We can think of emotions as alarm bells that signal to us when something is happening that can have either positive or negative consequences for us. These are usually transient states, but they can become something much more lasting. Sometimes they can even cause suffering, which is why it’s important to understand them and learn to give them the appropriate weight.
Is it possible to remove a thought?
Given what we’ve discussed, an inevitable question arises: Is it possible to remove a thought? The answer is equally inevitable: no.
Let me provide an example. George Lakoff, a linguist and neuroscientist, once said: “Now for a minute, let’s try not to think about a pink elephant.”
Go ahead, try it for yourself.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? None of us would have thought about a pink elephant, and yet now we can’t get that image out of our minds. It’s impossible to follow the instruction we’ve been given.
Our minds escape our control, leading us to commit involuntary disobedience. In fact, a curious process occurs in which one part of our brain will try to drive away the thought, while another part will continually check that it doesn’t return. In doing so, it keeps the thought alive.
Thus, the attempt to suppress a thought ends up having the paradoxical effect of making that same thought an obsession.
Let’s add another step to this experiment. As we try to remove the image of the pink elephant from our minds, we are asked not to think about blue monkeys. Soft monkeys swinging on their vines, eating bananas, and smiling… What happens to the pink elephant now? In all likelihood, it has been at least partially set aside to make room for this new “non-thought.”
So, we can conclude that the way to drive away an intrusive thought is to replace it with a new one. If we consider that there’s only a limited amount of room in our minds for thoughts, it becomes clear that filling this space with positive thoughts leaves less room for negative ones.
The key is being able to “dialogue” with our inner selves, making room for thoughts that encourage us and make us feel stronger.
The awareness of emotions with negative value
Some emotions are more strongly perceived, being more intrusive and able to influence us. When this happens as a result of negative emotions, the consequence can be excessive fear and anxiety. If we regard emotions as sentinels alerting us to what’s occurring to prepare us for an appropriate response, it’s easy to understand how being aware of potentially dangerous situations is more advantageous for our survival than focusing on situations that bring happiness.
The issue doesn’t lie so much in experiencing negative emotions as it does in the consequences of these emotions.
We often find ourselves more attracted to negative news than to positive news. This is also reflected in the disproportionate media coverage of negative stories, a response to public demand. According to a study by American psychologist John Cacioppo, this tendency towards negative news can be explained by evolutionary survival mechanisms. Ignoring negative information can be much riskier than overlooking positive news. Despite this, most people claim to prefer good news over bad and say they would like to hear more uplifting stories.
Our culture often encourages us to avoid sadness, to hide it or mask it because it’s considered a sign of weakness. However, experiencing sadness is the only way to learn how to manage it. The first necessary step is to admit to ourselves and to others that we are vulnerable. Sadness serves to alert those around us that we need their support and comfort during difficult times. It also aids in deep reflection and analysis of what happens to us, helping to process unpleasant events and acting as a catalyst for change.
The example in a film
Inside Out, an animated film produced by Disney and released in 2015, has emotions as its central theme. It considers five emotions – joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness – which alternate in the life of the young protagonist. Their utility is immediately clear. Joy is presented as the dominant emotion, aiming to ensure the protagonist’s happiness. Anger combats injustice, while fear and disgust protect the child from potential dangers and contamination, respectively. The function of sadness is less straightforward, at least initially.
In the child’s life, the memories are all happy until a sudden change occurs, introducing a new emotion: sadness. The other emotions become disoriented by this new presence and attempt to restore the previous emotional balance by stifling sadness: an effort destined to fail.
It’s only when the child accepts her sadness that she can cry, alerting her previously unaware parents to her malaise. From them comes the comfort that brings serenity. Accepting sadness leads to new memories and the awareness – necessary for all of us – that life is also made up of frustrations. These must be overcome to free ourselves from being trapped and to direct our energies toward new goals.
Annalisa Balestrieri holds a master’s degree in modern literature, with a psycho-pedagogical specialisation, from the State University of Milan.
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