Your mind is a schemer.
She’s sneaky. She’s been making judgments, evaluating circumstances, feeding your ego, and criticizing your basic existence — and you’ve been listening to her without even realizing it.
I say this with confidence because it’s something we all do. We go on with our daily tasks — both the mundane and the exciting — without recognizing the constant companion we’ve got narrating in our heads.
Sometimes our mind’s narration is harmless. “That’s a cute dog.” “I’ve got to take a shower.” Other times, our mind’s narration is incredibly judgmental and harsh. “My life is pathetic compared to hers.” “I’m not achieving enough.”
Because our thoughts are constant and automatic, we’ve learned to live with them so comfortably that they’ve become a part of us. “Me” and “my thinking” aren’t really examined as distinguishable entities. We don’t think about our thinking, we just incorporate it into our daily existence.
There is, of course, no harm in the mind narrating, “That’s a cute dog,” while you pet a cute dog, and it doesn’t really matter whether you are aware that the mind is narrating this or not.
However, the stakes rise when the mind entertains judgmental, critical, and harmful thoughts and we don’t have the awareness that it’s happening. When we’re not aware of this narration, we aren’t separating “me” from “my thinking.” We’re just mindlessly merging the two into one.
When these two are merged we perceive our thoughts as us. We identify with the ideas we have about ourselves — I’m an anxious person; I’m undateable; I’m a failure — and act accordingly, like those ideas must be true. It boxes us into a limited existence. It keeps us living small and caged, inside invisible walls. And it’s a total setup.
We can’t stop judgmental or negative thoughts from generating in the mind, but we can change the way we respond to them. Two key components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach developed by Steven C. Hayes, include focusing on increasing our ability to disentangle from our thinking and reconnecting with the “observing self” inside us that transcends our passing thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Hayes identifies several techniques we can use to disentangle from our thinking, including labeling the process of thinking (“I am having the thought that I’m a failure”) or singing your negative thoughts to the tune of Happy Birthday.
These techniques don’t necessarily make the thoughts go away, but they do build some space between you and your thinking. When you sing, “I’m a failure at life… I’m a failure at life,” to the tune of Happy Birthday, suddenly a heavy, depressing thought becomes silly. You can see more clearly that thoughts are just your mind’s voice saying words.
Having the thought that you’re a failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure. If you don’t entertain the thought, you’ll be more motivated to pursue your dreams and more confident about your ability to do so.
When you make it a habit to look at your thoughts rather than from your thoughts, you shift your perspective and connect with your observing self — the “me” without the “my thinking.” You’re no longer limited by your self-story because you can see clearly that if a thought isn’t helpful, you don’t have to engage with it. Instead, you can put your energy towards taking action that’s meaningful to you, even if your thoughts are telling you that it’s scary or impossible. You can coexist with doubt, anxiety, sadness, and fear; these feelings are less threatening when you can see that they don’t define or control you.
Your mind will keep scheming. She’ll keep trying to convince you that you’re not good enough or that you must act a certain way, blah, blah, blah. Practice settling comfortably into the space beyond your thoughts. Watch the thoughts curiously, without getting sucked into their story. View your thoughts as clouds in the sky, watching them pass by without trying to make shapes of them. From this place, there’s a sense of lightness and ease. You can make clear decisions about how to freely move forward with purpose and intention in your life. Freedom is knowing that you have a choice about what words to believe, even when you’re the one thinking them — because you’re also the one listening.
Lindsey Peters is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist in Los Angeles. She writes about rethinking our thinking and befriending the human experience. You can find more of her writing on lindseypeterslcsw.com and follow her on Instagram at @lindseypeters.lcsw.