Have you ever noticed how compact thoughts are? A sentence tells a story. Your mind seizes upon that sentence, proudly, turning it like a gem and examining every facet. “That’s apt,” your mind thinks, and proceeds to repeat that motto. There’s only one problem.

The motto is wrong. It’s cruel. Why, you would never let someone else speak to you like that, would you? “Everyone rejects you,” might be the motto. Or, “You always fall down and hurt yourself.” Or “There’s no point in trying, life is a series of disappointments and then you die.” Or “You’re not young anymore.” Or “No one cares about you.” I could go on, and I’m certain that everyone has a set of phrases like these that pop into their heads. Many come from outside voices, heard over and over again, that are motivated by conformity, cruelty, control or currency. These days, it seems like many come from the media, but people will absorb and repeat these “truisms” themselves.

Take senescence, one of my favorite topics. How many times, in my admittedly young life, have I heard a contemporary complain about their age? It seems we all are on the lookout for the faintest signs of entropy manifested in our skin, hair, joints, strength, vitality and more. I remember, upon turning 30, when a friend mentioned she was starting to “feel her age” and noticed a creakiness in her joints. Now, friends a decade or two or three or four past 30 make similar complaints, but with varying symptoms: lethargy, achiness, “my whole body just hurts,” athletic decline and — ooh, one of my favorites — forgetfulness! I don’t often go to the doctor, but the last time I was there, a brochure was helpfully left out on the examination table. It described perimenopausal symptoms to be on the alert for, starting around age 30! One of them was forgetfulness. I practically threw it in the gynecologist’s face. “This brochure is the patriarchy!” I blurted (somewhat unfairly to patriarchs, who never told me such things). It’s inconceivable to me, in the face of increasingly rewarding expertise in one’s skillset, to accept that it is normal to be forgetful? Yet many women seem to repeat this trope, and if they don’t attribute it to future or past menopause, they attribute it to “Mommy Brain.”

One of my favorite rejoinders to Mommy Brain is, “No one calls it ‘CEO Brain.'” It’s the same phenomenon: Having to make decisions and delegate the actions of multiple people in multiple domains — as mommies do — is exhausting, and requires you to simplify. There’s a reason “executive summaries” exist: They let a CEO quickly absorb information presented in an extremely simplistic way so that they can make a decision. If a CEO were to walk around complaining of forgetfulness, I don’t imagine they’d keep the job for long.

Of course, stages of life exist. There is childhood, and sexual maturity, and at some point the ability to reproduce ends, while human life continues on for decades after that. There are periods where muscle growth comes easier than others. The body contains multiple systems and at any moment if we observe decline in one of them, at least in my case, I try to come up with a plan to reinforce it. Eyesight, for example, is understood to get worse at close distances after a few decades of life, due to the hardening of the lens. Interestingly, some claim you can work around this problem by exercising your eyes, learning to focus at multiple distances, enhancing your peripheral vision, being exposed to sunlight, not overworking them with 12 hours of flickering blue-lit screens at a single focal distance, etc. But most people will simply accept that their eyesight will decline “as a sign of getting old,” despite the fact that a vast number of old people never ever need glasses.

But bad posture from a sedentary life, weak eyesight from staring at screens, poor cardio health from too much leisure — these are truly minor annoyances.  Let’s take a worse scenario: Disease or disaster. I gratefully admit that I have not myself faced a major disease. As the years pass, however, I have witnessed disease and death around me. I know that death awaits me. But disease presents a different problem than death, because the parameters of daily life have radically changed. First off, there’s pain — nature’s way of telling us something is wrong. Or is it? Pain that’s just there, unbidden, is a message that something’s wrong, but outside of disease, it’s a sign of growth. After all, we exercise to the point of pain. Athletes must learn to push themselves past pain, while recognizing the signs of injury and stopping, if they can, before that happens.

Next, in disease, there’s the problem of treatment. You have to go deal with this obstacle, likely in multiple annoying ways, using systems, medicines, devices and modalities that may or may not be effective. In the best case scenario, heroic medicine can cut out the cancer, reroute the arteries, fuse the bones, sew up the skin. But what of the mind?

