In Part 2 of my Motivation Mojo series, I discuss ways you can tune out the negative chatter in your mind. For Part 1 of the series, click here.
Your mind is an immensely powerful tool that can be used for good or ill (don’t you just love how I made that sound like some superhero stuff?). One thing you should keep in mind – it is a tool for your usage. It is a tool, its not YOU. We are so accustomed to thinking of our mind as who we are, as part or all of our personality, but its actually not.
Think about it like this: most people who meditate have perfected the act of stopping all thought and focusing on nothingness (or the absence of thought). You couldn’t stop being, just like that, if your mind was actually you. Most of the time you aren’t even aware of how your mind works on one thing while you are either thinking of or physically doing something else.
A great example is if you’re looking for something you’ve misplaced. Let’s say you’re looking for your keys. You look high and low for them; you pull out the contents of drawers, you move papers around, you retrace your steps, you ask your significant other if he or she has seen them. When you can’t find them, you look through everything you’ve already looked through again, and you retrace your steps again. Then you look in places you normally wouldn’t put your keys, like in the bathroom, in the refrigerator, or in the cabinets.
You figure that you might’ve put them in an unlikely place, because you can’t find them where you normally put them. After all that, you still can’t find them, so you give up and say to yourself “they’ll turn up”. At this point you go wash the dishes, walk the dog or give the kids a bath. You try to put your search out of your mind. When you’ve totally forgotten about your keys, then you get a flash of memory of where they are. “See, I knew I’d find them!” you say.
What’s happened is that your mind continued looking through the data in your memory for the last piece of data that includes your keys. While you were engaged in doing something else, your mind continued its internal scan in the background. When the file was located, voila! Your mind showed you where your keys were. If this sounds similar to what a computer does, you are correct. In fact, scientists have been learning more and more about how the brain works so that computers can better mimic brain functionality. Your mind is more complicated and powerful than a computer!
Our immensely powerful minds are entities unto themselves, separate from our personality and what we identify as ‘self’. If you don’t give your mind something to do, such as solving a problem or digesting information, it will find ways to keep itself busy. Think of it like an automatic screen saver, just like on your PC. When you’ve been idle for about 5 minutes, the screen saver pops up and displays pics, text or whatever you’ve set your screen saver to be. Your mind has its own screen saver to keep it occupied while your intentional brain usage is idle. It solves puzzles, recalls data (like the data of where your misplaced keys are) or sends you messages as summaries of what you’ve already experienced.
As an aside, one reason we like TV so much as a society is because watching TV is a huge break for your intentional and background brain activity. It stops computing the data you already have stored and absorbs the sounds and images you’re watching, just like a huge sponge. And those images – from TV shows, to creatively presented ads, to movies – are vastly entertaining.
But I’m a huge opponent of TV because you’re not being productive during that time. You’re a willing donor of your time and mental capacity to receive whatever message (usually filled with sex or instant gratification… McDonald’s, anyone?) that the advertisers or TV writers serve up to you on a plate. Would you eat a plate of food that a stranger randomly placed in front of you? Would you clean your plate and return for more random seconds? Welcome to prime-time TV!
Another reason I dislike TV is that TV stations and cable networks profit from our attention. A Super Bowl commercial costs so much to air because of the number of people who will absorb that 30-second message and give it their undivided attention. The next day, those millions of people will talk about the images to everyone, including those who haven’t seen them. So your word-of-mouth marketing is just as valuable to the advertisers as your 30 seconds of attention. Every time you blink, the powers that be hear a cha-ching sound. For the other reasons I dislike TV, check out my blog post 10 Reasons To Turn Off The TV.
But I digress…
Back to our screen saver analogy. If you don’t give your mind something to do, it will find something to occupy itself. The first thing your mind will do is search through your thoughts and bring up those questions you don’t have answers to yet – such as, will I ever meet my soulmate? Can I really reach my weight loss goal? Will I be able to make it to the next pay day, with only the money in my bank account?
