The lies we tell ourselves
We repeatedly tune into stories that no longer serve us.
I have been keeping track of my thoughts lately, and am not amused by what I noticed: our brains can be awful lie-spewing machines. This got me to think of how we make living hard for ourselves. And sure, life can be complicated at times but most other times we are replaying the same story in our minds, without always realizing it.
Here’s a small glimpse.
We rely heavily on how we think we feel to justify our actions (or lack thereof).
“I thought I didn’t know as much as they did about the topic, so I didn’t speak up during the meeting.”
The needle of blame is more often than not directed at ourselves and our work.
“Why are they redoing the document? I knew I should have put in more effort while making it.”
We can be quick to assume what another person might be thinking or feeling (a.k.a projection).
“I sense an awkward tension in the air, he must be getting bored of our conversation.”
And not to mention how we place unreasonable demands on ourselves, only to add more complexity to an already absurd ride that is life.
“I’m an adult now, I should know why I’m feeling this way.”
Buying the story
Our minds make sense of the world as structured by our thoughts but we often miss the fact that we are the ones thinking these thoughts.
A psychologist whose work inspired this piece, Steven C. Hayes, calls this being in a state of cognitive fusion — where we fully buy into what our thoughts tell us and allow them to call the shots on how we feel and behave.
He says practicing “defusion”, or the act of noticing our thoughts, without necessarily identifying with them can help us gain from the flip side of fusion. We can learn to witness our thoughts as continuous meaning-making attempts and give them power only to the extent that genuinely serves us.
That we have been repeating cyclic and untrue stories about ourselves and almost always diving into them for so long, means we need to adopt a more protracted yet nimble approach to dissolve them.
Making the shift
The key to healing is not changing the content of our thoughts, but instead changing our relationship with them — this is how we can create a shift in our response to our thinking patterns.
A shift can feel like a clearing up of mental haze created by all those thoughts (lies) for ones that help us. Notice your body language when you experience a shift: shoulders will drop, the jaw will unclench, and those crease lines on your forehead? They will ease away as a wave recedes into the ocean.
It can be challenging to create moments of shift for ourselves, but with some practice (and rituals) we can build this skill like we would any muscle of the body.
Here are a few things I do to enable it:
- Name your brain
This might sound strange, but research shows that giving your mind a name helps in creating distance between your thoughts and your response. By naming it, you have the power to decide whether you buy the story or not! I call mine Regina (yes, from Mean Girls) but you can call it whatever you want. Once you do, say hello and have a conversation with them about a story you don’t believe.
- Call it out politely
Whenever you find yourself caught up in similar thought cycles, ask yourself (gently): “What’s the story I’m telling myself? Is this story mine? Is it true?” Remember, familiar thoughts tend to feel true, so don’t stop there. Instead continue by asking: “What evidence do I have? Do I have other stories that might also make sense?”
- Take a morning dump
My therapist told me about this (apparently it’s called a morning dump) because the idea is to dump all your thoughts in a notebook first thing in the morning. Carve out 15 minutes when you wake up for some unstructured thinking time and give your mind free rein to tell you any story it wants to. Then write down the strings of thoughts that emerge. This is has been a truly powerful way of shifting my thoughts because I’m able to experience and respectfully let go of them.
- Observe, don’t identify
Try to pay attention to the stories you tell yourself during stressful moments. And before you jump into a spiral of rumination and worry, check yourself. Tell yourself something like: “I know I’m under stress right now, and it’s affecting my thinking but this is not who I am.”
- Disobey on purpose
As you begin to read this point, imagine your mind saying “you can’t read this”. Stay with me now, let your mind continue to say that statement but I want you to keep reading this weird but super effective mental exercise. The idea here is to disobey the brain’s message when it seems to be false. According to Hayes, even the smallest demonstration that the mind’s power over us is an illusion can enable us to do the things we want to.
Sensing the truth
We might never reach a state free of badgering thoughts; what we stand to achieve, however, is a reduced emotional reaction to them. Your brain can continue to cry wolf, but you’ll know better than to give in to it this time around.
The true shift is about building the mental flexibility to live with what’s unpleasant and not let it run our lives. It’s about sensing the truth in our body — deeper than fear and lies — that it is breathing and living and okay. Settling into this basic sense of ‘okayness’ is a powerful way to build well-being and our capacity to stand up for the truth of our beings.
P.S. Regina tried hard to lie to me while writing this article (people probably know about all this, you’re wasting your time) — good thing I disobeyed her on purpose.