The idea of our choosing thoughts and/or feelings is a strange one, especially in a psychoanalytic setting, where free association, or the spontaneous free-flowing outpourings of the mind, is so valued. However, I have found, for example, in starting a couple session, that it is useful for the couple to voice an “appreciation” of each other, even when, or especially when, they come in tense and angry with each other. It is remarkable how the atmosphere changes when people can summon up some positive thoughts and feelings about the other in the midst of hard feelings. It helps a process of more open, creative airing of difficulties with less blaming. John Gottman, the prominent marriage researcher, has found that couples who are able to insert comments of lightness and bonding in the midst of a argument, are more likely to stay together in the long run. There are other reasons for consciously changing a thought or a feeling. It is a well established tenet in Alcoholics Anonymous that when the thought of picking up a drink hits, the person can take control of it by changing it either by substituting a new thought like a prayer, a calming image, a mantra, or any (preferably positive) idea. The thought/impulse can also be altered by changing one’s behavior in the moment such as picking up the phone to call someone to talk to in that dangerous moment, or–and this is one I’ve always enjoyed– as one sponsor said to her sponsee, “If you’re sitting down, stand up; if you’re standing up, sit down!”
Since feelings give rise to thoughts, changing a thought can change the underlying feeling. This can be thought of as a mental discipline, like meditation, in which one is changing thoughts by noticing them and refocusing on the breath. There is evidence that putting this aspiration into practice actually changes the way the brain works. We are all subject to familiar thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors based on neural pathways in our brains that have been “hard-wired” in our lives by repetitive experience, particularly in the presence of intense negative emotions. Psychotherapy aims to produce this change. Psychoanalytic neurobiological researchers, among them Dr. Susan Vaughn, in “The Talking Cure”, have shown that that is exactly what happens in therapy.
A most striking example of purposefully changing aspects of one’s personality is described by Dr. Jill Taylor Bolte, a brain scientist herself, in her book “My Stroke of Insight,” in which she details her experience and observation of her left brain shutting down as a result of a stroke. She then recounts her recovery, which entailed her having to learn, literally and painstakingly, how to establish new neural pathways in the course of getting her left hemisphere and its functions back “online.” She says
Although I wanted to regain my left hemispheric skills, I must say that there were personality traits that tried to rise from the ashes of my left mind that, quite frankly, were no longer acceptable to my right hemispheric sense of who I now wanted to be…the question I faced over and over again was, Do I have to regain the affect, emotions or personality trait that was neurologically linked to the memory or ability that I wanted to recover? For instance, would it be possible for me to recover my perception of my self, where I exist as a single, solid, separate from the whole, without recovering the cells associated with my egotism, intense desire to be argumentative, need to be right, or fear of separation and death? Could I value money without hooking into the neurological loops of lack, greed, or selfishness?…My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy and compassion in the world. [Bolte, Jill Taylor (2006 ) My Stroke of insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, The Penguin Group: NY, NY]
She goes on to document many techniques she employs–it’s a lifetime job–to engineer new neural pathways which will regulate her thoughts, feelings and experience; ones she feels will be in her best interest, unlike ones she had before. I mentioned a few of these techniques earlier.
Changing our thoughts and feelings (and often, accompanying behavior) is hard work, but anyone can do it, and it yields extraordinary benefits, when possible. There are some caveats to this whole endeavor, however. Sometimes it is not possible. Some things are quite entrenched in our psyches and can only be changed with the help of a healing process and another person. If we can turn a negative into a positive by whatever means that’s great. But sometimes negativity does not give way just like that and needs to be respected, aired, explored and understood.