Sometime ago a client was sharing her experience of having a barrage of negative and catastrophizing thoughts. She was frustrated with herself and her situation because on one level she knew that these thoughts (self stories) had very little validity, but found them very “sticky” stories (thoughts that kept coming and sticking around; and were hard to unhook from). She was frustrated and feeling defeated because the thoughts were impacting her sleep and emotions and her sense of self.
We can all so relate, right?
Each of us experiences times when our mind is “on repeat” telling us a disturbing, unhelpful and/or extreme story. Often, a part of us knows the story/thoughts are unlikely or invalid and unhelpful, and yet we find ourselves getting stuck…stuck in “worry-mind” or “judging-mind” or “angry-mind” or some other variation of “small mind.”
Because we’ve each been there we know the suffering that this can bring. We also know, from experience, that the more we struggle against these thoughts and stories the more we get entangled with them. We know that often the more we try to push them away and “not think that” the MORE we DO think that. (Like right now if you try NOT to think of purple, or polka dots, or pigs…and for Pete’s sake, whatever you do, DO NOT think about pigs wearing purple polka dots. Ha…Alrighty then! At least it was likely a pleasant visual.)
Thing is, though we have ability to cultivate habits of thought (another blog for another day), in our moment to moment experience we have little to no control over the thoughts and stories that drift into our mind. This is partly due to default states of the mind that tend toward protection rather than happiness. These default states of mind which have a significant negativity and threat bias, were likely calibrated when the survival environment was very different that it is today.
The good news is that we CAN build in some wiggle room and relief by HOW we meet these distressing thoughts and stories.
A very helpful way to meet sticky distressing thoughts and stories is with compassionate detachment. Because “compassionate detachment” is kind of nebulous let’s image our “small-mind”/worry mind as a quite sensitive and adorable preschooler and imagine our thoughts as her words and “compassionate detachment” as the way a wise, loving (and well rested!) Mama would respond to her distressed preschooler.
Let’s take that “compassionate detachment” for a spin: The unhelpful story appears, “I’m not doing this right; I mess up everything; I’m gonna get fired. What is wrong with me? Becky does it better; I bet she gets my job. I won’t be able to afford my house. I’ll be homeless. I work so hard and no one appreciates me”…and on and on. We would meet small-mind (like Wise Loving Mama would) with compassion: “Come here, Love. It’s hard to feel scared. It’s hard to feel unseen. Notice our heart beating fast; what else do we notice in our body right now? Our thoughts are telling us a scary story and our body is responding to that story and that’s just fine, and even interesting. It’s what bodies do. And also in this moment we’re okay. Let’s notice that too: the okay-ness of this very moment. Let’s notice the feeling of breath in our nostrils and our feet in our shoes. Let’s also add, ‘I’m having the thought’ to ANY thought that feels unhelpful or scary. Let’s practice, ‘I’m having the thought, I’m not doing this right’ and ‘I’m having the thought, that I mess up everything and I’m having the thought….’ We’re having lots of thoughts, but we are not our thoughts.”
So notice how the compassionate response attends to the emotions and felt physical sense of suffering, but not so much the story. The unhelpful story is met with detachment (and distancing, which “I’m having the thought….” helps with), much in the same way a wise and loving Mama would meet her preschooler’s story of a broken crayon being the end of the world. Wise Loving Mama understands the suffering of it and meets the suffering part of herself with love; she isn’t dismissive of the suffering. And she isn’t argumentative or in a struggle with “the story” but she isn’t buying the story as “truth” either.