“Don’t Believe Everything You Think.”
You may have heard this saying before (while I was trying to figure out who coined the phrase, I learned there is Lee Brice song out there by the same title. That guy’s on fire!). We tend to assume our thoughts are facts, when really, they are subjective thoughts. Just neurons firing along a familiar pathway. Recall in my last post how depression would “speak” to me, telling me no one would want to be around me. Now, we both know that there isn’t a literal figure named Depression standing beside me (although it can be helpful to think of it that way when you’re trying to sort out which thoughts you should believe. Sometimes I even tell clients to give their depression a name, or draw what it looks like), nor am I “hearing voices” (and if you believe you are, go talk to your doctor ASAP. Early psychosis intervention programs can work wonders!).
What I’m trying to emphasize is that it’s important for us to be aware of our thoughts, because we can get into negative automatic thought patterns that keep us depressed (We ALL do some of these from time to time. I know I sure do. If some of them really hit home for you, here’s a link to a resource you can download explaining more about each one and specific steps for avoiding them). The problem is, these are called “automatic” thought patterns for a reason. Remember when you were learning to type, or learning how to drive a standard transmission? Heaven forbid you have to stop and start on a hill! It took concentration, effort, and likely left you feeling frustrated and defeated. But now, you probably don’t even think about where letters are on the keyboard, or what gear you’re in. It is the same with your thoughts. You do these automatically, without even noticing. It’s only when you stop and think about which finger hits which key, or that you might be utilizing one of the negative thought patterns, that you become aware of what’s going on.
So, let’s say they came out with a new keyboard that was totally different from what you’re used to, but you knew that if you learned how to type on this one, you’d be way happier (humour me). You’d probably make a ton of mistakes, and at times you’d want to just say “screw it” and go back to the old one you’re used to, but eventually you’d start to get the hang of it and, with enough practice, it would start to become automatic. A saying we often use in the field is “Neurons that fire together wire together.” We literally have to change our brain plasticity to create new neural pathways for positive thoughts. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. And it takes practice. But it’s so. incredibly. worth it.
So where does the whole “Mindful Awareness” thing come in? You’ve probably heard of “Mindfulness” before or “Mindfulness Meditation” (it’s becoming quite trendy these days!). You will see these terms coming up in my posts frequently, as there is a ton of research backing its effectiveness with a whole load of issues. Don’t worry, you don’t have to give up meat or shave your head to reap the benefits of this Buddhist practice. “Mindfulness” essentially means “present awareness.” Paying attention to the present moment. Interestingly, “Buddha” also translates to these terms. Mindfulness meditation is simply the practice of paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations–paying attention to your experience in the present moment. You can try it right now! “Watch” your thoughts for a moment and see what comes up. Are the thoughts kind? Curious? Anxiety-ridden? Demanding? Critical? How are you feeling? Anxious? Frustrated? Calm? What do you notice in your body? Tension? Pain? Tingling?
There is no need to try to change anything right now; just pay attention. This may be a very new way of being for you. Once you think you’ve gotten the hang of it, try noticing when you are using the negative thought patterns above, and “edit” some of those thoughts. Again, think of like learning how to drive the standard. You’re going to stall numerous times (or, if you’re like me, you’ll leave your E Brake off with the car in neutral at 16 and think your car has been “stolen,” when it’s really rolled down a hill into a tree). Don’t worry about “getting it right.” Just observe some of those thoughts, and question whether or not they are helpful, and whether or not they are “true” (ask, “Is this thought a fact? What’s the evidence for it? What’s the evidence against it? What are some other possibilities of what could be happening?”).
Eventually, you will start to notice sooner when you are jumping into unhelpful thinking styles. Here is an acronym I often give to clients when they find themselves acting impulsively (lashing out, binge-eating or drinking, cutting, abusing substances, etc.). Try it out when you think you might be spiraling into negative thinking.
Take a Breath
Observe your experience
Keep in mind this is a process. You’ve likely been using the negative thought patterns for many, many years. It probably won’t take years to change your thinking patterns, but it’ll take more than a couple of days. Clients often find themselves feeling worse when they start paying attention to their thinking, because not only do they feel the worthlessness the thought patterns cause them to feel, but they feel guilty or are self-critical for thinking in such a way. Compassion, compassion, compassion (for example, “It’s understandable that I’m feeling underconfident because I just called myself stupid; and it’s understandable that I just called myself stupid because I had to do that when I was younger–it protected me from failure/getting hit/getting in trouble; that was once an adaptive pattern for me, but it isn’t any longer. It will take me time to change it, but becoming aware of this self-critical pattern is a really great first step.”).
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes:
“At the root of all the harm we cause is ignorance. Through meditation, that’s what we begin to undo. If we see that we have no mindfulness, that we rarely refrain, that we have little well-being, that is not confusion, that’s the beginning of clarity. As the moments of our lives go by, our ability to be deaf, dumb, and blind just doesn’t work so well anymore. Rather than making us more uptight, interestingly enough, this process liberates us. This is the liberation that naturally arises when we are completely here, without anxiety about imperfection.”