Knowing what destructive thoughts are is one thing. Knowing how to stop them is another. In Part I of this three-part series, I maintained one form of our insane thoughts is the creation of  “what if” scenarios about a less than pleasant event. In Part II I suggested these thoughts are one way the mind tries to reach homeostasis—stability. In this final part, I’ll offer suggestions for how to reduce “what if” repetitive thoughts and prevent future ones from occurring. We have choices what to do following an embarrassing, humiliating, or hurtful experience: We can change it, let go of it, or use it.

Changing the Past Through Destructive Thoughts

Trying to change the past is a common choice. We repeat the event in my minds and try to change the outcome so we wouldn’t have felt as awful as we did. Our memory becomes an endless digital loop where we get to play editor, changing scenes and outcomes. Unfortunately, whatever relief we experience is momentary; the pain returns when our mind decides to replay the original scene rather than the one we constructed.

Letting Go of the Past

The second option, as many writers suggest, is to “let go” of the past. While instructing your brain to stop doing something may work for those with exceptional control, it doesn’t work for most of us. Ignoring the past is similar to Nancy Reagan’s remedy for drug use, “Just Say No.” It’s difficult to will our minds not to run daily screenings of the event. Hoping that will work is similar to telling a bully your arm hurts in the hope he’ll stop hitting you.

Why would the mind focus on a past hurtful event that’s impossible to change? Homeostasis—the need to reduce the negative impact of an experience. The mind will keep working at it until it feels “better.” For some things, there can be no resolution, and the endless loop continues for years as it did for the woman I cared for in Part I.

Instruction for the Future

The third option is easier and more positive. We can modify how the mind frames our memories by using the past as instruction for future actions. We are moving from what is negative and can’t be changed (hurtful past behaviors) to what is positive (future skillful behaviors).

Yes, I may have insulted someone in a way that prevents them from ever forgiving me. I can’t force them to stop feeling the pain I caused, but I can use my unskillful behavior as a guidepost for what I can do in the future.

Letting go of self-destructive thoughts requires more than a desire not to have them. If you have interactions with people, you will inevitably screw up or feel hurt by the actions of others. It’s less a question of if you will have these experiences and more about how you will react to them. Reliving what you can’t change is fruitless. Ignoring it only highlights the pain. But the hurtful memory can be changed when it becomes a map for doing skillful actions in the future.

5 Responses

  1. cathy h arnett

    It actually hurts the person who holds grudges more than the person in question. I also believe that, just as words can inadvertently hurt us, the right words, spoken with feeling and belief behind them, actually can eventually help heal the original wound that we may have caused.
    So, though you may feel that whatever it was that you said or did was something that person could not forgive.. I would be more compelled to suggest that most people actually can forgive harsh words when given the right time and place for a sincere apology. We all are only human, after all, and we all get angry at times and say things that are hurtful. Usually we tend to last out at the people we care the most about.
    Don’t beat yourself up about this situation,as this may be what is happening…and though you may not be able to ” let it go”, like ” Elsa” in the Disney movie ” Frozen”, the reality is…don’t give up on seeking that forgiveness if you feel that you need to be forgiven.
    You can’t go back in time and redo the past, as you have suggested, however, forgive yourself first…and after you do that, you can move forward in healing or at least trying to heal that past hurt in whatever way seems appropriate.
    I understand exactly what you’re trying to say here.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Wise words Cathy. The Tibetans have a saying, “you can throw hot coals at your enemy but you’ll burn your hands.” I agree the person holding the grudge probably suffers more than the person who supposedly did the unskillful act. While persistence may eventually work when seeking forgiveness, just the act alone of asking for it can be healing. Maybe that’s why confessions for Catholics is so powerful.

      Reply
  2. Aryn Alschuler

    There is an option that worked for me in a very profound way. I wished I reacted differently to abusive behavior from a sibling when we were children. My original response was shame & rejection. The effects of abuse stayed with me all my life. But I’ve changed a lot after some awakenings. For example; Recently I imaginatively recreated one of the childhood incidents allowing myself to respond differently. Within the re-imagined scenario the bully abandoned me as before. This time I recognized the feeling of rejection for a moment and then discovered I was, in fact, FREED. The bully was gone from sight, no demeaning words, no having to comply with demands and making mistakes starting the cycle of abuse again. I was freed and my emotions went sky high! My imagination was on fire and I went on to deeply imaginative play with great joy!
    I had visited the past and re-storyed it (Jean Houston teaches us) & the re-written past became the present. Both memories exist but the new one is more powerful. Try it. 1st give yourself permission to make changes. Now you can’t reverse a death, or anything that major. But there are many things that could have been otherwise. Go into a scene that had negative repercussions, and change something for the better. Go again and revel in the changes. Even the other people may change in your new inner world. Live into the feelings and own the best of it. Then tell me/ us if this stays with you and works to build up strength where there was pain.

    Reply
    • Aryn Alschuler

      Just be sure to make positive changes.
      An unhealthy mind might decide to make bitter vindictive changes, enforcing one’s power over another. This will serve only to darken the psyche and take you on a path of self destruction.

      Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      An interesting approach Aryn. Another way of confronting past unskillful behaviors is understanding painful words and behaviors are most likely related to the needs of the person doing the hurting than the person on the receiving end.

      Reply

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About The Author

I am an author of eight books in four languages. LESSONS FOR THE LIVING: STORIES OF FORGIVENESS, GRATITUDE AND COURAGE AT THE END OF LIFE is my memoir of being a bedside hospice volunteer for six years while battling prostate cancer. My next book, LEANING INTO SHARP POINTS: PRACTICAL GUIDANCE AND NURTURING SUPPORT FOR CAREGIVERS will be published in March, 2012 by New World Library and focus on caregiving for loved ones who have a progressive or terminal illness.