In life, what you give power to has power over you. And as far as psychotherapist Jennice Vilhauer is concerned, that power is transferred through attention. “You can only feel emotions, including the painful ones, in the present moment,” she writes for Psychology Today. “And what you feel in the present moment is determined by what you give your attention to.”
Vilhauer, who is the director of Emory Healthcare’s Outpatient Psychotherapy Program and author of Think Forward to Thrive, argues that negative events essentially lose their power if you refuse to focus your attention on them. “Most people who ruminate on a negative past are simply unaware that they are doing it or that there is any choice in the matter,” she continues. “Learning how to become aware of what you are paying attention to, and more important, how to shift your attention to something that makes you feel better, is one of the most powerful tools there is for improving emotional well-being.”
She then references William James, an American philosopher who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” back in the late 1800s. It’s really that simple: What we think, feel, and even see in the world around us is determined by what we choose to pay attention to. “Modern cognitive psychologists have demonstrated through research that we are active participants in our process of perception,” she adds.
So how do we become aware of what we’re paying attention to and edit that trajectory in the moment? Think of it this way: “There are only two things in life that you can pay attention to that cause you to experience emotion: Things you want and things you don’t want,” she writes. “You will always know when you are giving your attention to things that you don’t want in life; your emotions will tell you. When you realize that you are experiencing a negative emotion, recognize in that moment that you are giving your attention to something unwanted and consciously choose to shift your attention to something you want instead. You will start to feel better almost immediately.”
Have you perfected selective attention in your own life? Share your advice in the comments below!