Here is a powerful idea:
Your memories and damaging thoughts are like propaganda. They are not real. They are not you.
To quote Rhett and Link from Good Mythical Morning, let’s talk about that.
Why is it so hard to get a hold of our own minds? Why are we run over by our emotions, moods, and thoughts? Why are cognitive distortions such a problem? This is why:
- when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
- the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness—of working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it—often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand—the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.
“When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it’s natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The “inner critic,” which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it’s your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)
Let’s stop here. In the process of trying to solve our emotional distress, thoughts emerge. Recall what I’ve been posting about core beliefs. This is when those core beliefs come into play. Let’s look at an example.
When I was living in France, I lived directly next to another American named Liz. She was the most even-tempered person I think I’ve ever met. We became fast friends and traveled everywhere together. She was never in a bad mood. She always seemed happy. I have rarely met anyone like her. One day, however, she returned with a test in hand and tears on her face. She had failed an exam, and the teacher in characteristic French fashion had shamed her with one eloquent sentence on the test: “Il faut essayer un peu,” meaning “You have to at least try a little bit.” Ouch! I waited for her to explode or lie in bed for days questioning her existence or capabilities. She had studied. I took the same test. We studied together. Nope. It never happened. Why?
She didn’t have any negative identity-based core beliefs. She had a good childhood and adolescence. She didn’t have abuse in her background. She didn’t really tie performance to identity. She hadn’t experienced trauma. She was very fortunate. She felt the sting of the shame and the immediate failure, and then, lo, she moved on. She self-regulated.
The idea that we can experience an emotion and not fix it but simply allow it to pass might be a new idea. You can wake up in the morning with mild anxiety and simply allow it to exist without asking repeatedly, “Why am I anxious? When did I feel this way before? What is this about?” but instead begin to recognize that you are not your anxious feelings might feel like a non-option. Aren’t we supposed to chase down every negative emotion and solve them? Well, as studies are beginning to reveal, we aren’t actually solving anything:
“We get drawn into this emotional quicksand because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. The mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo our current emotional state. For example, if you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. It happens in an instant, before you’re even aware of it. It’s a basic survival skill honed by millions of years of evolution. It’s incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop.
The same is true with unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It is normal to feel a little unhappy from time to time, but sometimes a few sad thoughts can end up triggering a cascade of unhappy memories, negative emotions and harsh judgments. Before long, hours or even days can be colored by negative self-critical thoughts such as, What’s wrong with me? My life is a mess. What will happen when they discover how useless I really am?
Such self-attacking thoughts are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum they are almost impossible to stop. One thought or feeling triggers the next, and then the next … Soon, the original thought—no matter how fleeting—has gathered up a raft of similar sadnesses, anxieties and fears and you’ve become enmeshed in your own sorrow.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)
I relate to this on so many levels. I don’t generally attack myself, but, in a millisecond, my mind provides me with ways of escaping when similarities in the present line up with similarities to the past. My mind will generate thoughts like, “Do you remember the last time you felt like this? Your ex caused you to feel like this. Your mother did this. Your father did this…” Ad infinitem. I will find a pattern and draw conclusions so quickly. I won’t even know that I’ve done it. Suddenly, I’m in tears or panicking or wondering if I’m safe. I will begin to wonder if anyone in my life is trustworthy. All because one thought was generated in my mind and I had to figure it out!
What can we do about it?
“You can’t stop the triggering of unhappy memories, self-critical thoughts and judgmental ways of thinking—but you can stop what happens next. You can stop the spiral from feeding off itself and triggering the next cycle of negative thoughts. You can stop the cascade of destructive emotions that can end up making you unhappy, anxious, stressed, irritable or exhausted.
Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognize memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. It reminds you that they are memories. They are like propaganda, they are not real. They are not you. You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them evaporate before your eyes. And when this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)
Ah yes, we are back at mindfulness again. It seems that there is so much more to it than coloring books.
For Getting Your Mindfulness On: