If you want to be emotionally free, there is only one thing you need to understand: whatever problem you think you have right now is not the actual problem. The problem is that you do not know how to think about your problem correctly.
It's 2016. We're on the Internet. You're sick of platitudes. But this isn't really something you can afford to ignore. This isn't just advice that may perhaps be applicable to some people, sometimes, in certain situations. It is not just a kind notion that can soothe you on a hard day, it's not just something you can lean on when you've exhausted all other options.
The point of experiencing anything is learning how to think about it differently. When you do not do the work of learning to think differently, you become stuck.
The more we experience, the more capable we are of seeing the world with varied lenses, thinking with more dimension, considering possibilities that were previously inconceivable. Real education is not learning what to think about, but how to think in general.
Learning how to better ignore negative thoughts is not learning how to think, it's learning how to disassociate. Our negative thoughts inform us as much as positive ones do. Rather than becoming afraid, we can learn to see them as directives, or at the very least, if we can be discerning about what we ascribe meaning to, we can decide what matters to us, and to what degree.
Therein is the power of negative thinking.
As the stoics practiced negative visualization (imagining the worst possible outcomes and then preparing for them) learning how to think is the simple art of recognizing that you choose how you apply meaning and emotion to your life.
And if you don't consciously decide what matters and what doesn't, you'll spend the rest of your life in feeling patterns, responding to what you were conditioned by when you were young.
The solution is not a hyper-focus on positivity (as mainstream pop psych would have you believe) but learning how to turn the shadow aspects of your mind into forces that ignite change and inspire growth.
Emotional freedom, and inner peace, is knowing what to do when those negative thoughts and feelings arise, because they will.
As Jonah Lehrer explains, we regulate our emotions by thinking about them. Our prefrontal cortexes allow us to think about our own minds. Our brains think about themselves. Psychologists call it metacognition.
We know when we are angry, because each feeling state must come with a degree of self-awareness, so we can figure out why we're feeling what we're feeling. Without that awareness, we wouldn't know we are afraid of the lion that's charging at us in the wild, so we wouldn't run to escape it. If we didn't run away, what would be the point of the feeling in the first place?
But more importantly, if a feeling doesn't make sense - if the amygdala is responding to a "loss frame," then it can be ignored. "The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain," that is if it determines there is no merit in ascribing meaning.
What this means is that whatever problem you think you have in your life is not the problem, it's the fact that you see it as a problem, rather than a signal you refuse to respond to, or a product of over-ascribing meaning, extrapolation, irrational thoughts that created irrational emotions that continue to go unchecked, and so on.
It is the fact that you see the problem as a problem rather than a fallacy in your understanding, your focus, your perception.
The problem is not the problem, it is how you think about the problem.
If you want to function, you have to learn how to think about your feelings. The difference between the kind of anxiety that paralyzes you and the kind of fear that accompanies anything brave and worthwhile is discernment, which takes practice. The difference between the kind of people who turn their obstacles into opportunities and the kind of people who are crushed beneath the weight of their own uncertainty is knowledge, and awareness.
Being uncomfortable forces us to think of options that we wouldn't have had to imagine before.
It is why heartbreak is crucial to human growth. The the obstacle that becomes the way. The wound through which Rumi claims the light enters. The beautiful people Elisabeth Kübler-Ross says had to know defeat and suffering and struggle to know appreciation and sensitivity and understanding. The pain Khalil Gibran believes sears the most incredible characters' hearts. The suffering through which Fyodor Dostoyevsky claims a large intelligence and deep heart can be born. The people C. Joybell C. sees as stars: dying until they realize they are collapsing into supernovas, to become more beautiful than ever before.
Any idiot can enjoy the positive things in their lives, but it is only a few that can take the negative and find something even more profound.
This post originally appeared on Soul Anatomy.