“All my relationships have failed.”
“There must be something wrong with me.”
“As I get older, it’s going to be harder for me to date.”
For some reason, we human beings have a bad habit of letting upsetting thoughts take over our brains. We fret and churn, convinced that this is somehow productive.
Most of the time, it’s not. “Almost always, self-critical thoughts of this nature do not motivate us to take effective action,” writes psychologist Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap. “Usually such thoughts (if we fuse with them) just make us feel guilty, stressed, depressed, frustrated or anxious.” These feelings can in turn trigger counterproductive actions—for example, you feel bad about being overweight, and then eat more.
It’s not that negative thoughts are always bad—actually, they’re essential for survival. They’re what inspire us to get flu shots, double-check our tax returns, and avoid strangers who give us the creeps. The problem comes when we treat every dark thought as if it were extremely important and the absolute truth. Harris calls this process “fusion” and offers a simple and quite effective strategy for “defusing” thoughts:
- Think of a thought that has been troubling you, such as “I’ll never find the right person.” Spend ten seconds really immersed in that thought—believe it as much as you can.
- Now add the phrase, “I’m having the thought that…” Take ten seconds and repeat that to yourself: “I’m having the thought that I’ll never find the right person.”
- Add a final phrase: “I notice that I’m having the thought that I’ll never find the right person.” Repeat to yourself for ten seconds.
When I ask my clients how they experienced this exercise, they say that with each step they gained distance from their thoughts. They realized they were … just thoughts. They weren’t immutable truths; they weren’t prison sentences. They were just momentary blips that passed through their minds.
By developing the skill of defusing your thoughts, Harris says that you can keep them from dragging you down. “You don’t have to like them, want them or approve of them; you simply make peace with them and let them be. This leaves you fee to focus your energy on taking action, action that moves your life forward in a direction you value.”
You might argue that your thoughts are true. Harris says this doesn’t really matter:
“You can waste a lot of time trying to decide whether your thoughts are actually true,” he writes. “Again and again your mind will try to suck you into that debate. But although at times this is important, most of the time it is irrelevant and a waste of energy. The more useful approach is to ask, ‘Is this thought helpful? Does it help me to take action and to create the life I want?”
Yes, you might face legitimate obstacles in your search for a partner. Maybe the demographics in your city are bad. Maybe you hate parties. Maybe you work in an industry where the likelihood of meeting single people you’d like to date is slim.
None of these challenges means you’re doomed—they just mean you might have to work a little harder to find that person than, say, someone who met their partner in college.
So save that energy for the act of actually seeking a partner, rather than letting a lot of self-defeating thoughts suck it away.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.