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  • Writer's pictureBen Williams, PhD., C.Psych.

Getting unstuck and connecting with your true self along the path of mindfulness

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

One of the most debilitating and demoralizing elements of mental health struggles is the sense of being stuck- of being thigh deep in quicksand. Sometimes it seems like the more you struggle against it the more you become engulfed. Beyond the sheer pain of depression, the fear and exhaustion of anxiety, or the havoc that addiction and interpersonal struggles can wreak on one’s family, friendships, and career, one thing that virtually all psychological difficulties share is the experience of being out of control in some way, of feeling as though the solution is elusive, out of reach. It can feel like fighting an uphill battle, having your hands tied behind your back, or trying to find your way out of a room in the dark. Stuck!

There can also be a sense of stickiness in the more everyday experience of unhealthy negative self-talk. Those unkind or dark words that we utter under our breath when we make a mistake, “why am I such an idiot?”, or the resentful and spiteful sentiments that can pop into our heads towards others: “Only #$*#@’s drive cars like that”. Every once in a while, or perhaps all too often, we have a momentary insight into the internal dialogue that, just under the surface of our awareness, is constantly evaluating our place in the world, noticing our mistakes, or wondering what personal flaws are standing in the way of how we think our lives should be.

The debilitating nature of the judging self

I think of this internal dialogue as "the judging self." A kind of automatic co-pilot that is constantly evaluating, and placing value-laden labels on our behavior or even ourselves more generally. Psychodynamic therapists might refer to this as the internalized voice of a nagging parent. Whatever you call this phenomenon, despite the cost, believe it or not, the intention is usually in the right place. We want to behave well, make fewer mistakes, treat others with respect… But those cutting words are perhaps not the thing that we need to hear in the moment.

In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach refers to the ways that negative self-talk can lower a kind of dark and debilitating veil over our lives as “the trance of unworthiness”. Over time, this critical voice can shape how we feel about ourselves. If you tell someone that they are no good enough times they will probably begin to believe it. And if we are honest, we can all identify with labeling ourselves in a harsh manner all too often. When automa==tic negative self-talk becomes pervasive, it can be a core-contributing element of a mental health condition. We begin to believe that we are not good enough, that we are unlovable, that we don’t have what it takes to succeed, or that things will never be different.

In a good moment, at some level, we recognize that these words we say are untrue, or at least, unfairly harsh. In our heart of hearts, we know that everyone has value, potential, or goodness inside. If we take the time to sit with it, we recognize that most of us would not speak to a friend or someone we care about in the way that we speak to ourselves. But in the moment, it’s difficult to integrate this truth. In the moment, the ugly, harsh words feel true or correct. Or at the very least, they give us, what seems like, a reasonable explanation for why we, or others, or the world, are not as they “should” be. We go along with it, and carry on with our day, not realizing the compounding negative effect that our automatic words are exerting. The difficulty connecting with the bigger picture, or what is true on a deeper level, is at the heart of the stickiness of negative, judgmental self-talk. We are all looking to be our best selves, but the way we are going about it can end up beating us down, or reinforcing our worst fears.

Embracing negative thinking with mindfulness allows us to see the truth

At its core, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our experience, noticing what sensory experiences we are taking in, what emotions we may be feeling, and also, what is happening in our thinking minds. In mindfulness practice, however, we try our best to pay attention in a non-judgmental manner. That is, to allow or accept what is happening while letting go of any felt need to decide whether thinking that thought is right or wrong, or good or bad. We don’t try to decide if we “should” be feeling angry, or sad, or whether we “should” be thinking a particular thing, we simply notice that it has happened, and in fact, try to embrace it as part of our experience in that moment. We even do this with any judgmental thoughts that we don’t happen to avoid.

This notion of embracing or accepting one’s experience, without doing anything about it, is often experienced as a kind of paradox. Why would I allow or embrace the very thing that I would like to stop? An interesting thing begins to happen, however, when we notice, allow, and don’t do anything to try to control our thinking. It is difficult to describe, but we begin to change the relationship that we have with our thoughts. While we often identify with the sticky, judgmental thoughts in a personal way, when we practice mindfulness, we begin to notice that there is a different aspect of our experience, or if you will, a different part of us, that can stand back from, and notice, what is happening. There is a kind of spaciousness in the awareness that allows us to tap into our observing self. From the perspective of the observing self, we can “see” those momentary thoughts for what they really are- ideas or expressions that seem to pop into our awareness. They may or may not reflect reality, and may or may not fully capture how we feel about a situation or ourselves in a balanced manner. And in fact, when we don’t grab onto them, or try to engage them, they often go away by themselves.

Cognitive behavioral therapists, usually early on in treatment, make a very important point to their clients. They often say something like “a thought is different from a fact”. It’s one of those concepts that is brilliant, not because of its depth, but because we all go around living our lives unaware of this simple truth. That is, it's perhaps an obvious point to make, but it is not one that is front of mind when the judging self is telling us that we are a dolt or an idiot. Mindfulness helps us to engage the truism “just because you think a thought, doesn’t mean you have to believe it”, or better yet “thoughts make better workers than bosses”.

Discovering and living from your true self

The power of mindfulness, however, is not merely observed in its ability to reveal the errors that our automatic judgmental thinking makes; it goes deeper than that. The observing self allows us to engage our capacity for compassion, and in particular, compassion directed towards the self. In fact, if you ever catch your judging self making disparaging comments or predicting that your life will never change, and at the same time, if you are able to tune into your emotional tone, beyond the initial twinge of embarrassment or shame (i.e. because you made a mistake), you might encounter a bit of sadness or regret. That is, the meanness or harsh tone that your judging self has taken might register, and perhaps you will catch yourself feeling for yourself. You might even wish, in that moment, that you could find a way to respond to yourself that reflected respect, love, caring, or hope.

Mindfulness is not an elixir that affords us control over our thinking. It doesn’t magically eliminate the automatic tendency to berate ourselves or put ourselves down when we make a mistake. But it can help us to connect with the pain that such thoughts inflict on us and to reach out to ourselves in those moments with compassion. Perhaps mindfulness can help us to integrate the larger picture in such moments. Yes, we made a mistake, but perhaps we can do something now to respond or make up for it. And perhaps, over time, mindfulness can help us to change the tone of our inner dialogue to one that is more respectful or caring.

Although over the last few decades mindfulness has been adopted by the mental health field, it is no surprise that the practice was developed and refined within the spiritual community. Years before psychologists and social workers were teaching their clients mindfulness, religious teachers and contemplatives from both Eastern and Western traditions were practicing various forms of meditation. This simple, yet incredibly difficult, discipline of paying attention, of allowing and embracing our experience, gives us access to who we are on a deeper level. It has the potential, in those most painful and stuck moments, to help us embrace and face what is difficult, and to respond according to our deeper values, and the sense of who we really are on the inside.

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