One of the hardest things about having a busy mind is knowing how to quiet it. Sometimes it feels like rather than being able to control our thoughts, they in fact, control us: our emotions, our actions, our responses, our motivations, our self-confidence, and what makes us feel whole.
Negative thoughts in particular can be some of the most difficult to contend with, as we quickly find ourselves becoming wrapped up in self-criticism and self-doubt, believing the often-fictitious mental dialogue we perceive as fact. We are incredible thinking machines, capable of generating hundreds of negative thoughts each day, that come to define the way we think about and relate to ourselves.
The more we try to stifle such thoughts, the louder they become. It’s easy to believe that resistance is the easiest path to a quiet mind, but more often than not, the opposite is true. By learning how to acknowledge our negative thoughts, and approach them with compassionate awareness, we can reduce the hold they have on us and find a path toward inner stillness.
The next time you find yourself caught up in a sea of self-deprecation, consider these steps to clear out the mental deluge.
1. Allow the mind to be active and remember that you don’t have to engage it. Our thoughts come and go with little conscious effort. We expend our valuable mental energy only through those thoughts we choose to entertain. One of the most difficult practices, even for the most mindful among us, is simply allowing our thoughts to be present without clinging to their compelling storylines.
2. Gently tell the mind that you hear it and simply allow the thoughts to be present. Sometimes, just telling the mind, “I hear you,” can provide relief. The negative thoughts that consume our minds may be trying to tell us something important – they just haven’t found an appropriate way to express themselves yet. By acknowledging that you hear such thoughts without buying into their message, you begin to create space between yourself and the energy they exude.
3. Say to yourself, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this. I hate to see you hurting.” We rarely show ourselves the care and kindness we deserve when we’re bogged down in negative self-talk. Failing to acknowledge the pain this dialogue causes only makes our suffering worse. What would you say to a friend who spoke to herself in this way? Pause, and take a moment to show yourself some tenderness for what you’re feeling.
4. Remind yourself that you did not cause your suffering, and you deserve to be kind and loving toward yourself. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Don’t shoot the second arrow.” Each time we face a misfortune, two arrows fly our way: the first is the event that caused us pain, while the second is the suffering we bring upon ourselves by how we emotionally respond to it. By responding to our existing pain with self-blame, we increase it greatly. Instead, we can gently remind ourselves that our pain is not self-inflicted, and begin to relieve it by treating ourselves with kindness.
5. Challenge messages of self-criticism and self-defeat with messages of self-worth and understanding. It becomes harder to hold our negative thoughts in spacious awareness when we contradict them with competing messages. If you’re feeling inadequate in some way, look for evidence that doesn’t support your beliefs. Repeat the new messages out loud or write them down so you can see them regularly.
6. Know that you are not alone. You have a community of others who love and support you. We tend to isolate ourselves when we’re feeling distressed, yet these are the times when we most need the comforting presence of those who care about us. Think about who would want to be there for you if they knew what you were going through, and reach out to them.
7. Remember that your thoughts will pass. You are still you, whole and human. When we’re trapped in a negative thought cycle, it can seem like we’re never going to come out of it. Yet our thoughts are as temporary as the changing seasons, and while it can be difficult to separate ourselves from them, they do not define us.
8. Actively engage in something that soothes you. Repeat until you feel relaxed. One of the most powerful ways we can prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by our thoughts is by turning our attention to something else and being fully present with the activity before us. Exercise, sit down with a cup of tea, meditate, listen to music, or journal. Tune into what you’re needing in the moment and allow yourself a break.
9. Recognize that it’s not easy and that’s ok. If you approach it with patience and an open mind, you deserve to be proud of yourself.
If clearing our minds of nagging thoughts were easy, we’d all walk around with an air of lightness and ease, free of the distraction and tension a cluttered mind can bring. Celebrate the open-heartedness and attentiveness you bring to the process. Seize the opportunity to be kind and gentle toward yourself for your efforts.
The more you engage in the steps above, the more natural they will start to become. If you can catch yourself early on in a negative thought cycle, you decrease your chances of being carried away by accompanying emotions, and give yourself more space to be present to what brings you joy.