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Dear Doctor:

I would rather think pleasant thoughts than unpleasant thoughts, but the unpleasant thoughts keep bouncing back into my mind. How can I improve my disposition?

Dear Bothered:

You are a worrier - a person who has not come to terms with the awfulness of life. You feel constantly in danger. You are "thin skinned." (At the same time, you have the advantage of being extraordinarily sensitive and perceptive.) You are looking at life from a victim's standpoint.

We can accommodate ourselves to the awfulness of life in one of two ways, either a religious way or a non-religious way.


Religions have come up with a solution to worrying/agonizing/suffering. They say, we are not helpless, after all. There is something we can do - we can pray. No matter what terrible catastrophe is occurring, we can pray. We have someone available to us in time of need. Although it is true that I as a single person might be ignorant, there is someone I am in touch with who is all knowing. Although it is true that I as a single person might be weak and ineffective, there is someone I am in touch with who is strong and effective. When I am in need of someone who knows more than I and who is more effective than I, I can ask Him to help me out, and He will do so. Having access to someone all knowing, strong, and effective is a wonderful feeling.

The Christian religion tells its followers, "Christ died for your sins. He has made you acceptable to God, who forgives you and makes you his friend again. You are reunited with not just a good person but with the Best Person there is." If the Best Person accepts you, it follows that you can forgive yourself, and the burden of your guiltiness disappears.

Some people get an ego boost just from "being a child of God." The ego boost is even greater in Judaism and in end-of-the-world religions. The Jews believe that they are God's chosen people with a special place in God's affections. End-of-the-world religions, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, believe that they are the "remnant" mentioned in the Book of Revelations.

Most religious people identify first with their religion. To them, their religion says the most about "who they are." Ask, "Who are you," and the Jew will respond, "I am a Jew," the Roman Catholic will respond, "I am a Catholic," etc., even before they say, I am an accountant or a teacher or a doctor, etc. They announce who they are by wearing a cross, putting a mezzuzah on the door frame, etc. Some religious people even wear special costumes to show others who they are - religious habits, Jewish men's black hats, Moslem women's veils, etc.

Religions offer society to their adherents. At the least, there are church services, where everyone in the congregation sits together. Many churches now have gone beyond just sitting together and have taken to holding hands at some point in the church service, while other churches hold hands and sway and sing, all at the same time. Many churches offer society in other ways, including young people's groups, Bible study groups, sewing circles, committees, etc.

All of these benefits of religion tend to reduce worryng/agonizing/suffering. They make life not so awful, after all.


The non-religious way to reduce agonizing is to make room in one's mind for the awfulness of life. Instead of (in your mind) trying to remake reality (which is what worrying/agonizing/suffering is trying to do), you accept it. You can say to yourself, "You are worrying/agonizing/suffering. Thinking won't change reality." People agonize less when they are comfortable with the fact that life is far from perfect and that worrying/agonizing/suffering won't change it.

Everybody's life is a mix. It has often been said that, if you get to know a person, you will uncover some misery. Life is so full of catastrophes! Not only are awful happenings regularly reported in the news, but we are always in danger of our own sickness and death or the sickness and death of those close to us, from disease, accidents, and aging. We might try hard to be safe and healthy, but we are nevertheless constantly in danger, and, from time to time, all of us suffer personal catastrophes. And so, you are not alone. You have not been singled out for special misery.


There are steps that you can take when you are bothered by unpleasant thoughts.

When some unpleasant thought pops into your mind, you can take an objective stance toward it. You can name your suffering - "fear, fear, fear, . . . "(at least ten times) "shame, shame, shame, . . .", or some other name appropriate to your condition. In this way you get outside your suffering.

You can also remind yourself that the actual occurrence, now in the past, is different from the reflection of the occurrence, which exists in your mind. You can say, "All the past is non-existent," thus recognizing that all the past has disappeared, whereas feelings are part of you, not part of the occurrence. The occurrence was something in the past, whereas a feeling about it is something different, a thing in the mind. You can say to yourself, "Please, go back" or "I move on" or "Out of my hands" or "That's over and done with" or "It's useless to worry about that" or "Release" or "Stop! Enough! [Instead of continuing to suffer] I smell the air" or some other dismissive statement, addressing the thought in your mind.

You can also physically let go by flattening your hands. When you are carrying something, such as an umbrella, you grasp it, and your fingers continue to grasp it, even though you don't have your mind on it. Something similar happens when you hold onto an unwanted thought or feeling - you continue to grasp it, even though you don't have your mind on it. If you flatten your hands, your mind might get the idea to let go of the unwanted thought or feeling, by analogy.

Worrying over something in the past is usually futile. When worrying, you can remind yourself that the mind is trying to remake the past. It is in problem-solving mode. Sometimes, a correction can be made, but, most often, worrying about the past is keeping in the meaningful present something that should be allowed to disappear. It is, after all, irreversible. Outside of the mind, only the facts remain.

