Sometimes it feels like rather than being able to control our thoughts, they control us: our emotions, our behavior, and more.
Negative thoughts in particular can leave us wrapped up in self-criticism and self-doubt, their seeming urgency compelling us to believe them. But not all thoughts are true, and when we buy into their falsehoods, we redefine how we relate to others and to ourselves, often in unhealthy ways.
It’s common to believe that resistance is the easiest path to a quiet mind, but the more we try to stifle such thoughts, the louder they become. By learning how to acknowledge our negative thoughts and approach them with compassionate awareness, we can reduce their hold on us and move toward inner stillness.
The next time you find yourself drowning 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. Have you ever noticed how your thoughts come and go at their own pace, resistant to your attempts to control them? We expend our mental energy only on those thoughts we choose to entertain. Practice allowing your thoughts to be present without getting caught up in their storylines. Imagine each one as a cloud drifting through the sky or a leaf floating down a stream.
2. Gently tell the mind that you hear it. 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 saying to yourself, “I hear you,” each time a difficult thought arises, you begin to create space between yourself and the instinct to cling to it or push it away.
3. Tell 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 our inner critic shows up. 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 pain and you deserve to be kind and loving toward yourself. There’s a Buddhist parable that says each time we face a misfortune, two arrows fly our way: the first represents the event that caused us pain, while the second represents the suffering we inflict upon ourselves by how we emotionally respond. The Buddha explained, “We can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.” By meeting our existing pain with self-blame, we increase it greatly. Instead, we can gently remind ourselves that our pain is not our fault, and begin to relieve it by treating ourselves with kindness.
5. Challenge messages of self-criticism and self-doubt with messages of self-worth and understanding. If you’re feeling inadequate in some way, look for evidence that doesn’t support your view. Repeat the new messages out loud or write them down so you can revisit them regularly.
6. Remind yourself 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 benefit most from the comforting presence of friends. Let your loved ones be there for you just as you’d be there for 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 feel 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 it. Exercise, sit down with a cup of tea, meditate, listen to music, or journal. Tune into what you’re needing in the moment and give yourself a break.
9. Remind yourself that it’s not easy and that’s ok. If clearing our minds of nagging thoughts were simple, 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.