Getting Unstuck from Negative Thoughts

So it begins

I’m in a bad mood.

It happens frequently enough. Sometimes I wake up just feeling cranky and with a teeny tiny fuse. Good luck navigating me today family! It has to be frustrating for them to have to deal with me when I’m in this state, just as it’s frustrating for me when I’m dealing with them in this state.

Last time, I wrote about the power of our narrator, and how, more often than not, our narrator sucks a big one. Over this past month I’ve been observing my inner narrator more frequently, particularly when I notice some sort of emotion: guilt, shame, anger, etc. I’ve been trying to use those emotions as a cue to check in with my inner dialogue. More often than not, my narrator is in completely whiny B mode. “UGH! Something inconvenient again! Why won’t anyone leave me alone?? Why do I have to do everything myself! I’m so unappreciated! Wah wah wah!”

Interrupting the negative thoughts

If I heard that come out of my 6yo’s mouth I’d (discreetly) roll my eyes and then work to offer some reassurance or distraction. When it rolls around in my own head though, it feels serious. You may think that because I’m a therapist and personal growth addict, I easily and gracefully apply therapeutic principles to myself. After all, I teach such principles to my clients on a daily basis. But alas, you’d be wrong. I’m just as susceptible to getting caught up in my thoughts as the next person.

When I wrote last time, I focused on how changing the narrator can completely change your perspective on a given situation. What I didn’t address last time I wrote, was about how darn hard it can be to untether yourself from the current story line. I mean, it’s a multi-step process with plenty of opportunities to get reeled back in.

#1: Notice the your thoughts

The first step, of course, would be to notice what the story is. You can’t tie your shoe if you don’t first notice that it’s untied. You have to be willing and able to shift your attention away from the outside world towards your inner world. When you do this, sometimes you find immediate change is possible. Like the observer effect, the mere presence of you observing your thoughts might be enough for (also) you to realize – “whoa, that’s a bit extreme. And also not true, so let’s move on.” If you can pull this off, and can successfully disentangle yourself from an unhelpful story line, you can stop here. Congratulations! You demonstrate adaptive cognitive flexibility!

For the rest of us, read on.

So you’ve successful identified your story line. It’s brutal. One option would be to read back over it, gentle challenging yourself on some of your finer points. “No, you aren’t a horrible person. Yes, you do have people who care from you. You’ve exaggerating how bad it’s going to be, etc.” This is what CBT would have us do and it can be a downright effective technique. What would your wise mind say to your narrator’s lode of tripe? How about a voice of compassion?

But my negative thoughts are like, REALLY mean. And stubborn.

You may find that if you try to challenge really strong thoughts, you fall into a heated argument about whether or not you suck, and frankly that’s not super helpful. What if you’re just feeling too bitchy? This afternoon, I didn’t even want to challenge my thoughts. It felt as though I was too angry and annoyed and frankly justified – cue whiny B voice: “I don’t need to challenge these thoughts because I AM unappreciated!” In the moment, I could get to step one (“Hmm…I seem to be having quite a few negative thoughts”), but just noticing wasn’t enough to make them go away, nor was it enough to change their impact on me.

#2 Notice how the negative thoughts are affecting your body

My next step was to practice some good old-fashion mindfulness skills. I did a quick body scan to see how these thoughts and emotions were impacting the rest of my body. Very quickly I noticed that I was clenching my jaw and tensing my shoulders, so I stopped that. Continuing to scan, I then realize that my stomach may be hungry…or thirsty. Maybe I just need a snack? I notice other sensations. A stabbing pain in my shoulder. A mild ache in my back. My feet on the floor. My clothes on my body.

#3 Notice when the inner critic shows up, and shift focus

The third step also comes to us from mindfulness. When you’re in the middle of a mindfulness or meditation session, one of the primary skills you work on is the idea of returning to the present moment. You focus on breath or a mantra or whatever else. Then you notice that your thoughts wander off and once you notice it, you bring your attention back to your breath. Your thoughts wander off again, you return them to your breath. Over and over again. It reminds me of trying to take a picture of a baby who has recently learned how to crawl. You pose baby just so – baby crawls off. You grab baby and put her back. She crawls off again. Etc.

When it comes to story narration, the idea is similar. You notice that a certain story is playing, you acknowledge it again, and you shift your focus to what youre doing right now. When your thoughts slide back into that negative loop again, you grab them and plop that back into the present. Over and over again. Labeling the story playing can help – oh, there’s that whiny B again trying to rant at me. Give the narrator a title or an image. Externalizing this voice in your head can to create distance between YOU and the thoughts.

The above step is harder on some days than others. Sometimes my Whiny B narrator is really freaking loud. It’s like having a neighbor who has their music blaring on a station that’s causing your eardrums to bleed. How am I supposed to focus with that going on? By moving on to the last step.

#4) Ride it out with love

Take a time out and just observe your internal process for awhile. This is not the same as noticing. This is a longer more intentional act of sitting with everything that you’re holding on to. The frustration of your situation. The discomfort of the feelings. The annoyingness of your thoughts. Notice the WHOLE package of your current experience. And offer the entity that’s going through this challenge some love and compassion. Life is hard. Living is hard. Having feelings and a fear-mongering brain is hard. We’re all trying our best. Me included. You included. Give yourself a big old bear hug and let yourself know that you are on your side.