Many people are reluctant to relinquish their involvement with a past that seems somehow to define who they are. For example, many first-generation Americans keep alive their past in the old country. They keep their ethnic history in the present. Since Rita is Armenian, she knows several Armenians like this. Sometimes they talk with her in ethnic code, one of the words of which is "Turk," a word loaded with meaning because of the Turkish massacres of Armenians. The conversation between Rita and her Armenian friend Michael often gets around to the Turks. When they last met, Michael said, "It's a good thing Turks are getting killed by insurrectionists. It's only what they deserve." Rita answered, "But, Michael, the Turks getting killed aren't even the same people who massacred Armenians. Those people died long ago. These are different people, and we are different people." Michael said, "No, we're not. It was grandparents and great aunts and uncles who were massacred. They were our family. What Turks did to them they did to me." Rita responded, "That's all in the past. It doesn't exist any more." Michael said, "It exists for me."

Rita and Michael define the present differently. To Michael, the past is still present. To Rita, the massacres don't exist.

In any case, to overcome agonizing about the past, a new understanding of the past can be adopted by using these words: "I am keeping the past alive in the 'meaningful' present. I see what I am doing. The past cannot be changed. It is irrreversible. Outside of the mind, only the facts remain. I am safe inside my skin. I am self-contained, independent, and separate. I am in charge of my consciousness. I am at the center of existence. I, as a good caregiver to myself, pay attention to myself. I say to myself, 'I stop inflicting pain on you. I soothe and comfort you. I protect and defend you. I care for you. I want you not to feel vulnerable, victimized, and guilty. I want you not to suffer this way with agonizing. I want you to feel good, not terrible.'"

You can remind yourself that reality can be tolerated: "I tolerate reality. What I tolerate is often terrible. However, I am in Nature/life, not apart from it. I acknowledge that life is the way it is, not the way I wish it were."

When a person learns an attitude of acceptance, he or she stops agonizing over reality. There is a story of Xerxes, an ancient Persian king, whose fleet of ships was lost in a storm. In anger Xerxes took a whip and whipped the stormy waves. Unlike Xerxes, a person can stop agonizing over reality, moving his or her mind away from the repetitiousness of agonizing and over to a higher ground, where he or she moves with life, not against it.

Finally, you can oppose agonizing by saying to yourself, "I stop agonizing." It is a thought similar to the thought where I say, "Enough. I stop inflicting pain on you." From this position I can use the words, "I assert activity and repudiate passivity toward my agonizing. I am not without resources. I am not doomed to lose. I have the power to assert self-respect for myself."

William Ernest Henley put it this way in his poem Invictus:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

When you stand up to agonizing about something in the past, you will find that agonizing is not the powerful master that you thought it was. You do, indeed, have the power to make it back down. A while ago, during the night, my mind, half asleep, kept going over numbers, like the numbers I dealt with at work. Again and again it fixed up incorrect numbers, correcting them so that the computer would not give back the message, "Fatal Error." This mental activity was imaginary, but it was similar to reality. Like worrying, the mind was going over and over something that was wrong and trying to make it right, trying to remake reality. After hours of half-dreaming about the numbers, I asserted consciousness and deliberately said in my mind, "I stop agonizing. I accept reality. I am in Nature/life, not apart from it." My mind accepted the thought and stopped dreaming about the numbers.

Another example: a while back I ran a red light. A few days later, I received mail from the police department with pictures showing the red light and my car running it, along with a fine! A camera had caught me. I paid the fine, and, although I was regretful, I forgot about it. Then, recently, on a wet road I was approaching a traffic light when it turned color, and I went through a red light again. I was shocked at myself. I realized that I should have adjusted to the weather conditions so that I could have stopped at the light in time. Then, it occurred to me that, if I had been caught on a camera, since this would be my second offense, the fine would be stiffer. I worried - ohmygosh, I wonder if the camera caught me, I wonder if the fine will be stiffer, what an ass I was to have shown such poor judgment.

In reality, what were the facts? One, either the camera caught me or it didn't. The truth of the matter was irreversible. Second, if I had been caught, either the fine would be stiffer or it wouldn't. The truth of this matter, too, was irreversible. Third, my worrying about it wasn't going to change it. I was expending useless - and unpleasant - energy. Fourth, whether I was guilty or not guilty didn't matter. Either way, the fact remained. I didn't need to work at self-justification. It couldn't change anything. It was my ego that was causing me to worry.

Kicking against the facts won't change them. The facts are immoveable. Either something is true, or it isn't. Wishing/worrying/agonizing won't change matters.

Blame - either blaming oneself or blaming someone else - should be soon abandoned. Once a deed is done, it is irreversible. It is fine to tell yourself - or someone else - that a wrong has been committed, but then the matter should be dropped. Nothing is more harmful to a person than creating an abiding guilty feeling in him or her.

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