Our minds are meaning-making machines. First and foremost, our minds try to protect us by figuring out how to avoid danger. Our minds are interpreters of our world and immediate circumstances. It’s a fact of nature – we are instinctively on high alert for danger, because first and foremost we want to survive. After all, if we don’t survive, we won’t be around to cherish a beautiful sunset, hug, conversation, inspiring music or art, or life at all.
So, our minds are not out to get us– they’re just doing their job of taking care of us and minimizing our pain. All the same, the strategies our minds conjure up to solve our problem in the short term are not always helpful in the longer run.
While some of us are more likely to get caught up in obsessing than others, most of us have experienced moments when our overactive minds seem to take over and make it impossible for us to relax and simply “be” and enjoy our life.
Engaging in a battle with our thoughts is exhausting. On the other hand, waiting for our rampant thoughts to cease is akin to waiting for a backseat driver to quiet down before we start the car. That person may never shut up, kicking them out of the vehicle may not be an option, and in the meantime we haven’t progressed even one foot down the road.
A more effective choice is to forge a different sort of relationship with our thoughts. As with that backseat driver, we can tolerate our thoughts and also make it clear that we are in the driver’s seat and are thus the person deciding our route.
Try some of the following ideas, to put some distance between you and your thoughts, and to free yourself from obsessing:
If I let this thought control my behavior, where will this get me? Will this expand my life in healthy ways, or will I unnecessarily limit myself?
For instance, if you tell yourself that you cannot board a plane to visit your close friend because you have a fear of flying, will this negatively impact your friendship? Fear of flying can be a significant source of anxiety (which can involve emotions and bodily sensations as well as thoughts), so this is not to downplay the condition. However, if you conclude that spending time with your friend in person is important to you, then you might not let your belief about your flight phobia curtail your life. For example, you might go into psychotherapy that is targeted to address this fear, take a mindfulness-based stress management course, or, in the case of milder anxiety, decide to tolerate the anxiety in order to see your friend.
What kind of person do I want to be in this experience/situation?
What can this discomfort teach me? How can I grow as a result of this experience?
How can I allow this pain/challenge to help me create a more meaningful life?
For instance, if you’ve been rejected by a person you really like, what can you tell yourself that will be helpful and also realistic? If you listened to the thoughts that berate you for being “unlovable”, will this help you to be resilient or cause you to fall into a depression? How about choosing to practice being flexible, agreeable, and resilient? How about trying self-compassion, which can be a good choice when you fall short of your expectations? Incidentally, the more we practice self-compassion, the more we’re actually training in compassion for other people, too, so the benefits abound.
It might help to bear in mind that on occasion not getting what we believed would make us happy can be a precious gift. Or, sometimes our actually getting what we wanted can teach us that this did not bring us contentment, that we still feel empty. Maybe we were barking up the wrong tree. In every instance, ww learn more about what is true for us, if we’re willing to accept our feelings without judgment. This is knowledge that we can learn no other way. There is no auditing this course – we have to participate.
Can you keep in mind that despite your having a thought or feeling, you are separate from and more than your thought or feeling?
Can you keep in mind that within you there is an observing self as well as a thinking self?
Try engaging in a conversation with your thought or feeling, which can aid in establishing some emotional distance. Be aware of the stories you are telling yourself, and recognize that you need not believe them. For example:
“Thank you, mind.”
“I hear you, mind,”
“That’s an interesting thought.”
“Yes, it might mean that. What else might it mean? What’s another way to interpret this?”)
“I’m having the feeling that…”
“I notice I’m having the thought that…”
It’s possible to let our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations ebb and flow, yet not let them take us over and convince us to run from our life. We can observe these experiences like we would leaves floating down a stream, without mistaking the leaves for the stream, which will endure long after the leaves have passed by. We can progress toward what really matters to us, instead of focusing on what we want to avoid. In other words, our lives can be about what we want more of, rather than what we want less of. Sort of a cup half-full sort of scenario.
We can also look for the exceptions, when the problem was not a problem. Ask yourself when you had thoughts or feelings that you didn’t act on. When did you feel that you couldn’t give a presentation at work, but yet you did? When did you want to punch somebody, but you didn’t? When did you feel so depressed that even dragging yourself out of bed was a monumental struggle, yet you managed to shower, get dressed, and get out the door? In all of these instances, something – some value – was more important to you than what your thoughts and feelings were telling you. You were able to gain some emotional distance from your mood – and in doing so, you were able to expand your options.
Instead of making uninterrupted happiness our primary goal (which is unrealistic), we can choose values such as kindness, patience, courage, or close relationships. We can try to live in line with these principles, despite our current mental, emotional, and physical states. We all fall short of this ideal, of course. All the same, we can pick ourselves up when we inevitably fall.
We can adopt the attitude that all experiences contain gifts for us. Certainly we will face situations that are painful. People we love may die, or our relationship with them may end for other reasons. We may develop a chronic physical illness. We may undergo financial hardship. All the same, it is possible, and perhaps our wisest option, to choose to have a full range of thoughts and feelings – meaning both the thrilling and the unpleasant sensations, and to make feeling good, rather than feeling good, our objective. Do you see the difference? In the first case, we make the courageous decision (again and again, many times a day) to fully inhabit our lives and to lean into reality. In the latter instance, we chase the mirage of uninterrupted happiness, which is impossible.
We can opt to consider all experiences gifts. We can experience a healthy range of thoughts and feelings without being slaves to them. Over time we can begin to experience contentment, regardless of our circumstances, because we will gain deeper self-knowledge, and, through trial and error, know what our wisest next move and attitude should be. We will also be more capable of taking appropriate action, and, after doing so, with consistent practice and over time, we are likely to develop an enduring inner peace.