Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking:
A Transformative Three-Step Therapy Method for Addressing Inner Negativity
Based on the book with this title
Do you ever struggle with bad moods or low feelings? To some extent, negative emotions are a just part of being human. Almost everyone feels down sometimes- I know I do. Sometimes it can be mild or brief. Other times, when we wake up “on the wrong side of the bed” or encounter difficulties, we may feel that we are being ambushed by inevitable or overwhelming negativity. But the truth is, there are therapeutic techniques we can use to actively reprogram our moods more favorably. One such tool which I use frequently in my practice (and my own mind) is the Horizon of Healthy Thinking exercise. Take a quick look at the horizon picture featured above, and save that for a visual reference exercise in a few paragraphs.
How do moods start? Our moods are generally precipitated by our thoughts. Most of the thousands of daily thoughts we have are fleeting, but some stay with us a bit longer and create feelings. When we follow that thought-train and lean in to the feelings, that creates a mood. Moods can be temporary, or prolonged, at which point they become more of a state of mind, or a temperament. Repeated mood patterns and the way we respond to them, color our personalities. So the general sequence is:
Thought – feeling – mood - state of mind - personality. And it’s cyclical; lather, rinse, repeat.
Some of the thoughts we have are reflexive- they pop up instinctively in response to a stimulus or trigger, inside or outside of ourselves. Many of them are automatic, spontaneous ideas that flow rhythmically between our ears. When we are having a natural thought progression that is either helpful or innocuous, our moods tend to be pretty good. But when the thoughts generated by our minds become unhelpful or upsetting, this will cause the mood to dip.
Not every life circumstance is going to yield naturally happy thoughts, nor do they need to. But there is a way we can train our minds to meet reality where it is, but translate it into a psychologically healthy cognition, which will then in turn, precipitate more deliberate, effective thoughts, feelings, and moods.
For this technique, our thoughts can be categorized into three camps: unhelpful, neutral, or helpful. Now recall the horizon picture as a visual analogy:
Picture the water with a strong current- they become big, choppy waves crashing down, threatening to pull you beneath the surface, below the horizon. When we’re down, we’re floundering, sinking under the waters of unhelpful negativity. This can look like depression, rage, anxiety, hopelessness, toxic criticism, blame, or judgement- any potent, persistent, unwanted emotional experience.
Now picture calm waters, with a sailboat, bobbing along the waves, simply tracing the horizon of reality however it is. This represents a neutral state- passively following reality as status quo. It just “is.”
Finally, picture a seagull soaring upward, above the horizon. When we’re in a “good mood” we are generally producing mostly either helpful or neutral thoughts. This doesn’t necessarily mean positive; we can have helpful thoughts about a negative situation too, and there are times when misplaced positivity can be inappropriate and unhealthy. Above the horizon just means that we are in a healthy place- approaching whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, with either a productive, growth-promoting, or accepting mindset, like the seagull, gliding upward, over the horizon, toward the sky.
When healthy thoughts evolve organically- either because our brain chemistry is fortunately aligned that way, or because we find ourselves blessed with favorable happenstances, we can simply relax and enjoy the ride; our psyches are doing well on autopilot in those moments. When we are functioning in a neutral headspace, we tend to be ok with that too. The problem arises when we find ourselves in moods generated from unhelpfully negative thought patterns and feelings. The horizon of healthy thinking process suggests that we formulate the thought in three distinct, progressive iterations:
The way it occurs spontaneously: below the horizon. Acknowledge the problem and the yucky feelings. This is important because we can’t correct what we deny exists.
The way it would look if it were less toxic: on the horizon. Describe the problem and feelings more matter-of-factly, from a place of distance- as if it were about someone else, and solvable.
The way it could sound if it were its healthiest permutation: above the horizon. Reformulate the issue and the feelings, in a way that promotes empowerment, growth, possibility, or acceptance.
It should be noted that the “above the horizon” version should not sound inauthentically cheerful and upbeat. It can and should be true to the experience, but just framing it in a way that is more useful. Here is very simple application of this technique in action, based on a true, recent incident. I had to fill out some important forms, but I accidentally ticked off the wrong box in one of the fields, which crashed the automated system. This resulted in my needing to spend a lot of time on the phone with service reps to locate and correct the error. Here are the three ways I could have narrated this vignette to myself:
Below the horizon (drowning): I’m such an idiot! How did I not see the wording on that form? I messed this up completely- I hate technology, and I hate my own incompetence. It’ll take forever to figure this out, and then there will probably be another glitch. What a hassle!
On the horizon (sailboat): Hm.. it seems that I answered something on the form incorrectly, and now it won’t process. And I’m not sure I know how to fix this myself.
Above the horizon (seagull): Oh, I misunderstood that question, and it looks like that invalidated my application. I’m going to need to some help untangling the red tape on this error, so I’ll need to find a block of time to call customer service, and ask them to walk me through amending my input. I’ll also ask them to explain to me how this works, so I don’t make that sort of mistake next time. I’ll be glad to get this resolved.
See how the first reaction is overly self-critical and pessimistic, the second is just factual, and the third is constructive? This is the horizon method in action. It may sound like a simple moment, but I actually need to do this sort of reframe a lot; I don’t naturally have great frustration tolerance for my own mistakes or ignorance. These minor incidents can ruin a mood when processed in unnecessarily negative ways. But they feel empowering and motivating when processed as a learning experience. And when you apply this technique regularly and to heavier thoughts about oneself, others, or the world at large, you can begin to create newer, healthier thought patterns, which generate better feelings. These will forge new, brighter pathways in our brains, problem-solving, accepting, and appreciating our life events and stories from a place of possibility and strength.
*Note: This is brief a summary of a more elaborate approach. If these ideas resonate and you’d like to learn more about them, please check out the whole book: Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking here.