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One of the most difficult aspects of banishing negative thinking is that it often pops up without warning. Even if we feel entirely ready to live without negativity, we can’t get away from the fact that the human brain is a busy storytelling machine. As we go through our days, we’re full of mental chatter, constructing one narrative after another to make sense of whatever we’re experiencing at the moment. Often we do this without much conscious thought, finding similarities between a present-day event and something in our past experiences, and then plugging in whatever narratives we’ve used in the past—without first reflecting on whether or not they’re appropriate.
Most of the time, our subconscious internal narratives are very useful. They allow us to navigate the complicated structure of modern society by way of familiar routines. If we stopped to analyze in detail all the thousands of possible decision points we encounter every day, we’d never get anything done. We need basic scripts that get triggered by simple observations, such as “That laundry basket is overflowing—time to put a load in the washer.”
But sometimes the mental chatter gets out of control, piling all sorts of random associations on top of each other. Carrying the basket to the laundry room, we might think about a friend’s aunt who fell down the stairs and broke a hip while doing her laundry. That brings to mind a recent online article about health insurance, which had a lively debate in the comments. Before we know it, we’re recalling a heated political argument that took place on a forum a decade ago. We’re angrily ruminating about all the stuff we’d have liked to say to the jerks on the other side of that argument—even though in the here and now, the only thing we’re doing is putting the laundry in the washer!
The unavoidable randomness of our thoughts is why we can’t rely on willpower alone to overcome addictions. Using willpower to choose one action over another is fine when we’re actually making conscious choices, but most of the time we’re not. Instead, we’re just reacting to our environment according to whatever scripted routines and semi-relevant memories happen to be floating around in our brains at the moment. Consequently, we’re likely to find ourselves engaging in addictive behaviors purely out of habit, without the benefit of any forethought.
In a traditional 12-step program, reliance on help from one’s Higher Power fills the willpower gap. Looking outside the self—whether we frame it in terms of looking to God, our family and friends, Nature, the Universe, or simply as practicing mindfulness—is essential to refocus our attention on what is happening in the moment. And as with the other steps of the program, Step Seven should be approached in a spirit of humility—that is, acknowledgment that there is much we don’t know, openness to further discovery, and gratitude for what we learn.
As we cultivate the habit of being present in the moment and become more aware of our surroundings, we’re less likely to find ourselves caught up without warning in old addictive patterns such as persistent negative thought loops.