We’ve all heard it: “What you put your attention on grows.” Most of us will acknowledge the truth of those words. We know that what we consistently think about becomes increasingly more important. So we’ll decide to take our mind off of this or that thing which is bothering us. But do we really? Do we really stop thinking about that thing or do we just stop talking about it while the internal conversation continues?
For me the hardest part of starving the negative voice in our head is noticing the negative in it’s more subtle forms. I can make myself stop talking about a negative thing pretty readily but the loop that’s going in my head is a trickier thing to confront. When I finally realized that not talking about the thing wasn’t the same as starving the negative voice I knew that I was going to have to go down a different route.
Breaking that cycle requires that we take the time to pay attention to what is actually going on in our own head. That sounds simple but think about it, how often do you really take a step back and consider what is going on inside your head? And if you do, do you hold yourself with the same compassion that you would hold your best friend or do you beat yourself bloody about not being as “perfect” as you think you should be?
For me the challenge was that I was really busy and liked being busy. It gave me the perfect excuse to not challenge the loop in my head. When was I supposed to find the time to do that? Then I wasn’t so busy and I still didn’t do what I needed to do. It wasn’t until a relationship imploded and my back was up against the wall so hard I was getting a rash that I started doing the work I needed to do even begin to starve the worst of the negative thoughts I was carrying around.
My stories of not being good enough at this or that thing were so ingrained that I barely heard them anymore. My concern that I wasn’t just a late bloomer but maybe wasn’t going to bloom at all flew beneath my conscious awareness most days. I didn’t even know that I had these thoughts that needed to be starved. For me that process began when I spent time living in a meditation ashram. That break from my normal life gave me time to focus on what was going on in my head.
But moving to an ashram isn’t the only way to begin that process. What it takes to start the process is deciding to start. It takes deciding to pay attention to the soundtrack in your head. Typically we do one of two things when a negative thought comes up: we either agree with the thought and obsess about whatever it is or we shove it to the darkest corner of our mind to avoid having to deal with it at all.
To starve our negative thoughts we have to engage with them. We have to be aware of what the thought is so that we can start to change the internal conversation. Listen to those thoughts and notice how completely unrealistic they tend to be. “I’m never going to be able to (insert your goal here).” Never? Really? Are you absolutely sure of that. Would you bet your best friend’s life on it?
Letting negative thoughts run loose in our minds like a bunch of mice undercuts our ability to make the changes we want. If we keep telling ourself that we will never be able to accomplish something how hard are we really going to try? No matter whether what we want to attain is a specific thing or a state of mind.
If I don’t believe there is any possibility that I will be able to climb that rock wall I’m going to give up pretty quickly when it gets tough. If I don’t that it is possible that I will be happy with my life I won’t be able to see the happiness that already exists. Instead I’ll hold happiness out there as something that is always in the future.
To give ourselves the chance to accomplish anything that is hard for us we have to stop the chatter in our mind that tells us we are doomed to failure. We don’t have to believe that we will succeed, though that would be nice. We just have to not believe that we will certainly fail.
I’m not being Pollyanna about this. We are all going to have negative thoughts and rough experiences. That’s just life. What we don’t have to have is a bias towards negativity. We can choose what thoughts we focus on, we can decide where to put our energy and what kind of internal conversation we are going to engage in.
Here are three ways that you can start training yourself to starve the negative.
- When you catch yourself in a negative loop think about what you would say to your closest friend if she or he were speaking so harshly of herself or himself.
- Notice what you are saying and ask the question, “Is this actually true?” Be aware that your knee-jerk response may not be accurate. Our tendency is to say of course it’s true or I wouldn’t think that, so keep asking the question. You want to get to a place where you can discern actual fact from an opinion that you hold.
- If the thought is actually a fact that is negative for you (maybe you are 20 pounds overweight) deal with the fact and not all the judgements around it. Being 20 pounds overweight is a fact, it doesn’t make you a miserable loser or anything else you’ve told yourself.
So the next time you catch yourself spinning a tale that diminishes you, stop. Take a moment to regroup and starve the negative.