If you don't like something, just take away its only power: your attention.

I posted this aphorism on my Facebook feed a while ago which sparked a discussion with a friend. The following is a summary of the clarity that resulted from that discussion. Thanks Douglas!

The thoughts and feelings we pay attention to are the thought and feelings we think and feel.

Our attention does not change physical reality; where we are, or what is happening to us. Our attention does, however, affect our interpretation of reality. We can use it to increase awareness of our emotions, and help us better manage our state and responses.

When we are faced with persistent, habituated, distressing and unhelpful (ie they are not founded in reality or are not indicators of something we need to process) thoughts and feelings, deliberately turning our attention away from them is a way to temper their effect on our wellbeing.

For example, let’s say we have adopted the habit of criticising the way we look. This could be because of some unpleasant experience in our childhood. Let’s say as an adult, we have worked through the issues and are now perfectly fine with the way we look. We may still have bouts of self-criticism every time we catch our reflection. We know this to be habitual, and no longer based on reality. But nonetheless, each time we do it, we pay with our wellbeing. So we withdraw our attention from those thoughts and feelings. When we catch ourselves doing it, we stop.

Think of this like how we might ignore a bored dog that is barking. We don’t pander to it because there’s nothing to gain other than perpetuate the behaviour! The barking dog doesn’t want anything. It just wants to bark.

Not all feelings and thoughts deserve our attention. We can learn to let them go, to step around them, and not indulge or feed them.

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