What do you find yourself thinking about most of the time?
That may not be a question you’ve ever asked yourself before. But you should.
Because the way we think, and the things we choose to think about, can have a huge effect on the way that we live.
Controlling your thoughts isn’t always easy. It can take a lot of time and a lot of work to learn how to break free of negative thought patterns and destructive programming to become the person you want to be.
But it’s an effort well worth making.
The thing is, there are several things you may be dwelling on that are actively holding you back in life.
And while you can’t always control what you think, it’s worth making the effort to avoid thinking about these unhelpful topics.
1) Past trauma
Let’s start with the big one.
Trauma is an unfortunate part of life. It can come in many forms, including abuse from parents or other authority figures, neglect, failed relationships, loneliness, bullying, or major events like war or natural disasters.
And these major traumas have a way of reshaping our brains and our personalities to make us completely different people.
Carrie Baatz, a community training coordinator at The Independence Center, writes that experiencing trauma can actually create physical changes in the brain, including:
- an enlarged amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for controlling our fight or flight response;
- a shrunken hippocampus, which is the brain region that helps us distinguish between the past and the present;
- a shrunken prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us regulate thoughts and emotions.
These physical and psychological changes are part of what makes it impossible to forget trauma, because it robs us of the physical equipment we need to get past it.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what you need to do if you want to move forward in life.
You may never be able to forget the trauma you’ve experienced. But there’s a difference between that and dwelling on it.
It can take a lifetime and the work of dedicated mental health professionals to overcome serious trauma. But until you get the help you need to get past old pain, you’ll never become everything you have it in you to be.
Like trauma, loss has a way of clinging to us.
The grief of losing someone we love can last a lifetime, reshaping us into fundamentally different people.
And it’s not just death that causes us loss. The loss of a relationship or life we loved can be every bit as painful.
Often, the only real cure for loss is time. The powerful feelings of a major loss never really go away, but we learn to live with them eventually. Strategies that can help speed up the healing process include:
- talking about your loss with people who care about you;
- accepting your feelings, without trying to change them;
- taking physical care of yourself and your family;
- helping others;
- setting aside time to remember the person you have lost in a healthy way.
All of this is different from dwelling on your loss, which means constantly thinking of it to the point that you can’t focus on anything else. That’s called rumination, and it’s a guaranteed way to keep yourself stuck in your loss and never move forward.
After all, you can’t move forward if you’re always looking back.
3) The one that got away
We also offer losses in life, and death is just one way we can lose someone. Another, loss that often causes people to dwell on what they don’t have is the loss of a relationship with someone they care about.
This can be a long-term relationship, involving marriage and children, that you thought would be forever.
Or it can even be a more short-term relationship that you nevertheless invested a lot of hope into. What matters is not the length of the relationship so much as the intensity of the feelings it involved.
But like death, losing a relationship can often only be healed by time. And dwelling on what you have lost cuts you off from the possibility of any new happiness entering your life.
It’s okay to grieve a relationship that has reached its end. But dwelling on the one that got away will only poison your future.
4) What other people have
This is a dangerous one.
We live in a world of constant comparison, with social media bringing us endless reels of people living out our fantasies.
There’s always someone richer, prettier, or more successful than you. And these days, they all want to tell you all about it.
This kind of comparison can be extremely unhealthy. As psychologist Joyce Chong writes, regularly comparing ourselves with people who we think are doing better than us can have a damaging effect on our self-esteem.
Our consumer society is geared around making you want what you don’t have. But dwelling on it will only stop you from moving forward.
5) The unfairness of the world
This is another tricky one.
There’s no denying we live in an unfair world. Consider, for example, while around 300,000 deaths in America are caused by obesity every year, elsewhere in the world, more than 800 million people can’t get enough to eat.
And you don’t have to look globally to be troubled by the inequalities in our society, where homeless people sleep outside skyscrapers where millionaires and billionaires keep empty apartments.
Injustice is something we are all responsible for addressing. But dwelling on it won’t do you any good.
In fact, fixating on everything that’s wrong with the world and constantly thinking about it can make you give in to hopelessness and despair.
If you want a more equitable world, go ahead and work for it. But don’t let the enormity of the injustice all around you blind you to the beauty of life.
6) Missed opportunities
It’s only natural to sometimes wonder what might’ve happened if we had taken a different fork in the road from the one we did.
What if you had taken that job you were offered? What if you had moved to that new city?
What if you had landed that interview on a major TV show that would’ve helped you promote your book to millions of people (okay, that one might be specific to me)?
The trouble is, you’ll never know about where that other road may have led. And dwelling on the opportunities you’ve missed in life can hold you back from recognizing the ones available to you now.
Think of it like this: if you had taken that other path, you would now be living in a completely different world.
Who’s to say in that world, something horrible wouldn’t also have happened? You might’ve been hit by a bus. You might’ve been diagnosed with an incurable disease.
You don’t know where that other road might’ve led. So stop dwelling on it and focus on what you can do to build the life you want today.
7) Things you can’t control
Ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus wrote, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
So much that affects our lives is out of our control, from the weather to global pandemics to war.
All we can control is how we react to external circumstances.
If you constantly dwell on bad news you can do nothing about, you won’t have the focus or energy to focus on the things you can control.
So the first thing to do is to determine what you can and can’t control in this life. Stop dwelling on what you can’t control, and focus your attention instead on what you can.
That’s how you move forward.
Stop dwelling on useless things
Forgetting the past is perhaps one of the best examples of something that’s easier to say than to do.
That doesn’t change the fact that it’s vital to stop yourself from dwelling on things you can’t change or control.
If you want to move forward in life, you need to let go of these unhelpful thoughts. Only then can you become the person you have it in you to be.