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Shrink Rap: Think You Control Your Thoughts? Think Again!

Tips on how to get a handle on your mind so you can avoid negative and irrational behavior.

Dr. Hendlin, regarding your statement in your column What You Aren't Conscious of Can Hurt You:"Whether you think negative thoughts are coming from the unconscious mind, when you hear yourself thinking these kinds of thoughts, try to neutralize them with positive statements so the negative does not get the upper hand. Otherwise, negative thoughts tend to be reinforced by exactly the behaviors that you are struggling against." If our minds are so out of control to the point where we cannot control our thoughts, how it is that we will gain enough control to perform the mental process you require of us in the above paragraph? -- M.E.

Shrink Rap:

This is an excellent question and one which begs us to make a clear distinction between what we can and can't control with respect to our own thoughts. It points us toward examining what we could call a "Level 2" understanding of our mind's moment-to-moment "inside" action.

Using the analogy to levels of market quotes, let's say that in the province of the mind, Level 1 is the awareness of our thoughts coming and going, and having a passing familiarity with intentionally directing the thought process.

Level 2 would be the ability to zero in more precisely on our thoughts as they arise from moment to moment, actually watching a thought as it arises, reaches its zenith and then begins to disintegrate. This would include the subtle recognition of thought associations in their never-ending swirls.

Finally, a third level would be recognizing how thoughts condition subtle feeling states, which may lead to stronger emotions. Being able to see all this unfolding in detail is not easy to do, usually requiring a mental discipline such as meditation to slow down and refine the process.

If you spend even a short time watching your mind in action, you begin to realize how little control you typically have over the flow of your thoughts and associations. It is far easier to control strong emotional responses than it is our comparatively subtle thoughts. In fact, I would be on very firm footing in arguing that: a) most people have little comprehension of how out-of-control their thoughts really are and b)

that controlling our thoughts and their associations is the single most difficult thing we can ever learn to do.

The basic nature of our thought process is to freely associate without waiting for any overlay of logical or straight-line structure. But, obviously, we can do a fair amount of cognitive "housekeeping." In other words, we can learn to control how long we hold onto the thoughts that arise, as well as how seriously we take them.

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We can also learn how to purposely call up certain thoughts, intentionally direct them and sharply focus on them when it is in our interest to do so. We can become more skillful at learning how to create relatively tight, cogent associations, resulting in ideas and arguments that follow the rules of logico-deductive reasoning. And some people are blessed enough to be able to draw up very creative and original thoughts.

So just because the nature of the mind is to produce its own associated thoughts -- be they positive, negative or neutral -- doesn't mean we don't have something to say about the direction these thoughts may take. The more control we are able to exert over our train of thought, the greater skill we exhibit at doing "straight-line" thinking. This means we keep a relatively tight sequence of associations intact. In addition, we may choose to reinforce certain thoughts or beliefs simply through repetition, verbally and silently.

This, of course, is how things like affirmations, positive thinking and certain forms of prayer such as chanting work. We simply choose a thought and repeat it again and again. The difference between this and obsessing on something is that, in the first case, we choose to think certain thoughts and, in the second, the thoughts choose us!

In the market, we often talk about a "battle" between bulls and bears, and how the forces of buying and selling create a struggle for dominance. This same battle is taking place in the mind, both at conscious and unconscious levels. So when I advise you to try to have positive thoughts to neutralize your negative thoughts, I'm asking you to utilize whatever skills you have to bring conscious intention to the thought process.

Some of the methods you can use to increase your ability to control your own thoughts, as well as to think more clearly, include: various meditative practices that help us turn inward, identify thoughts more clearly and increase our skill at either following them or cutting them off; classes and books that heighten deductive and inductive reasoning skills, like certain forms of mathematics, logic and philosophy; the study of law for the Socratic method of learning to argue both sides of an issue; and psychology that relates to basic defense mechanisms, mental imagery and the role of the unconscious mind.

Steven J. Hendlin, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Irvine, Calif. He has been in private practice for the last 25 years, investing for the last 20 years, and actively trading online as a swing trader and long-term investor since 1996. He is the author of

The Disciplined Online Investor

recently translated into Spanish. He is pleased to receive your comments and questions for publication in his public forum columns at

steven.hendlin@thestreet.com, but please remember that he is unable to provide personal counseling or psychotherapy through the mail.

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