How can we think positively and keep all our toxic thoughts at bay?
All through the day, our imagination is bombarded with little, negative thoughts — about the past, present, or future. They start as soon as we wake up. We open our eyes and the tiny parade of worries marches in: concerns about a child, the unpleasant comment by a boss yesterday, doubts about whether our spouse loves us, or if we have the ability to finally to get that paperwork done.
These thoughts often come from fear and push us into a losing battle against family, our colleagues, our Church, our world. There may be a kernal of truth to them, or they may be entirely the fruit of our imagination, but if we brood over them, they start to become part of us and can make us very unhappy.
Here is some advice to help keep away the thoughts that prevent us from facing life with peace and tranquility.
The consequences of pessimistic thoughts for day-to-day living
Negative thoughts are present in our spirit. They are the habitual chatter of our wounded and prideful nature, what St. Paul called “the flesh” i.e. everything in us that rejects God (Rm 8:5-8). The Evil One uses them to gain entry into us, amplifying them, to the point where we become obsessed. As our purpose is to love, it follows that the site where spiritual combat takes place is in our relationships with others, with God, and with ourselves, and the aim of this combat is to drive us away from that purpose. The devil’s main entrance is through our thoughts and imagination—the front line of the battle. Converting this, purifying this, is how we start our path to holiness. Long ago, in the language of spiritual life, it was referred to as “guarding our thoughts.” Today we no longer use this term, but the battle continues all the same.
These thoughts affect our mood and influence how we behave. They also affect our future life, as they push us to make important decisions. If we are not happy, we need to examine our impressions. Feeling bad might be coming from negative ideas bouncing around in our head for years, such as: “My siblings have always had more friends than me, but I don’t know what to do about it.I’m not interesting, so I never say anything.” We build protective walls around ourselves to escape our dark thoughts: “Well, it doesn’t matter because people aren’t that interesting anyway.” And when someone approaches us, we turn aggressive to keep from feeling disappointed. In this way, the wall that was supposed to free us from negative thoughts actually becomes a prison that makes it impossible for us to be free to love.
These thoughts affect our relationships with others. The Evil One will always try to make us believe that someone in our world is against us. As Matthew said (12:34) “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” We are quick to pass judgement on a person and later it’s difficult to feel comfortable with him or her. Some people have so many bad thoughts about others that any relationship becomes impossible.
Distinguishing imaginary thoughts from legitimate fears
It’s very important not to take everything that passes through our mind seriously. When something occurs to us, it is our job to subject it to the Word of God. St. Ignatius teaches us how to distinguish this. According to him, the Holy Spirit speaks to us in words of peace and love. On the contrary, Satan whispers words of doubt and fear. The way our thought resonates in us makes it possible to judge it: does it make us feel peaceful or anxious? It’s a good idea to take some time, for example before getting up or during prayer, to separate our thoughts into those that are based on reality and those that come entirely from our imagination. To do this it helps to pay attention to others, especially those that have the ability to shed light on our fears or what we run away from.
Nevertheless, some of our fears may be legitimate: an adolescent who is failing school, a woman dealing with depression, a disabled child … It is normal for these things to affect us and it takes time to get back on track. The perspective through which we see our suffering is what changes everything. If we spend the whole day brooding about our hardships, we lock ourselves up with our thoughts, preventing God from acting in us.
When our life is no longer meaningful and the spiral of grim thoughts starts to suck us in, hang on to the Word of God and repeat it with confidence. That way we can get back in stride more quickly. We often read the Word of God like a text. But let’s not forget that it is a powerful and efficient weapon. “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). God has just one word, the word of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, and Jesus acts.
Dominating our feelings does not mean suffocating them
Careful! God does not ask us to stop feeling emotions, anger, impatience, sadness. He asks us to manage them, to keep them in their proper place. Even if we are afraid, we should act accordingly, like Jonah in Nineveh (Jonah 1:1). This is how we free ourselves from their hold on us. If we are able to stay calm in adversity, we begin to acquire spiritual maturity. We take our strength from the joy of the Lord, as Nehemiah says (Ne 8:10), not from our circumstances.
This is why fighting against negative thoughts is essential if we want to develop as a person. God is still counting on us, even in difficult times. It was God who said to Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Jos 1:9). We must make the decision to live more deeply, beyond the level of our emotions, at the deepest level of our heart. We are all called to the interior unification that makes it possible for us to engage with the events of life. God can, finally, avail us for that which he desires.
A daily discipline to free yourself from negative thoughts
To free ourselves from negative thoughts, we need to start with a little time and energy. It is a true, daily ascesis to win the battle. We prepare ourselves for it by offering up the day so as to not get trapped by negative situations. If we notice a pessimistic thought, we should immediately decide not to brood on it. If we accept those parasitic ideas and keep them in, we fall into the devil’s scheme. A good way to combat this is to praise the Lord. Stay in a state of grace by blessing the people you have a complicated relationship with. Another thing we can do is say a “quick prayer,” like “Jesus, I trust in you” or maybe “Mary, help me,” with a call to God for help. Or recite a verse from the Bible. The more we concentrate on what is good and true in the heart of people and situations, the fewer negative thoughts we will have. In the beginning it is difficult, but the control we gain over our imagination will gradually improve.
This is done by nourishing ourselves with the Word of God and learning it. It can truly guide us when our emotions, which fluctuate so much, wear us down. The best way to short circuit a thought is to proclaim the Word of God out loud and leave our imaginings behind through this real word that we hear ourselves say. Consistent recourse to the Bible and disciplining our imagination eventually brings out positive thinking. As St. Paul says: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom12:2).
Read Psalm 139 if bad thoughts keep coming back
If we do not take action against bad thoughts, we will remain prisoners of our moods and risk contaminating everything around us. We are called to affective stability, to be like Christ, a rock that stays fast through the storms of life. Whatever we may be suffering from, God has a magnificent plan for our life. And as long as we remain slaves to our emotional state, we cannot reach the spiritual maturity that He calls us to: For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jr 29:11).
If some thoughts never stop coming back and continually bring on the same negative emotions, in prayer we need to ask the Lord what the motive is behind our unduly strong mood swings, our rage, bitterness, envy. In prayer, we should present these issues to the Holy Spirit so that, in his light, we can see where they are coming from. Sometimes God will allow us to re-live a situation so that we can come to understand what we need to change in ourselves. This is what happened to the Hebrews when they had to spend forty years making a journey that should have taken eleven days, until they realized that they had to change their attitude. The Lord knows us, he knows what we need to grow: “Your hand will lead me; Your right hand will hold on to me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will be night’—even the darkness is not dark to You. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to You. For it was You who created my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Re-read this Psalm 139. God loves us with too much passion to take his hand off our lives!
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