The ways your mind chooses to address these thoughts depends on your emotions surrounding them. If you’re excited, happy and optimistic about earning more money, your mind will feed you happy, optimistic images of you reaching your goals. You’ll hear love songs on the radio and imagine what it’ll be like once you’ve met The One. You’ll imagine yourself on exotic vacations and working in a different office once you’ve gotten a promotion.
More likely than not, you have negative emotions related to the goals you desire the most. Its a strange paradox: the more we want something, the more we fear not getting it. Its very scary to feel that you may not get what you really, really want – and your mind feeds you a loop of those scary, depressing thoughts. Worries run through your mind on repeat, like what if I turn 40 and I’m not married yet? What if I can’t make my car payment this month? Will I end up with high blood pressure, Diabetes, or other health problems like my mother?
This is exactly why its crucial to realize that you are not your mind. There are several ways you can take control of your mind and end the needless worry. You don’t have to unnecessarily stress yourself out over situations that haven’t even occurred yet. More importantly, repeating negative, self-defeating thoughts does absolutely nothing to get you closer to your goals – in fact, it helps to derail your progress before you even start.
Halt worrying thoughts in their tracks.
The biggest part of ending the worry game with your mind is to be aware of the thoughts that you’re thinking. In those moments that you tend to space out and let your mind run away with itself, you have to notice what it is you’re thinking. Most of the time, we only catch our thoughts after we’re halfway through a stream of them and already worked up. So take notice of your thoughts as you’re thinking them, not after the fact. This definitely takes practice and diligence, but its a habit worth cultivating.
When you notice that you’re having a worrying thought, try not to follow that thought with another worrying thought. If possible, think a totally unrelated thought. For example, the worry stream started with, what if I don’t get married by the time I turn 40?
When you realize the road your mind is taking you on, abruptly think a non-worrying thought, like I need to check for sales at Macy’s, I need to check my email, or anything that gets your mind on a different thought stream. Recognizing that you’re having useless, negative thoughts and not working to change your own mind won’t do you any good. Also, the less energy you put into negative thought streams, the less negative energy you devote to your desires overall.
Turn the thought stream around.
Once you’ve mastered halting your thoughts, you’ll be able to start turning thought streams around. You should start with halting your thoughts first because when you’re new at interacting with your mind in a different way, it can be challenging to break old mental habits.
So when your mind starts in on you with, what if I don’t get married by the time I turn 40? Flip the question on its head and ask your mind the opposite. So what if I don’t? What will happen to me? Will my life be over? Its that initial thought, that you won’t get what you want, that keeps you in fear and holds you back. So challenge the fear and stop letting your mind hold it over your head.
You can also come back with positive examples of why you shouldn’t be worrying or thinking those thoughts in the first place. You could think thoughts like, Aunt Susan got married at 39, after she met all her goals and lived on her terms. Maybe I’ll do that too.
Remind yourself that things are getting better.
It’s important to keep in mind that your mind is not reminding you of your fears because it is malicious. Its bringing problems to the forefront that it needs to solve. We feel fearful and worry when our minds do this, because we have such a strong desire for the solution to these questions.
You may not have the answer, but if you have evidence to show that you’re making progress, negative thought streams are the perfect place to bring those examples to mind. When your mind flashes the thought, what if I don’t get married by the time I turn 40? Answer back with the steps you’ve already taken to solve this question, such as I had a really great date last week, or my social life is getting fuller and fuller. Pretty soon I’ll start meeting great guys. Don’t feel silly for soothing yourself in this way. Your mind is attempting to beat you up (not on purpose), so this is simply a tactic to protect yourself from the fear these questions ignite.
You can break the habit of watching TV, you can even learn how to silence your mind and turn your thoughts around. No matter what you do, though, there will always be external voices of dissent that (knowingly and unknowingly) work to sabotage your progress.