Going outside your head

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I enjoyed your recent article where you wrote, ‘How you feel is determined by how you think. Think better, feel better. ‘ And it works every time.’ But I wonder if that doesn’t open the door to rationalization and ‘fooling yourself?’ I have a friend who lives in her own little world. She remembers what she wants to, revises facts, and refuses to discuss (or even acknowledge the existence of) anything that might upset her. She is, indeed, ‘happy’ all the time, in spite of what’s really going on. So how do you tell the difference between ‘fooling yourself’ into feeling better and actually changing your thoughts for the better?

Dr. Hurd replies:

You answered your own question. ‘What’s really going on’ is called ‘reality.’ And the first rule of living is to pay attention to facts and reality, every hour of every day. Many people spend their lives fleeing reality. Some do it with drugs and alcohol, or maybe compulsive spending or gambling. Still others, like your friend, do it by ‘rewriting’ the facts to fit their wishes. In the end, it can’t be done. Facts are stubborn things, and they have a way of creeping into your life no matter how much you ignore them.  

To some people, reality is ‘mean.’ But what’s the alternative? Things are what they are, irrespective of what you might want them to be. Granted, when you ignore unpleasant facts long enough, it can be upsetting to suddenly confront them. But that never needs to happen: If you simply THINK — every day — then the facts won’t cause so much anxiety.

So how does one ‘think?’ I suggest to people that they keep a daily ‘thinking journal’ where they can answer questions like, ‘What events took place today?’ And, ‘How did I participate in those events, and what do I think of it?’ For your friend, I might add a few more questions, such as, ‘What did I purposely avoid thinking about or confronting today?’ And, ‘Why did I do that?’ (Those two will be a challenge for her.) It’s not easy at first, but once you get into the habit of thinking this way, it becomes harder to live in your ‘own little world,’ detached from reality. A skilled cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist can help devise other methods to suit individual needs.

You are correct that changing the way you think can open the door to fooling yourself — IF you lack a connection to reality. Facts do exist out there, and logic and rationality is the way to access them. Logical thinking is the antidote to living in your head. By revising the facts to make herself happy, your friend is violating the number one rule of realism. She needs to go OUTSIDE her head, utilizing introspective exercises like the journal questions above.

At this point, some people, including (sadly) some mental health professionals, will say, ‘All that reality is unhealthy and cold. It’s emotionally repressive.’ Nothing could be further from the truth! The whole purpose of being realistic is to FEEL the glory of serenity. Feelings help us to experience the valuable things in life, but there will be no serenity if your emotions are built on self-delusion.

The rational person doesn’t repress his emotions, but he doesn’t ignore the facts, either. He doesn’t buy something he can’t afford, for example, by saying, ‘That’s OK. I’ll pay for it somehow.’ He does things rationally, thoughtfully, and knows why he’s doing what he’s doing. Of course, he sometimes makes mistakes (we all do), but because he’s in touch with reality he can correct them before they get out of control. And he’s not afraid of mistakes because he analyzes what he does and makes small ‘course corrections’ along the way. Does this sound cold and repressed? I don’t think so. What can be wrong with being in charge of your own mind and your own life? When you’re in charge, the emotions you feel are real — not manufactured by fantasy. Your sense of well-being is more fulfilled than if you were impulsive and in a constant state of disarray; ‘cleaning up’ after bad decisions and poorly thought-out whims. Pilots, surgeons, ship captains, scientists, and others upon whom many lives depend, use highly technical instruments to ensure that they are, in fact, dealing in the here-and-now. Is that emotionally repressive? Of course not.

There’s nothing technical or complicated about thinking. It’s nothing more than observing facts, correcting contradictions, throwing in a little common sense and applying reason — rather than impulse or denial — to everyday challenges. Anybody can think. Some have more capacity than others, but the bottom line is to ensure that what’s going on inside your mind squares with what’s going on ‘out there’ in the real world.