I believe in the future we will be horrified at what passed for our understanding of the brain. One thing, however, is evident: Humans have wondered how to strengthen the mind since they began writing down their thoughts. Insecurity and cruel self-talk are minor annoyances when the body is healthy and the only challenge is how much time you’ll spend staring at a flickering screen today. When disease hits — and worse, when it’s chronic, unrelenting disease that seems to have no resolution or way out — you’ll need your mind. Unfortunately, this lesson probably doesn’t sink in until you know someone who’s been felled by disease, just like “live like there’s no tomorrow” is meaningless until that day comes when the lovely boy you smiled at this morning is killed that same afternoon.

But to explore this idea further, I am not arguing for a simplistic positive thinking cure, or guilt trip. No. What I am saying is, that dastardly, cruel motto that pops into your head, origin (likely) unknown, is not your friend. As the bumper sticker goes, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Mindfulness studies indicate that a portion of the conscious brain is always chattering away. I believe that in this verbal, visual society we live in, we are inclined to give even more importance to this chatter than before — though ancient literature shows that it’s always been true that some were strong and noble of mind, while others were weak, hateful, jealous, deceptive or cruel. Now multiply the venality of the chatter with the indignities of disease, and you have a poisonous cocktail. Stop! Don’t take another sip! Does the cocktail help? I realize, misery is in itself a world view — a comfort zone. Exiting the comfort zone of predictable misery is tricky. It will take strategy and effort. You can’t think your way out — you have to imagine your way out! And, it’s possible you’ll live a long, albeit diseased, life, with that mean voice unabated. In fact, many espouse a sort of vampirism, using negative emotions to thrive — and if negativity fuels change, I say use it. Of course, a modicum of objective reality or healthy fear (which is often activated at the subconscious level, before we can verbalize it) helps us survive. But ultimately, in the amount of time you have to be alive, do you want to do it while listening to a litany of horror stories?

Not being a psychologist, of course, I’ll admit that all this is speculation. And it occurs to me that post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real risk for people who suffer disease or disaster, and that treating PTSD is not easy. So the point of writing this essay is primarily to record an observation that life has afforded me, which is that while things are going well for me, why should I cultivate negativity? Because there’s nothing worse than looking back and realizing how miserable you were while you actually had it good!

Now, back to the simplistic approach. Assuming PTSD isn’t a factor, we’ve got to get in there and change these harmful beliefs. First, notice them. Write them down, or share them with a friend or therapist (interestingly, good therapists often help you develop something called “unconditional positive regard,” which is basically the point of this essay). At the simplest level, try reversing them, or mixing up all the words until they’re nonsensical. Or arguing them. “No, I don’t always fall down. Remember that tricky climb I did? I didn’t fall down once!” or “No, I do have a loving family. My brother just called me on the phone.” The work of Byron Katie, Adler, Sadhguru, Nisargadatta or of any of the non-duality philosophers are very helpful, I think. A slightly more positive-tinged approach comes from the New Thought practitioners (and here’s an interesting course that’s been resurrected). Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Stoics. But artists and entrepreneurs are good examples, too. Acceptance is one avenue for mental peace, but so is creativity.

For me, just as sudden death created an awareness of life’s fragility, the illnesses of those close to me gave me an insight into how much I wanted my mind to be an ally, not an enemy. Because right now, the stakes are low. But if the worst hits, I will need my mind to work with me, not against me. Like a muscle, I have to train it to reinforce the right connections. Current science believes myelin sheaths insulate the neural pathways that you use most, building up like tree rings. Of course, my mind will resist, throwing those ugly mottos back at me. I struggle to forget some of the ones that I’ve spent years repeating to myself. But life has been kind enough to litter my path with obstacles, as it does for us all. The trick is to learn from the teachable moments, and to distract that storytelling part of the brain from excessive rumination by giving it a job. Turn it into a journalist. Ask it, “What’s the real story? Who are the actors? What’s at stake? What if it’s all a conspiracy? Is there an opportunity here?” And go on living — really living, taking action, even if it’s just to put pen to paper — while it searches for the answers.