reaction is a trigger from a past experience, and while still valid, it might mean that you have more work to do on yourself and you might benefit from letting go of emotional trauma from past experiences that you are bringing to current situations. But a friend/coach can give you their perspective and if your reaction does feel right-sized, you give yourself permission to stand up for yourself.
But don’t seek out validation for too long of a time or it can become a crutch. At some point, you’ll know your own triggers well enough and you’ll have worked through them that you don’t need the validation from anyone else. This is the point where you can trust yourself fully in your reactions.
In order to be able to speak up for yourself you are going to have to consciously remember that it’s more important for you to like and respect yourself than for anyone else to like you and respect you. It won’t be easy at first. You’ll be wondering if you really have a right to be upset and then you’ll be worried about what the other person will think of you.
I can tell you from the other side of it that it’s 100% worth it and you can’t get to the last stages of spiritual development without going through this stage of standing up for yourself. When you give yourself permission to accept yourself fully and show up as your authentic self in all situations, it is then you truly are connected to the love inside of yourself. That connection to your inner being is what is necessary to feel that peace and love that those on this journey start out looking for. Once you’ve reached that point, then when you feel the love inside yourself so fully, you can see it outside too. But you can’t think your way there. It can’t start in the mind. It has to come from the inside first.