My biggest enemy, the nastiest one I’ve faced, has been my own mind. My brain allows me to do wonderful things, but my mind has been quite cruel over the years. It has told me that no one will ever love me; that I can’t be successful at anything; that I ruin all I touch; and other dreadful, debilitating thoughts. It has hashed and rehashed every misstep, every situation I didn’t handle perfectly, and written elaborate and horrible stories about what’s to come. And it’s made me second-guess myself too many times to count.
Throughout my life, I’ve been inflicted by the demon in my head that tells me I have zero worth, and that I’d better do everything I can to prove that I deserve to be here. Sound familiar? Our minds think 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts each day. No wonder we’re so tired!
You may recall the fight or flight response from our previous segment—the oldest part of our brain is easily triggered and looking for threats. If we don’t take conscious control of it, our mind will constantly scan for the negative, and it has our past and perceived-future negative experiences to go on. Its purpose is to help us survive, not to be happy. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that you can retrain your brain. Neuroplasticity is the ability to form and reorganize the synaptic connections in your brain—the pathways your brain takes. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Dr. Richie Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is author and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and has extensively researched neuroplasticity. His research shows that anyone can learn happiness skills.
That’s great, but how? Dr. Davidson is a huge proponent of meditation, mindfulness, and centering yourself. Deep breathing, as we have previously discussed, calms the body and mind, and allows you to be conscious. Consciousness is key to happiness. Blissfully unaware isn’t a thing. Once conscious, you can choose which thoughts to attach to and which are rubbish.
Don’t believe me? You do it unconsciously all the time. You have a thought, your brain finds evidence to back it up, and you believe it’s either true or not. You can do the same process consciously with positive thoughts. After being conscious of your thoughts and breathing, staying calm about how you perceive them is next. “Oh, I just had the same old thought about how no one will ever love me. Hmmm … that’s interesting.” Curiosity breaks us out of the stories our minds wants to write about—how nothing will be happy or positive—and allows us to examine the thoughts as opposed to just believing them. We all have repeating negative thoughts that we’ve lived with most of our lives.
I think of negative and repeating thoughts as an error in my computer code programmed at an early age, some coming from my parents and the code errors of their minds. The error just kept repeating and repeating. It was inaccurate—an error in my code, not an error in me. The error that tells me I’m no good and finds it’s source in the panic part of my brain—the fight or flight survival center. The code wasn’t trying to kill me. On the contrary, it was simply trying to keep me alive. My brain’s fight or flight center was on high alert, and not belonging or being loved was so threatening that it led me to do whatever was necessary to find people to love and accept me. Wow, doesn’t that sound sad and exhausting!
I would never say the things my mind says to me to a friend. If a friend who was feeling low came to me, I’d remind them how great they are, how much they’re loved, how strong and wonderful their talents are, and how much they’re valued. I wouldn’t spew the hate I hear in my own head. Then why, oh why, would I do it to myself?
Negative self-talk is everywhere and shows up in a multitude of ways. People who constantly say they’re sorry is an outward manifestation of their inward negative thoughts. “I’m so stupid,” “I screwed it up again,” and “I always screw things up;” these and other self-deprecating behaviors have their genesis in the mind. The mind writes stories, sometimes novels, about the things that are going to go wrong and how you’ll fail. That you’ll be living in a van down by the river if you don’t watch your step and continue to be afraid! Fear feeds that part of the mind, and since many around us are doing the same thing, we feed off of each other’s fears.
Imposter syndrome, which we cover in more depth on our video podcast, is the persistent inability to believe that our successes are deserved. Has that happened to you? Remembering that these thoughts aren’t true and that we can train our brain to be happy allows us to take control of how we think. It means identifying the negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive, accurate thoughts.
Byron Katie tells us that our brain needs evidence to let go of a negative thought and replace it with a more positive one. Her process, “The Work,” helps people free themselves from negative thoughts. You can watch videos of her doing the work. It’s fascinating and wonderful.
Truth is much kinder than the fiction we create in our minds. We have a choice in what we believe and the power to change our programming. What will you choose? Watch your mind like you would a puppy for an accident. When it goes to a negative thought, catch and praise yourself. “There’s a negative thought—caught it! Good boy!”
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.