Phil Stutz is a psychiatrist and author. The excerpt below is from his new book, Lessons for Living: What Only Adversity Can Teach You, which is available for preorder now.
Negative thinking is powerful. You start to worry about something. Or you feel the world is treating you unfairly. Your concerns seem rational at first, but in a few minutes, your mind is out of control. The thoughts pound away at you with a dark life of their own. “I know I’m going to lose my job. I’ll be destitute. No one else will hire me.” You are lost in a world of your own obsessions.
The thoughts hound you during the day, and wake you at 5 a.m. They can be unbearably painful, and almost impossible to stop. Your mind is broken. If you bought an appliance that worked this poorly you would be at the store demanding a refund. But there is no return policy for your brain.
Becoming Aware of Negative Thinking
Step back a minute and consider these characteristics of negative thinking: It’s dynamic—negative thinking represents a force in your consciousness that wants to displace anything healthy. It’s irrational—the thoughts seem real when you’re having them, but when you look back, they are almost always exaggerated or out of touch with reality. It’s a habit—and like all habits, the more you practice negative thinking, the stronger it becomes and the harder it is to stop. Yet, it is your mind, isn’t it?
So, why should negative thinking be so hard to control?
The answer is that negative thinking is the expression of an inner adversary, and until you become aware of this adversary, you’ll be powerless to defeat it. Think of your mind as a computer with a virus already built in. Until you find it, that virus will destroy everything else in the computer.
I call this inner adversary Part X. It is a part of your psyche, and it has an agenda all its own. This inner demon is absolutely determined to keep you from experiencing a fact of reality—everything is always moving. Even the most materialistic view of the universe (theoretical physics) now accepts this. Every moment, including right now, you are floating in a world of movement. This is good news—the underlying movement makes the universe into one great organism, a dynamic organism that continuously produces new and surprising things. This ceaseless creativity makes the universe inherently positive and giving.
It is exactly this boundless, alive quality of the universe that Part X hates. This negative force wants something else, something it desires at all costs. It wants to be special. But there is no opportunity to be special when you are part of the moving, whole universe, since everything that happens in it is a product of that whole. Good things may come your way, you may succeed, but you did not make these things happen yourself. In a holistic universe, the individual is only part of the system; by himself he can do nothing. Specialness, on the other hand, requires the sense that you “did it yourself.” Being special implies that you are not part of the system, that you can overcome a negative universe on your own. And so the ever-moving, ever-creating, spiritual core of the universe—the force that connects everything—is the one thing that can deprive you of your “chance for specialness.”
Part X wields a very potent weapon against this moving whole—your own thoughts. It creates negative thoughts and makes them so intense, so insistent, that they drown out any experience of the real world. You no longer respond to the world; you merely react to what X tells you about the world. Spiritually blinded, you are totally alone. The experience of the true universe, constantly creating and infinite in scope, can only be positive. But as long as you are caught in negativity, it is impossible to experience the positive feelings of wholeness inherent in an alive universe. It is as if it does not exist. Part X has shattered reality, and it has done so with your help.
How to Use Gratitude to Shift Negative Thoughts
Negative thinking can easily become a habit, mostly because negative thoughts become so familiar. We start to identify with negativity. Take a worrier, for example. When he thinks, “I know I’m doomed,” he is having a familiar experience. He’s worrying. And he can create this experience for himself anytime. No matter how painful it may be, it feels familiar, it’s home. His inner X will tell him, “This is the real you, don’t fight it.” And most of the time he won’t.
To control this demon, you must find a force in your soul that is even stronger than the power of negative thinking. That force is gratefulness. Gratefulness appreciates the immediate experience of reality, replacing negative thoughts with thoughts about what’s really going on. It alludes to things in your life that are solid and real, and implies that these things are products of the moving whole. Gratefulness creates the physical sensation of being in the immediate presence of a positive, giving spiritual force, and allows you to feel that you are part of the system again, no longer isolated.
Gratefulness differs from “positive thinking,” which tends to focus on events that have not yet happened (with the hope that they will). The very nature of positive thinking is not grounded in reality. Think about it, have you ever been able to get yourself out of a deeply worried mood by thinking happy thoughts about your future? Not likely. What we all need is a way to penetrate the veil of negativity and connect to the moving force of wholeness as it exists right now. We need to get into the habit of grateful thinking, of letting grateful thoughts flow through our minds as our own defense against negative thinking.
A 30-Second Gratitude Practice
Try this. For about 30 seconds, think of things for which you’re grateful. Not just the big things; focus on everyday things that we often take for granted. “I am grateful I can see, I am grateful my children are healthy, I am grateful my car started today, I am grateful I had money to eat breakfast, I am grateful I have hot water, I am grateful I live in a democracy.” Think of new things as much as possible—you’ll soon see that even on your worst day, there are an infinite number of things already happening that are positive. And every one of these things has been given to you by the dynamic spiritual organism that underlies reality. It is always there. It is always creating. It is always stronger than Part X.
The power of this exercise is that you are teaching your mind to work in a new way. You are forcing your mind into a state of highly creative motion that is analogous to the underlying motion of the universe itself.
As the grateful thoughts well up, become aware of the energy inside yourself that is creating them. You start to feel one with the universe and have a new confidence that you can control your mind. You have dissolved negative thoughts. And without realizing it, you have prepared yourself to pray. Not a specific form of prayer, and not necessarily connected to an organized religion. Independent of your personal spiritual beliefs and practices, you have led the mind beyond itself, making it a bridge into a higher place.
Excerpted from Lessons for Living: What Only Adversity Can Teach You by Phil Stutz. Copyright © 2023 by Phil Stutz. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.