By Lisa M. Templeton, Ph.D.
Have you ever listened to your own thoughts? I mean really listened? Our minds move a mile a minute; some say each of us can have up to 5,000 thoughts in a day! Thus, it’s an understatement to say how difficult it can be to hone in on what we are actually thinking from moment to moment. It’s not easy to weed through thousands of thoughts, especially in times of stress and change; however, in the long run, being aware of our thoughts can have a miraculous affect on our lives.
When going through a divorce, depression, trauma, loss or grief, a lot of self-blame, self-doubt and negative self-esteem can arise. Negative thoughts about our self, about others, and about our situation can be debilitating overtime. Our thinking process has a tendency to work in patterns and there are thousands of automatic thoughts that we think so often, we don’t even notice them anymore. All that we are aware of is the negative feeling that comes as a result. Our thoughts can change dramatically without much awareness of that change, especially when we are coping with a stressor in life.
When it really comes down to things that we can and cannot control in our lives, the only thing we can truly control is our thoughts. This may be a tough concept to swallow because of the sheer amount of thoughts and intensity of feelings associated. Our thoughts may seem out of control and untamed. Still, with practice stepping back and staying objective about what we are hearing, we can begin to understand them.
We take so much time to consider how the kids are doing, how our loved ones are doing, and what others may think about us, we forget to consider ourselves, our own thoughts and how they contribute to our feelings and our actions. We need to pay attention to our inner world in order to be mindful of what we are thinking and believing about life.
When focusing on our inner world, I like to consider the metaphor of the mind garden. Consider how one tends to a garden by consistent, daily checking of the plants, watering them and pulling out the weeds that suck the nutrients out of the soil. In our own minds, the negative thoughts function as weeds, sucking all the love and nutrients out of our lives. When our garden is overgrown because we haven’t tended to it in a while (or we are just avoiding the work), things become overwhelming and we don’t even know where to begin in taming the garden. In fact, we might not even be able to identify which plants are weeds and which plants are flowers/vegetables that we want to grow in our lives.
If your mind garden seems overwhelming and it’s tough to notice your thoughts, consider just slowing down and listening for a while. Get curious about what your mind saying, particularly about yourself. Are the thoughts really true? What makes the thought true?
We must be diligent in not identifying with every thought that we think. We are not our thoughts. Steven Levine once said, “The same energy that moves thoughts through the mind moves the stars across the sky.” With this in mind, we can come to understand that not all thoughts are true for us. Yet, we are creatures of habit and pattern, so only if we start to identify the pattern of our thoughts can we change them. We cannot let go or change something that we have not owned. Own your thoughts and realize that they are just thoughts – not who you are.
This identification of negative thoughts about ourselves can be difficult to change, especially if we have been told this thought as a child and we have believed it for a long time. Still, we are only human. Consider this…would you say that same thought to someone you love, your child perhaps? If not, then why say it to yourself? Once you’ve recognized that it’s not a useful thought, it’s actually a weed, then it’s time to get rid of it. Give your mind space to grow something with love and joy.
Ever notice when gardening how those pesky weeds keep growing back, and at an accelerating rate? This works the same way with the mind garden. We must tend to our mind garden consistently and stay diligent in identifying ineffective thoughts that are stifling the beauty in your garden. A useful practice is to not just pluck the negative thought and toss it on the grass, but to pull the weed and then replace it with something you want to grow, a seed of a positive, realistic thought about yourself. Reframe your thoughts. For instance, if you catch yourself thinking, “I’m not a good person” or “I’m no good,” modify into, “I’m doing the best that I know how” or “I am good, I care about others and myself.”
When we work out in the garden, I find there is a lot of ritual in those behaviors. We pull out our gardening tools; we put on our gloves, knee pads and our old gardening clothes. When weeding out the mind garden, it also helps to ritualize our behaviors around this task. Here are some suggestions:
First, take time every day to slow down and listen to your thoughts, even if it’s just a few minutes. A mindfulness meditation can be a wonderful way to do this. This kind of meditation is just a listening exercise; it’s not clearing your mind of all thought, it’s simply slowing down and observing your mind and its thought patterns. Try this for one minute. No matter what happens, if you tried for one minute, you have succeeded.
Second, breathe with the use of your stomach. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Let your belly go out when you inhale and move in when exhaling. This will help to regulate your emotions and stimulate oxygen for your body as you address your negative thoughts. It’s not always easy getting rid of a weed, so stay diligent and continue to reframe.
Third, write about it. Buy a beautiful journal that will hold these difficult thoughts and feelings as you process through them. Try writing using four columns…column one is the situation going on in your life, column two is the negative thought that you have observed, column three is the feeling you have when you think that thought, and column four is a more balanced positive thought to replace the negative weed. Studies show that fine-tuning your awareness about your thoughts helps you see them more objectively.
Fourth, weeds have a way of traveling from our neighbor’s yards to our own if we don’t take precautions and set up firm loving boundaries. Distinguish between your weeds and your neighbor’s. If a friend or family member is talking negatively, note how you feel before and after the conversation. Do you feel very different? No one can take our power without us giving them permission. Hold your power and if you are feeling overwhelmed by your neighbor’s weeds, do what you can to take care of yourself. This could mean taking a break from the friend/family member or letting them know how you feel in a loving way (i.e., “Hey, I’m feeling overwhelmed by this conversation, could we talk later?”).
Fifth, be kind to yourself. When we notice some of our thoughts, we might have a tendency to judge ourselves for the thoughts. We must be compassionate and loving with ourselves. Be kind, patient and accepting as you work on weeding your garden. If you are not identified with the thought, it will be easy to throw away.
Just like a garden that is overgrown, at first, it takes quite a bit of hard work to cultivate, which can be tiring. Remember that once this initial work is done, it then takes brief daily maintenance to continue to have abundance. The same is true for tending to your mind garden. At first, it may be difficult and exhausting. Take your time with the practice and try for just 1-3 minutes a day. The results will show in your life. After you begin to identify the weeds in your mind, pluck them and replace them with more positive, realistic thoughts about yourself, you’ll be on your way to growing what it is you want in your life. It takes work to create abundance for ourselves, but as we grow stronger, we will relish in that daily work and what it can do for our state of mind, our happiness, our current and future relationships, as well as ourselves.