How to disengage self-limiting thought processes

May, twenty-thirteen.

In bed, tossing and turning. After a few months of mediocre self-control, had a couple good weeks under my belt. Then came a familiar, old voice from within. A script I’ve heard a thousand times, designed by my inward architects of sabotage. The words: Pfft. This won’t last.

This particular time there was a spark of pristine clarity when I realized it’s my usual policy to respond to those words in one of three ways:

1. Believe it

It is super easy to believe the voices in my head. They are me after all, right? I love to think I know what I am talking about, and I have a proclivity for taking myself really, really, stupidly seriously.

But by taking to heart a statement like “This won’t last,” I give a gravitational pull to those words. The words become a planet in the solar system of my soul, rotating around with all of the other messages and forces that dictate my beliefs, and inevitably my actions.

A term I hear a lot in the Human Services field is learned helplessness. Pretty self-explanatory. If we perceive ourselves to be stuck in a pattern of failure, we over-identify with the struggle. It’s a part of us. We’ve seen ourselves fall down again and again and again. It’s easier on our brains to expect the trend to continue. Even when we’re miserable, we still appreciate familiarity. It’s cozy.

A related belief I’ve had is that my life is like a clock pendulum, swinging back and forth in slow motion. Between light and darkness. Between empowering decisions and destructive ones. The worst part is that I tend to believe that I cannot stop the motion. That once the pendulum swings to the dark side, all I can do is brace myself for the ride and hope to make it through the storm.

Again, this belief comes from living through it too many times to count. Statistically speaking, it’s a safe bet. But it gets old. Sure is tempting to fight back…

2. Reject it/fight back

Another way I tend to respond to “This won’t last” is to treat the words like they are a maleficent entity bent on my obliteration. I act as though the words themselves are a threat to my survival, and I engage the archaic human tradition of retaliation.

And suddenly I’m at war with myself. Having bitter conversations in my mind. Sometimes aloud. On rare, special occasions, I’ve been the guy walking down the street neurotically talking to himself. Once I yelled the F-bomb so loudly that it provoked some giggles from a used car lot across the street. But mostly the conflict happens in the shadows.

Nothing has ever crippled me more than inner enmity. Nothing has ever kept me more stuck. There can be no peace for one who acts as one’s own enemy.

The chaos is so boisterous that turning to numbing coping mechanisms seems like the only choice. Turn off the noise. Give the war a time-out. Of course it will resume later with even more intensity and bravado, but at least we can catch a break. Take a breather before the next round, conceding to an endless cycle.

There’s one other way I’ve known myself to deal with “This won’t last”.

3. Suppress it

Hide the booze. Look out Ben & Jerry’s, here I come.

A Fourth Way

Laying in bed that night in May, a new path occurred to me.

I simply didn’t react at all. I just observed.

Watching curiously, allowing my feelings flow through me in a fluid loop.

The words “This won’t last” are not the root of the problem. The words are connected to fears. Anxieties that the words are valid. Or frustrations because the message is a rude intrusion on a winning streak.

I don’t utilize maladaptive coping mechanisms just to get rid of the words. It is also to abolish the complicated feelings that get all stored up inside, symbiotic with the words.

By neither approving or rejecting my feelings, a miraculous realization unfolds. I see that most of my everyday fears and anxieties run their course in mere seconds. If I don’t inflate them with the power of belief or challenge them with rejection, those feelings and related thoughts quickly dissipate. It’s like they get bored and go away.

This is huge. Inner dramas that have followed me around for years or even decades, instantaneously relieved. Just by surrendering my need to critique and control every inner process.

In early recovery back in 2006, a counselor in Grand Rapids was the first to tell me about mindfulness. He made it sound so simple. That if I’d just observe my cravings rather than participate in them, then I’d have a breakthrough in my recovery.

“Sure, bub,” I thought. “Easy for you to say.”

Seven years later, I sort of understand. And it really is that simple. Except it’s not, because cultivating mindfulness takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. It does in my case, anyway.

A simple technique

In response to that experience in May, I started saying in my mind the words “Just a thought” whenever I was overly invested in my inner processes, whether thoughts, feelings, cravings, whatever. “Just a thought” is not the most accurate, all encompassing label, but that doesn’t matter. It is just a cue. A trigger for me to back off and relax into thoughts and feelings, letting them run their loop instead of getting tangled up and bogging me down.

After initiating the cue and the sensory pattern plays out, tension immediately subsides from my shoulders, and especially my neck. Thoughts and emotions get stored in there somewhere, in the tissues and fibers. Letting them out is liberating, nearly breathtaking. This is an invaluable tool, and it works like a charm. But only when I choose to use it.

The best self-empowerment methods I know of are ridiculously simple, to the point of seeming too simple. But they’re the best because they get results. Over summer, I rode the “Just a thought” technique into the best physical shape of my life. I had never felt more emotionally liberated, letting my emotions exist without any resistance. I still had cravings and self-limiting thoughts, but all I had to do was nothing. Let them run their course. Not get seduced into taking myself so seriously.

It’s like in the film A Beautiful Mind, when John Nash chooses not to engage in his hallucinations anymore. He knows that as real as they seem, they are only in his mind. That continuing to treat them as real will hinder him from his destiny. He acknowledges that they exist and he lets them be, minus resistance. He stops giving power to his delusions and makes a conscious choice to only give power to what matters. He gets to choose what matters.

So do I, and so do you.

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