The nature of thought is pretty fascinating when you look at it closely. I’ve come to see that we typically don’t experience the world around us; we experience our thoughts about the world around us. And we can often change our life experience simply by changing our thinking.
Here’s what I mean:
The other day I needed to drive somewhere to pick something up. It was a busy week and it felt really inconvenient and annoying to have to go run this errand. I was feeling pretty pissy about it. And then I remembered that there was a podcast episode I’d been meaning to listen to. Suddenly, I was looking forward to an hour in the car by myself. What felt like a burden suddenly felt like a gift.
I didn’t change my circumstances, but I radically altered my experience simply by changing my thinking.
“An untamed mind is a minefield,” writes Brianna Wiest in her book 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think.
A mind that is a minefield is one that can suddenly and easily unravel into anxiety, regret, shame or anger. I often experience thoughts that seem to come in from nowhere. Old memories float in uninvited. Worries, often unfounded and unwelcome, can linger. My mind is susceptible to unsolicited thoughts that can metastasize into a mental shit storm when I’m not paying attention.
But here’s the magic of the mind: when we do pay attention, we have the wonderful capacity to both think our thoughts AND witness ourselves thinking them. We are the thinker and the watcher all at once, which means when the uninvited memories and unwelcome worries arrive, we can notice that they’re there. This awareness allows us to (eventually) work around the land mines or render them harmless. It’s simple but not always easy, so I’ll share some practices I use to tame my mind.
Develop Your Inner Noticer
Sometimes noticing is all we have to do. It can be enough to simply bring our attention to our thinking long enough to merely name it. “Ah, look at that. I’m thinking about that conversation with my client again.” Perhaps our noticing begins to reveal negative patterns in our thinking. For me, that’s often noticing that I’m jumping to conclusions or making speculative assumptions. We may start to see that we have a lot of mental habits (such as jumping to conclusions). Noticing mental habits takes away their mysterious power over us.
Maybe instead of just noticing the landmines, we also start to disarm them.
This is the taming of the mind that Brianna Wiest refers to. This is where we start to access our own sense of agency and autonomy over our thinking. We can develop control over racing, erratic thoughts the same way we develop any acquired talent, by practicing relating to our thoughts in new ways. With consistency, we begin to develop a new relationship with the mind.
It’s amazing what we hear when we actually listen to our thoughts. If we were to broadcast them when we’re stressed, we might hear things like: “I can’t do this.” “This is not going to work out.” “I should never have taken this on.”
Our thoughts affect how we feel, which impacts what we do and how we respond. Here’s some good news: We are capable of listening to our inner dialogue AND we are capable of upgrading it.
I learned the concept of “trading up” from my friend Kim Ades, who founded Frame of Mind Coaching. Essentially, we isolate a negative thought, such as “this not going to work out,” and we trade it in for a slightly more positive one, such as, “if this doesn’t work out, it could lead to something that does.” The idea isn’t to be unrealistically positive, but to choose a new thought that is both believable AND elevating in an incremental climb.
Just the other day I used Kim’s trading up practice to shift me out of a negative thought spiral. As I may have previously shared, we recently adopted a one-year-old dog from Korea and his transition into our home has been incredibly slow. Having spent his entire life in a shelter, everything in our home is new and, as a result, Leo is incredibly timid, anxious and closed off.
I caught myself feeling upset, disappointed and stressed about Leo. And when I tuned in I was able to isolate the thought “this is really hard.” “This is hard,” I told myself with self-compassion. “But it will get better. You’ve already seen micro progressions forward. Within a few weeks or months, this will be a completely relaxed and happy dog.” I traded up and as I continued on in my day with this new baseline thought, I felt more at ease.
Try it out. Take out a piece of paper. Tuning into your inner dialogue, write down your dominant thoughts and isolate one that’s emitting stress. Notice how the body responds to it. Does your heart race? Do you feel sad or anxious? Now, write a few upgrades to the negative thought and feel which one lands as true for you. Create space for a different possibility. Continue climbing the ladder of better feeling thoughts until you notice a shift in how you feel.
Give the Bothersome Mind a Bone
“Your mind is bothering you,” said Michael Singer, author of the Untethered Soul, in one of his podcast episodes. Sometimes it’s as though my mind has a mind of its own. I notice this is especially the case when I wake up in the middle of the night and my mind starts endlessly chewing on a series of worries or concerns. It’s like a dog with a bone.
Give it a new bone.
Sometimes the best way to conquer the mind is to beat it at its own game. It’s obsessed with thinking? Fine! Give it something to think about. I’ve been known to go through, scene by scene, the entirety of Love Actually, my favorite movie. I’ve mentally wondered through French towns and been pampered at five-star spas. I’ve counted backwards from 300 in threes. In 2001, I memorized the entire poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann and used it to ease my mind during a particularly difficult time in my life.
The point is, sometimes I know that settling my mind or upgrading my thoughts is too tall an order. It’s not cheating to give my mind something other than my worries and ruminations to chew on.
Connect with Your Older Self
When it comes to triggering thoughts, especially those rooted in old memories, I can often feel frustrated that I’m triggered in the first place. Shouldn’t I be over this by now? Why do I still care? I’m steeped in regret or shame, but then I make it worse by layering on a dose of self-criticism and resistance.
While it may feel at times that I haven’t grown at all in my capacity to redirect my thinking and nurture some self-compassion, the truth is that I’ve worked my way through hundreds of thoughts and old memories that no longer trigger me. It’s taken time, a different perspective, sometimes therapy and often just good ol’ forgetting, but I’ve triumphed over negative thoughts many, many times.
It’s helpful to know that when I spiral into a negative thought loop that it won’t always be this way, that at some point I’ll find the wherewithal to show that thought who’s boss.
When I’m caught in a negative loop, I imagine a me 10 or 20 years from now who can think that thought or reflect on that memory with a totally neutral stance, not triggered at all. I can hold it in my open palm and blow it softly into the breeze like a dandelion wish. I can learn, and have learned, how to simply let go of the grip a thought can have on me. Knowing that sometimes it just takes time, practice and a different perspective gives me the grace to be kind to the me I am today, the me that doesn’t quite have what it takes yet to gently and lovingly turn my attention elsewhere.
How do I know this works? Because I have loads of evidence of things that used to really bother me that no longer do. I have proof that eventually the sting or the storm eventually subside. I can lean on this knowledge for support when I’m going through something tough today.
Final Thought: It’s Just the Mind
I want to leave you with one last thought: to tame the mind is also to befriend it. It doesn’t mean to cause you so much harm. It’s just doing what minds are designed to do, and that is think. Sometimes my mind thinks wonderfully creative thoughts. Sometimes it gives me the idea to do something loving and kind for someone else. Sometimes it notices something good in my life. And sometimes it drags up an old memory or clings to negative thoughts. It’s all just thinking. And the more I can simply allow that this is just the mind being the mind, and not get caught up in the mind being the mind, the more it is tamed and the more I am at peace.
ABOUT KRISTEN MANIERI (COACH, HOST OF 60 MINDFUL MINUTES)
Kristen Manieri is a coach who works with teams to increase both productivity and wellbeing. She also helps individuals navigate transition with clarity and confidence. Her areas of focus are: stress reduction, energy management, mindset, resilience, habit formation, rest rituals, and self-care. As the host of the weekly 60 Mindful Minutes podcast, an Apple top 100 social science podcast, Kristen has interviewed over 200 authors about what it means to live a more conscious, connected, intentional and joyful life. She is the author of Better Daily Mindfulness Habits: Simple Changes with Lifelong Impact. Learn more at kristenmanieri.com/work-with-me.