I'LL TRY ANYTHING ONCE: I'm Going On A "Thought Cleanse"

The rules of a “thought cleanse” are simple, and deceptively so. Think positive, don’t think negative, and think positive.
Publish date:
August 1, 2014
mental health, happiness, positivity

Lots of people -- yogis, personal trainers, nutritionists, Goopers -- swear by detox cleanses. Clean the slate. Press reset. Unclog the plumbing. They say that cleanses allow us to take a step back, confront what we put into our bodies, and gauge how what we ingest affects not only our physical health, but our mood as well. And I do agree.

However, I recently discovered that I’m guilty of regularly consuming things far more damaging than raw cake batter and canned wine: negative thoughts.

The rules of a “thought cleanse” are simple, and deceptively so. Think positive, don’t think negative, and think positive. While food cleanses advocate eating "clean," minimally processed foods, thought cleanses prescribe thinking that’s untainted by pessimism, cynicism, doom, and gloom. The foods on a food cleanse are chock full of nutritive value; the thoughts on a thought cleanse follow suit, cultivating positivity and feeding our souls with love and light and rainbows and puppies and warm hugs and puppies giving us warm hugs, and so on.

Some information on me, the lab rat: I am needlessly neurotic. I worry about everything and everyone like it’s my job. I lack confidence about my capabilities. I take on regret like cat hair on dark furniture. If someone were to make a word cloud of my most commonly sputtered utterances, “I feel guilty” would probably be number one. And though I don’t think I’m particularly interpersonally mean-spirited in day-to-day life, I love to ridicule reality TV. Turn on “The Bachelor,” and I can get real cynical, real fast.

In sum, I am both a great candidate for a thought cleanse, and also THE BEST CANDIDATE for a thought cleanse. In the spirit of positivity (!!), I went for it.

The Hard Stuff

I committed to the cleanse without fully considering what specific challenges lay ahead, and it wasn’t long before Lloyd Bridges’ running joke in "Airplane" reverberated in my eardrums. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”

There are challenges every week. That particular week presented three biggies:

Challenge #1: Pool Party

I adore my aunt. I adore my cousins. I adore pools and parties and fun in general. The challenge in going to my aunt’s house for a pool party is that I don’t adore myself. My relatives are forever thin, tan, clear-skinned, fashionable, and scientifically gorgeous, whereas… Let’s just say I have some image issues. The idea of donning a swimsuit anywhere in their general vicinity is enough to send me straight for my oversized UC Irvine sweatshirt, which is historically where I hide when I don’t want to look at my body.

Throughout the 45-minute train ride to Long Island, I strategized. Don’t look in mirrors! Don’t look at the other girls! Don’t look down because you’ll see your stomach from a warped angle! Smile! All day! Don’t stop!

I felt insane stripping down to my water-wear and splashing around like it was no big deal. I barely heard what anyone else said all day because I was too distracted by the kerfuffle unfolding between my Cleansing Brain and my Default Brain:

DB: Suck in your stomach, Stephie.

CB: Don’t suck in your stomach, Stephie! Who gives a flying fart! Let it hang out, girlfriend!

DB: But now I feel bloated—

CB: You’re totally fine, mamacita!

DB: But I feel bloated—

CB: “Ah, ah, you’re beautiful”—

DB: ...What are you doing.

CB: “Ah, ah, you’re beautiful”—

DB: Please tell me you’re not singing “#Beautiful” by Mariah Carey featuring Miguel.

CB: “You’re beautiful!”

DB: Oh my Lord. Please stop.

CB: “And your mind is beautiful!”

DB: Thank you…?

By the time I got back home that night, I felt pooped.

Challenge #2: Doctor’s Visit

“Are you ready?” the podiatrist’s tech guy asked after he lathered some weird, cold gel on the pads of my feet. To avoid debilitating surgery, I’d recently been approved for a new treatment called E-PAT. The tech guy readied an oblong wand attached to an electric-current emitting machine. The apparatus looked like a Fisher Price microphone and boom box set.

“Oh yes!” I said, pumped full of positivity. I woke up that morning with some intense back pain independent of my foot troubles; but in the spirit of CLEANSE WEEK, complaining about any of it was off the table.

My standard go-to when someone asks me how I’m feeling is typically some variation of, “Oy vey, terrible! Let me count the ways.” For the cleanse, I knew I pretty much needed to rejigger my personality. So when I spoke to my mom on the phone that morning, I told her how “excited” (not worried) I was to start this “exciting” (not terrifying) new treatment. She told me that she might’ve had the same treatment, too, and if she did, then I was in for a real treat.

“My mom told me this feels better than a massage!”

The tech guy looked at me a little strangely. “Most people say this feels like their feet are exploding?”

Why did he end that statement with a question mark? As soon as he fired up the E-PAT machine, I knew why. Mom was wrong; he was right.

At dinner, I was unusually quiet, and my husband pointed it out. I shrugged. Again, he asked, “What’s up?” I opened my eyes extremely wide to show that they were not sad and grinned with all my teeth in a probably pseudo-psychopathic way, because he lost it.

“STEPHIE. What is wrong.”

I reluctantly told him off-hand that, y’know, everything hurts, but no biggie, I’m trying to keep that bad stuff out, remember?

“Pain acknowledgement isn’t being negative,” he said. “It’s being tuned into your health.”

Hmm. Good point, spouse. Fixating on the pain is negative, sure; but the positive, proactive course of action is to actively manage the pain.

