I received a kind email from a reader who enjoys my columns. (Thank you, by the way!) She remembered I wrote that how you feel is determined by how you think, and asks if that concept doesn’t open the door to rationalization and fooling yourself. She continues: “I have a friend who lives in her own little world. She remembers what she wants to, revises facts, and refuses to discuss (or acknowledge the existence of) anything that might upset her. She is ‘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?”
Dear Reader, 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. Many people spend their lives fleeing reality. Some do it with drugs and alcohol, some with compulsive spending or gambling. Still others, like your friend, do it by rewriting the facts to fit her wishes. But in the end, facts are stubborn things, and they have a way of creeping into your life no matter how much you ignore them.
Some people call reality “mean.” But what’s the alternative? Things are what they are, regardless of what you want them to be. Granted, when you ignore unpleasant facts long enough, it can be upsetting to suddenly confront them. But if one stays in reality, the facts won’t cause so much anxiety.
You are correct that changing the way you think can open the door to fooling yourself — IF you lack a connection to reality. The facts are out there, and rational 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.
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 farther from the truth. The whole purpose of being realistic is to experience the glory of serenity. Feelings help us experience the valuable things in life. But there’s no serenity if your emotions are built on self-delusion.
The rational person doesn’t repress her emotions, but she doesn’t ignore the facts, either. She doesn’t buy something she can’t afford by saying, “That’s OK. I’ll pay for it somehow.” She does things thoughtfully, and knows why she’s doing what she’s doing. Of course, she sometimes makes mistakes (we all do), but because she’s in touch with reality she can correct them before they get out of control.
Does this sound cold and repressed? I don’t think so. There’s nothing wrong with being in charge of your own mind and your own life. The emotions you feel are real, and not manufactured by fantasy. You have a sense of well-being that wouldn’t exist 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 and scientists 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 just observing facts, correcting contradictions, throwing in a little common sense and applying reason to everyday challenges. The bottom line (and the reward) is that what’s going on inside your mind squares with what’s happening out there in the real world.