For many years, my mind seemed to have a mind of its own, especially when I worked as a physician in a busy cardiology department. From the moment I woke up, my mind started in, running me through the day’s seemingly-endless “still-not-done list.” While in the shower and during breakfast, my thoughts jumped randomly from past to future and back, searching for anything that had gone wrong or could go wrong. Throughout the morning, my mind picked up speed, slipping into daunting “what-if” realities, until by lunch time I often felt exhausted by the mental and emotional roller coaster ride.
If you, too, struggle with a restless, anxious mind, you’ve probably noticed that the chatter can be especially negative and annoying at the most inopportune moments. Maybe just before a presentation, your inner voice weighs in with, “What if you freeze up in front of your boss?” or “People will see right away you’re a fraud.” To make matters worse, this restless, negative part of our mind appears impervious to reasoning or any efforts to switch it off.
Some schools of thought suggest that negative self-talk stems from our ego, or the “monkey mind,” which is best ignored or fought by saying to ourselves, “Stop! I don’t want to listen to you,” or simply, “Shut up.” However, in my case, I noticed that the harder I tried to ignore or stop this voice, the more active and out of control it became.
Since then, I found it worked best for me and my clients to understand where these insecure, anxious, or critical thoughts originate — and what they are trying to achieve. Obviously, none of us consciously chooses to deflate or scare ourselves, which means that the source of these thoughts lies in a deeper part of our mind, the subconscious. But is our subconscious mind really just acting out like a wild monkey making our lives difficult, or is there a greater purpose?
Before the age of 10, when we’re the most powerless to take care of our basic needs — such as food, shelter, and perceived danger — our mind, especially our subconscious, acts as a dry sponge, soaking up all information from the outside that appears relevant to our sense of safety and comfort. Negative messages, criticism or ridicule infiltrate our subconscious and affect us deeply. It doesn’t take major trauma for us to doubt and wonder whether we’re really safe, lovable, or good enough.
Consequently, a part of our subconscious mind develops strategies to make sure that we’ll stay free from harm. These protective strategies can range from trying to be invisible, pleasing others, aiming to be perfect, or becoming highly vigilant to avoid potential danger. Let’s consider that the negative and anxious thoughts we’ve been battling with as adults stem from the part of our subconscious that has assumed the job of keeping us safe. Doesn’t it then make sense that these thoughts cause us to expect the worst, so that we are prepared, or keeps us on our toes, so that we aren’t subjected to judgment of others — or puts us down, before someone else does?
So how do you respond to the negative thoughts of this inner protector? Since this subconscious part was most likely developed during childhood, you can picture the source of your negative self-talk as an inner, younger self. If you’re with a frightened child who says “I’m afraid that I’ll fail” or “Nobody likes me,” how would you respond? Would you ignore the child, or shout out “Shut up?” Or would you buy into his or her anxiety and tell that child, “Yes, you’re right, you stink, and the world is a cold and unfriendly place”?
None of those options would be appropriate or helpful. What you would do is comfort and reassure, not merely with intellectual reasoning, but with gentle, compassionate kindness from your heart. And as a result, the child would feel heard, understood and, most likely, safe and at ease. The part of your subconscious that creates negative self-talk and mind-racing to keep you safe responds in a very similar way. Instead of ignoring, stifling, or buying into the fearful, restless thoughts, this inner voice needs to be addressed, reassured, and appeased.
The following method is so effective that, with it, most of my clients significantly reduce their negative self-talk within a few weeks.
Write in a notebook or enter into your smartphone a negative thought the moment you notice it.
Take a reality check and ask yourself:
Is this thought true?
Does this thought make me feel good?
Does this thought help me to reach my goals?
These questions interrupt the spiral of negative thinking before it gets out of control.
Immediately write down three positive thoughts to counterbalance the negative one. For example: Something bad will happen. You could counterbalance with: Right now I’m OK. Many times before, when I was worried, everything turned out well. I have the strength and abilities to handle anything that comes my way. Or my boss doesn’t like me. Counterbalances could be: I don’t know what my boss is feeling. I’m doing a great job. If I were my boss, I’d be happy to have me as an employee.
Add positive emotions to your counter-balancing thoughts. For the subconscious mind, words have meaning only if they’re associated with an image, a sensation, or a feeling. The stronger the emotion, the more profound the meaning. So rather than staying in your head, using this exercise as an internal debating club, make sure that you can actually feel and stand behind the positive counterbalancing statements. I know that feeling positive, kind, and compassionate toward yourself can be a huge challenge, especially when you’re struggling with anxiety, low self-esteem, and self-directed anger. But remember that the main source of your repetitive negative thoughts is a younger part of your subconscious mind, which is just playing old “tapes” and repeating outdated protective programs.
Isn’t it easier to speak in a calm, reassuring, and comforting way when you visualize addressing a child? By adding kindness and compassion to your counterbalancing positive thoughts, you take on the proactive role of the one who addresses and reassures this inner child. Assuming this role automatically shifts your consciousness and attitude from “I’m powerless” to “I’m taking charge.”
When you come to understand that your monkey mind matters and address its needs, you’ll no longer feel that you’re the victim of your own thoughts. Instead, you’ll find it much easier to steer those thoughts in the direction you want them to go.