How we are in relationship to our thoughts and emotions can make a huge difference in the quality of our lives and our health, both in the present moment and over time. Jon Kabat-Zinn
How good is your mind with history?
Your mind might be a vault when it comes to hockey stats, world history or politics. You might be a wiz at recalling facts about music and bands from across the musical world.
But your mind has limits.
When it comes to your own life, your mind is a poor historian. The mind forgets and it becomes clouded. Self-judgment, expectations and our self-identity change how and even what we remember.
You start making a grocery list, so you grab the weekly flyers. You work through your list of fruit and vegetables and suddenly you remember that you wanted to buy a few new plants to your living room. When you peruse the flyers for flowers, you find yourself distracted by bluetooth speakers. Carrots to houseplants to bluetooth speakers? How? What?
Our minds work by association and too often by assumption. We judge ourselves, we minimize our positive qualities and assume that other people agree with our self-assessments. We engage in a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias – the tendency to look for information that confirms our viewpoints and ignores what is contradictory.
A teacher makes one negative comment, but otherwise loves our assignment. But you conclude that your assignment sucks and that you worked so hard for nothing. Your boss gives you your annual review and it is glowing, except for a note about how you can sometimes get off track and become too focused on your agenda. He says it’s not a big deal, but then every day you become super conscious of the times that you seem to have an agenda in meetings, conversations and other work.
What do you see?
A few years ago, I was talking with my son about how our minds can become hooked by a thought, an emotion or by self-judgment. I took a blank piece of paper and drew a dot in the middle. Then I asked him, what do you see? He looked said, “I see a dot.” Then I asked him what else do you see? He looked blankly and then he that said he sees lines on the paper. He saw the dot on the page, but he missed something. I asked him if he sees the page itself? The page is 99.9% blank white space, but he missed it and all that he noticed was the blue dot in the middle.
I do it too. All. Of. The. Time.
And so do you.
All that we see is the “.”
Our minds work by association and too often by assumption. We rarely question whether our minds are accurate historians, but our minds regularly and unapologetically re-write what and how we remember.
You act, and feel, not according to what things are really like, but according to the image your mind holds of what they are really like. Maxwell Maltz
We rarely remember things as they are because we are too busy thinking. Consider two common examples.
We drive 45 minutes to work. All that we think about is that we are going to be late, we feel stressed because of a meeting and because we have too much to do. We notice the sunrise, but we don’t see it. In fact, for 45 minutes we are outside of our experience, mentally detached from our bodies.
All week, we wait for a dinner with friends. But then when we get there, we feel self-conscious because another friend has lost weight and looks great. They went on a fantastic vacation and seem on top of things. Our minds pull us into cycles of self-judgment: we feel fat, our clothes feel old, we notice how we feel anxious, we judge our vacation experience as sub-par.
7 Ways to build a new relationship with your thoughts
Our minds are hard at work re-writing and editing what we see, think and how we feel. We miss what is happening around us and inside us and instead we focus on our judgments, biases, comparisons and anxieties.
Learning to make friends with your mind, your thoughts, your experience and your emotions is the heart of recovery. You quit drinking, stop smoking, end your use of sugar, cut back on over-eating, avoid dwelling on negative and soul-sucking gossip, or determine to feel less anxious and more confident. You make the decision and feel great. You are done… but then what? Anyone can make a decision to quit drinking or start feeling more confident. Qutting and staying quit are two very different things.
Recovery from addiction, from depression and anxiety, and from thoughts that are intrusive and overwhelming is not just about quitting. The real work of recovery happens after we quit. We have to create a new and more healthy relationship with our minds, our memories, our emotions.
There is no easy or simple way to build a new relationship with our thoughts, memories, emotions. Therapy can do a great deal to help. Honesty and self-reflection can also help. Real relationships with people who are real is life-giving. I have found a few things that are helping me to build a new and more healthy relationship with my mind:
- I avoid positive thinking and stay away from self-help books. They really don’t help. They just create more focus on trying to change, fix and fixate on what isn’t working.
- I have stopped trying to change my thinking or avoid feeling sad or anxious. It never worked and just made everything worse. If I feel sad, I feel sad. If I’m anxious, I’m anxious.
- I work every day, even moment by moment, to accept what is, instead of waiting or numbing or wishing.
- I breathe more. I pause more often and it is helping to reduce the pressure to do-do-do.
- I spend time being mindful rather than mind-full; aware instead of just anxious. I take time to look at the richness of color, listen to the sounds, feel my skin, sense my environment. My mind still becomes hijacked, but I am better now at seeing past the rush of thoughts or emotion.
- I talk more about what feels mind-blowingly-scary. When your mind tells you that “YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY THIS OUT LOUD,” that’s exactly what you need to do. Your mind is giving you bad advice. Remember that secrets grow in the shadows.
- I love myself. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself… but it’s also the hardest thing that you can do.
You are more than your words
Yesterday, I was doing some repairs to my camping trailer. When we were on our way home from a recent vacation, a tire blew and the rotating rubber-tire-carcass ripped a small hole in the underside of the trailer. The repair took most of my Saturday as I shopped for parts, gathered my tools and planned my assault. At times, things worked well but then I misread the tape measure and cut some of the pieces too small.
Words fell out of my mouth. I cursed. I called myself stupid and I may have even said that I was an idiot. I forget what exactly I said, but it wasn’t pretty.
You will have days where the words fall from your mouth. Your mind will get the best of you. You will misread the tape measure and beat yourself up.
Words often represent a very partial, and sometimes misleading, account of what we actually feel. David Wallin
Words are just words. They are not reality. You are more than your thoughts, your emotions or the scariest secrets inside of you.
Are you too busy thinking? Today, take a moment. Breathe. A moment of being alive can make a lifetime of difference.
I hope that you enjoyed this article. It makes my day if you are inspired by something that I write. I invite you to read some of my other writing:
I write articles that talk about the kind of changes I am trying to make in my own life. I hope that my writing also helps you. My topics include addiction and mental health recovery, relationships, and personal growth. I work as an Addiction Therapist, an Editor for the Good Men Project and freelance writer, and Adjunct Professor at City University, Edmonton. But what is most important is that I have a family and I am in recovery from depression and anxiety. My mental health experiences are part of my personal University degree, but they do not define me.
I hope to inspire you, to inform you and on occasion to entertain you. But most of all, I want to connect with you. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you like what I have to say, please share my work with your friends.
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Keep it Real
Photo by Miss Baker