Part of the human condition is that we’re constantly bombarded with thoughts. Often, the thoughts are running commentaries — I enjoy this, I dislike that, why is she chewing with her mouth open? Shouldn’t you be working on your motion and not goofing off?
One surprising thing I learned when I started to practice mindfulness is this: the mind is a very busy and noisy place.
Often, the inner-critic is running the show, berating you on how awful you are and how you’re failing — constantly. These unhelpful, unproductive thoughts have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until I started practicing mindfulness on a regular basis that I stopped identifying with the thoughts.
I began to recognize that just because my mind produces a thought does that make that thought a fact.
For example, over the weekend, I was cleaning the kitchen and I accidently dropped a cup. I almost managed to catch it while it rolled off the edge of the counter but I couldn’t quite grab it in time. The glass hit the tile floor and shattered. Immediately, the thought that popped into my head was, What the hell? Pay attention! Why are you so clumsy? You’re always so careless.
I’m giving you the PG version of the dialogue but you can add the appropriate expletives.
As I grabbed the broom to clean up the mess, the mind kept repeating, “you’re always so careless.” It was also adding additional commentaries like, “shouldn’t you have figured out how to put away the dishes without dropping it by now? You’re such a loser.”
Years ago, when I first started working through social anxiety, one mode of therapy I found very useful was cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In it, you learn to identify your thoughts as just that — thoughts and recognize thinking errors and start to deconstruct your thoughts so that it becomes less destructive.
For example, in my example, the thoughts are what’s called “automatic thoughts.” Automatic thoughts just pops into the head and repeats over and over again. In CBT, you learn to examine the thoughts and also understand the impact of such thoughts. The thoughts aren’t helpful, and in fact, only serves to make you feel worse and act in a negative way. The thoughts I described above are automatic thoughts.
Mindfulness practices are similar in that we learn to see what is happening in the moment with clarity and let go of the judgement and preferences that is only serving to add suffering.
All of these practices, CBT and mindfulness has in its core some of the same foundations — to learn to take a gentler stance with ourselves and the world. To practice being a good friend to ourselves.
If a friend came over to my house and dropped a glass, I certainly wouldn’t tell her that she’s “always so careless,” or that she’s a “loser.” So, why do I say these things to myself? Why are we so critical of ourselves?
Unlearning these thought patterns won’t happen overnight but I have learn to examine my thoughts and not fall into a habit of blindly believing it.
One tool from CBT that I found to be very useful are questions you can ask yourself when you notice automatic thinking.
- What evidence is there that this thought is true?
- What evidence is there that this thought is not true?
- What would I tell someone I loved if they were in this situation and had these thoughts?
- If my automatic thought is true, what is the worst that could happen?
- If my automatic thought is true, what is the best thing that could happen?
In my example above, let’s take the automatic thought, You’re always so careless and go through the questions.
What evidence is there that this thought is true?
I’ve dropped dishes before.
What evidence is there that this thought is not true?
I’ve been putting away the dishes my entire life and generally speaking, I don’t drop it. Also, just because I dropped a cup today does not mean I am “careless!”
What would I tell someone I loved if they were in this situation and had these thoughts?
Who has never dropped a dish before? This happens to everyone. You’re being overly critical. It’s okay.
If my automatic thought is true, what is the worst that could happen?
I might be cleaning up broken dishes more. Or alternatively, buy plastic dishes.
If my automatic thought is true, what is the best thing that could happen?
I realize I am not “careless.” Therefore, the automatic thought isn’t true.
Initially, these questions and the accompanying worksheets felt very artificial and silly. However, over time I began to see the power of examining my thoughts — seeing it with more clarity. I also realized the grip that the negative thoughts, the inner-critic has over my life loosened over time. Turns out, being a good friend to myself is a better way to go through life than having an awful, abusive person as the roommate that lives inside my head.