Mental hygiene: Toxic thoughts and feelings

Having some thoughts and feelings can have very negative effects, so it’s quite preferable to have better control over one’s mind to not only not act on such toxic thoughts and feelings, but to eliminate them directly. Ideally, one would not have any toxic thoughts and feelings, but reaching that stage is certainly extremely advanced, and that’s not what I want to discuss here.

The point of this topic is to collect toxic thoughts and feelings in order to be able to identify them as actually being toxic, in the sense of dysfunctional, or having negative and unwanted effects. To simplify things, I will use the words “toxic”, “dysfunctional”, and “irrational” synonymously in this context. If one cannot correctly identify problematic thoughts and feelings as toxic, then one cannot develop an effective defence mechanism against them!

You actually need to know who your enemy is, otherwise you are lost! There is no external enemy. The enemy is always yourself – it’s your toxic thoughts and feelings. External problems are simply obstacles to be overcome. That also includes adversaries. But to be more precise: No, even you are not the enemy, your toxic thoughts and feelings are just obstacles that need to be overcome (but thinking of them as enemies that have to be shot down can sometimes be useful).

Let’s start with the 10 cognitive distortions whose correction is the core of cognitive therapy (copied from this blog post, because it’s a good summary):

  1. All-or-nothing thinking (a.k.a. my brain and the Vatican’s): You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
  2. Overgeneralization (also a favorite): You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
  4. Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count (my college diploma was stroke of luck…really, it was).
  5. Jumping to conclusions (loves alcoholic families): You conclude things are bad without any definite evidence. These include mind-reading (assuming that people are reacting negatively to you) and fortune-telling (predicting that things will turn out badly).
  6. Magnification or minimization: You blow things way out of proportion or you shrink their importance.
  7. Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.”
  8. “Should” statements (every other word for me): You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts,” “musts,” “oughts,” and “have-tos.”
  9. Labeling: Instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself, “I’m a jerk” or “I’m a loser.”
  10. Blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that you contributed to a problem.

What I have noticed in myself are toxic thoughts and feelings of this form:

  • “I don’t feel like doing this”. That’s especially toxic in the case that it’s something that I want to do or that I have planned to do, or that is really important to do. This thought erodes motivation and feeds aversion to the task at hand.
  • The thought above is correlated to a feeling of aversion towards a specific dreaded task, something which the Less Wrong community calls fittingly an ugh field in extreme cases. Feelings of aversion are very toxic, unless there is a really good reason (instead of a mere rationalization) to have an aversion!
  • “[Unfavourable circumstance], therefore I cannot do [positive planned or wanted action]”. This is totally toxic, because this makes oneself overly dependent on external circumstances, which are most of the time far from optimal. This thought can be effectively dismantled by telling yourself that the circumstances are always bad (which is not perfectly true, but is a good enough approximation to reality to be counted as “valid” wisdom).
  • “I have done [positive action], therefore I deserve to do [vice / guilty pleasure / waste of time / toxic action] now!” The really nasty issue with this kind of reasoning is that it’s not even entirely irrational, because we done have a limited amount of willpower, and sometimes it makes sense to reward ourselves for doing difficult things with stuff that is not perfectly healthy for us. However, [vice / guilty pleasure / waste of time / toxic action] can quickly get out of hand and become so toxic that it triggers a vicious circle out of which it is really hard to escape. Therefore, I see that line of reasoning as toxic strategy, which should be replaced by something more benign (meditation, reading books, talking with certain people, writing forum posts ;), …).
  • Fear and anxiety. Totally toxic! Giving in to fear and anxiety makes you weak and increases your fear and anxiety at the same time. Confronting your fears makes you strong and eliminates them!
  • Stress. Biologically very toxic! Stress is not caused by a situation, but by your mental reaction to it, over which you do have some level over control!
  • Laziness and lack of motivation. Toxic, because causing self-perpetuating inactivity. Just doing about anything useful can often get you out of this dysfunctional state.
  • Comparing yourself with others / feelings of superiority or inferiority. These thoughts are totally pointless and may feed a toxic mindset, so they should be avoided completely.
  • “[Bad thing] happened, so my day is ruined”. Bullshit! That’s a toxic self-fulfilling prophecy! Breathe, relax, meditate, think constructively, take a walk, eat something good, or take supplements, and you can turn your day around!

When you notice some of these toxic feelings or thoughts in your mind, you should get rid of them as quickly and effectively as possible. There are simple techniques for that. In many cases simply saying “Stop!” can suffice. You could also try “shut the fuck up!”, or “I don’t want this thought/feeling!”, or just take a deep breath and empty your mind. Try to stay relaxed anyway, because getting stressed about toxic thoughts and feelings is toxic by itself!

So, what would you want to add to the “toxicity list”? Do you disagree with some points? Can you suggest alternative remedies?

I see context as playing an important part in most of these points. Our responses are based on our stimuli - often these can be toxic. I often observe the same person reacting differently in different situations e.g. in a family environment, at work etc.

So one remedy is to move to a positive environment and surround yourself with people that help generate positive energy - this often helps me.

1 Like