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Live Life Fully: How can you stop obsessive negative thoughts?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What's up with those nagging thoughts that won't leave us alone? How can we turn them off?

"You have the power to turn your wounds and worries into wisdom. You just have to accept what has happened and use what you've learned to step forward. Everything you've experienced has given you the upper hand for dealing with everything you have yet to experience. Realize this -- and set yourself free."

I appreciate these words of wisdom from the blog "Spirituality and Community." If only it were that easy.

How do we take the first steps on this road to recovery? The path is different for different folks. And the degree to which we can, and do, let go of the past has everything to do with our ingrained patterns. It's hard to just flip a switch. Repetition is the key to changing behavior. We need to create a new belief and keep focusing our thoughts and actions on that over and over. Easier said than done though.

It helps to look at the fears that drive our behavior. The biggest one is "I'm not good enough." This can play out on many levels, and it drives us to prove our worth by achieving more and more things. This can lead to "striving and not arriving," as my mentor Bill Turner used to say.

Another red flag is when you find yourself paying too much attention to what other people think. Having to have someone else's approval or validation only underscores that you don't feel worthy enough yourself. Throughout my research this one keeps popping up. And you know you're going down this path when you start to set aside your own principles to please other people. Or develop addictions to escape.

Remember the Stuart Smalley spoof on "Saturday Night Live" some years ago? His character would often repeat affirmations into the camera: "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me." It was a funny skit, but there are definitely some nuggets of reality there.

Author and therapist Morty Lefkoe examines this topic against a backdrop of personal needs, obsessive behaviors and survival strategy beliefs:

Personal needs

  • Needing to have the right answers.
  • Needing to be liked.
  • Needing to appear intelligent.
  • Needing to look good.
  • We're not just talking about the desire to solve problems and be pleasant around others. It's when you're compulsively focused in these areas -- and your life is run by these needs -- that's the danger. You're always thinking about ways to know the right answer, to control the situation, to impress others and to look good. Or maybe you've been an innocent victim in a situation and can't see any way out.

    Where do these compulsions come from? Lefkoe explains that each of these needs is the result of several beliefs. What belief would result in people needing to be liked? They'd likely have the survival strategy belief, "What makes me good enough and important is having people think well of me."

    What belief would result in someone needing to have the right answers and to look good? They almost certainly would have the survival strategy belief, "What makes me good enough and important is appearing intelligent." Likewise with the need to appear intelligent: "What makes me good enough and important enough is appearing intelligent."

    All three of these beliefs imply two other beliefs: "I'm not good enough, and I'm not important." Our survival strategy beliefs have us think our sense of self -- our self-worth -- is a function of achieving something outside of ourselves.

    And, because we "need" this thing -- whatever it is -- to feel good about ourselves, our lives are devoted to it. As a result, most of our focus can be on having others think well of us, continually striving to achieve more and more, wanting to look good and appearing intelligent. These needs put up a barrier between ourselves and others that impairs our ability to be authentic and to have close relationships. Which is the very thing that was driving our behavior in the first place. What a vicious circle!

    Awareness is the first step. You can't change what you don't acknowledge. When you start to see these patterns though, you can take steps to make changes. Lefkoe has developed a technique, The Lefkoe Method, that deals with dissolving destructive behavioral patterns.

    Another technique recently relayed by a friend is the "stop sign" technique. Whenever you start to think that obsessive thought, envision a stop sign in your mind -- and substitute a healthier thought. Repeating this process over and over will eventually "disarm" the negative charge the obsessive thought has on you. A similar process involves the snapping of a covered rubber band on your wrist. These are just little triggers that can help us be aware of when we're engaging in these destructive patterns.

    The bottom line is, we all just want to be loved and appreciated. In relationships, we need to remember this is a two-way street. And the most important relationship we have is with ourselves.

    Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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