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.

The Gold Star: Micro Steps Towards Progress

“Snake!” I yelled. The over-sized green mamba swung its head to look at me. No one else in the 7-11 seemed to care.

“SNAKE!!” I yelled louder, holding my left foot in the air as if I were the Karate Kid preparing my crane kick. Sure, that would take down a green mamba. Again the patrons ignore my pleas and debated Cool Ranch over Spicy Nacho Doritos.

Why was no one as freaked out about this as I was? Why was the green mamba single-mindedly focusing on me? The mamba U-turned and reared up its head. I darted its head at me, trying to strike while I batted it away with my foot. It dove again, this time connecting with my flesh.

Tap tap tap

Something sharp and cold poked my forehead, but I can’t say it’s what I expected from green mamba fangs.

Groggily, I opened an eye to see my 5 year old standing in front of my fully dressed in a pair of pepto bismol pink shorts and a turquoise blue shirt with sparkly dinosaurs all over it.

“Mmmprg. What time is it? Is your lady bug green?” (Lady bug is actually not a lady bug at all but an OK to Wake alarm clock that looks more like a little green alien than a lady bug).

“I think so. Lizzie is awake too. Can we have breakfast now?” I hear my husband stir and shift out of the bed.

Oh thank goodness. A free pass to roll over. This is unlike me. I’m generally an early bird. I prefer waking up before the sun, before the kids, and having that moment to myself to do whatever I want. It’s like starting the day with a gold star because you know you did something good for yourself.

But instead of that scenario, each night this week I go to bed jittery and alert and every morning I awake feeling as though someone squirted Elmer’s in my eyes.

Jet lag is a bitch.

My family and I flew back to Uganda last weekend from the US. It was relatively direct as far as African travel routes go, but still , there’s nothing easy about 36+ hours of travel with two little kids. Despite my efforts to shift my body to its new schedule, my brain is just not wanting to cooperate. I’ve found myself staying up into the wee hours without a single yawn urging me to bed. I end up working out at 11. Skimming through marriage therapy texts at midnight. Meal planning at 1am.

So back to this morning. My husband lured my daughter away from my bedside with promises of warmed banana bread for breakfast, and while I could have taken that opportunity to attempt to resume my dream, I didn’t.

Instead, in the words of Anna (of Frozen II fame), I did the next right thing. Which in this case was to drag my butt out of bed and jar myself out of my groggy stupor.

But how was I to function in this state? My head slowly scrolls through the information I accumulated over the years about behavioral change.

State. I need to change my state. I need to think opposite thoughts and do opposite actions.

I chugged a bunch of water. Shook my head vigorously a few times. Eighties danced around my room while unpacking one of my still unpacked suitcases. And I frankly pretended that I wasn’t nearly as exhausted as I felt.

And you know what? It kind of worked. Go figure. As it turns out, the whole Cognitive-Behavioral paradigm of changing your mental state and your behaviors as a way to change your mood played out. Thanks CBT! Secondary credit goes to Alfred Adler for his ‘Act as if’ mantra.

While I was proud of myself for not caving to the sleep fairies, I won’t pretend that I felt like my toddler the other day after she lapped down her first DumDum lollipop (Flavor: strawberry. A reward for surviving her COVID test), but I was able to get through my day without napping. And that’s what it’s all about for me. Not napping.

Kidding. What I mean to say is that making these small changes in our day may not feel like much. They may not feel like something to celebrate or even something to acknowledge. But often, progress does’t come in big swoops and leaps. More often, progress comes about through those tiny little nudges that shift the needle ever so slightly towards our own unrealized potential. So when you notice yourself challenging your own status quo, make sure to give yourself credit for it. Maybe even a gold star.

Exercise: What small progress have you made in your own life? Did you give yourself credit for it? If you can’t thinking of something, what small step could you take right now?