So we duct taped bags of frozen peas and blueberries to my back and feet.

Challenge #3: “The Bachelorette”

Food-based cleanses mandate eliminating “cleanse unfriendly” foods from our diets. Detox means no toxins. So ostensibly, on a thought cleanse, I shouldn’t even watch purportedly “toxic” television, right?


However: too bad. I require my weekly dose of “The Bachelorette” to feel fulfilled. The one time I attempted a weeklong detox diet, I “cheated” and ate a piece of chocolate every night. I don’t love the word “cheated” anyway because it implies winning versus failing, and, honestly? Life is stressful. Chocolate and “The Bachelorette” positively alleviate my jangled nerves.

I usually hold weekly Bachelor/Bachelorette viewing parties that devolve into Riesling-fueled snark spirals, but this week I told everyone to stay away. Watching an episode of potentially ridicule-worthy reality TV was challenging enough without both the temptation to top my own jokes, and the fair odds that I’d feel emotionally wasted by the end of the episode.

And then an amazing thing happened: I felt good. Forcing myself to watch the show through un-jaded eyes really upped my enjoyment factor. “He does seem genuine!” is something I said about the guy who I labeled a “babyfaced Gremlin” the week before. And normally I discount moments of raw emotion on the show as contrived, groan-worthy, or pathetic. But that night, one guy’s teary-eyed thank you to his brother-in-law for stepping in as his father figure actually made me teary-eyed.

Usually two hours of “The Bachelorette” makes me feel nauseous, like I scarfed down way too much of a mediocre wedding cake -- it didn’t even taste that good, so why did I eat so much of it? But on the cleanse, I savored! I celebrated! I cheered the happy couple(s)! And I appreciated that, despite the practical opinion that participating in a reality show is a major mistake, sometimes something real and profound is gained. Like a sniffly hug between two macho dudes.

The Most Negative Thing I Didn’t Even Realize Was Negative

Surmounting those challenges on their own was enough to convince me I’d earned a trophy or a Nobel Peace Prize or a trip to Disney World or something. But then I went to a yoga class. And my teacher talked up that whole “Be Here Now” thing. And I remembered, “Oh yeah. The worries. I worry all the time.”

My whole life I thought that my worries were what propelled me to action. But it turns out, my worries make me feel lousy. And, my worries aren’t even reality! They’re theoreticals with varying degrees of probability. My dad (a world-renowned worrier himself) loves to paraphrase Mark Twain whenever I fall down an angsty rabbithole: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

It took me the entire week to realize that worries are negative.

And it has the simplest prescription: don’t do it. Bob Newhart had a sketch on “MADtv” in the early 2000s where he plays a psychiatrist whose only instruction is, “Stop it.” That’s the long and short of it. Stop the negative thoughts before they form.

The thing about a thought cleanse versus a food cleanse is that you can’t accidentally eat non-cleanse-friendly foods. (That is, unless you’re asleep and someone jams marshmallows in your mouth, or if you voluntarily eat a few ’mallows but don’t know that most ‘mallows are made from pig-gelatin.) But it is extremely easy for a negative thought to accidentally pop into your brain, as quick as you can utter a single, “Ugh.”

So I can try my hardest not to worry, or complain, or criticize my own appearance, or make fun of all the crying on the promo for the upcoming “Bachelor in Paradise," but the likelihood that any one of those negative thoughts will seep out of my overactive brain is quite high.

I qualify my cleanse week as a successful one -- not because I completely eliminated all toxic, negative thoughts from my life and bounced carefree atop cotton candy clouds. Oh hell no. The week was a success because I was conscious of my choices.

How Did I Feel At the End of the Week?

I felt great!

But Seriously, How Did I Feel?

Like I exfoliated sheaths of dead skin off my white-light-emanating heart. And I’m sticking with it!

Sure, But…

Okay, okay. Yes. There are some dangers to pervasive positivity. The term “Pollyanna” is an insult for a reason.

There is a vast source of negativity that is completely external and can hardly be controlled by my personal directive to “think happy thoughts:” the news.

How many temptations are there to get grim on a week-by-week basis? How many eyeroll-worthy Tweets? How many truly horrifying headlines? At first I didn’t know if I was supposed to ignore the news, but that seemed foolish. Ignorance is a negative thing, too.

I realized that the lesson learned is not avoiding confrontations with potentially negative triggers. There’s tragedy everyday -- the news is always not good. We can’t shove on horse blinders and set our minds to play an auto-loop of Pharrell’s “Happy.”

We shouldn’t be in denial about the world around us, and we shouldn’t be in denial about problems in our own lives either. Besides, many of us make our bread and butter off of misery -- how many great films, songs, books, and more wouldn’t exist if everyone were ecstatic all the time? And what about the catharsis of straight-up venting?

The trick is striking the balance, and engaging in some serious mindfulness. The aim of a food-based cleanse is not necessarily to eliminate all junk foods from daily life, but to teach us to be selective, know what we’re putting in our bodies, and perhaps go for the good-bad stuff when it’s really worth it.

When are negative thoughts worth it? They’re worth it when they spur us to action, be it accumulating knowledge, or creating art, or making personal positive change, or inspiring communal positive change. And, in small doses, acknowledging negativity can help us appreciate positivity and find gratitude. We can’t have the light without the dark. Perspective.

Life is a soup, they say. Don’t use too much salt or else the whole thing will taste terrible. Just a pinch, though, will bring out the flavor.