by Jeanne Strauss
Most of our thoughts come from automatic, unconscious and conditioned responses to circumstances; they are essentially the same thoughts we had yesterday, last week and last year. These automatic thoughts make our responses to life pretty predictable and keep us stuck in old patterns.
We keep getting the same results because we keep thinking and doing the same things.
Mindfulness provides a way to make our thoughts and actions more conscious. This allows us to see and understand exactly how we make ourselves miserable or angry or anxious. It allows us to see how we talk ourselves out of doing anything new and different. And most important for change, it gives us Choice Points.
Here’s an example of an automated thought process: “I would like to go for a walk today, the weather is beautiful and it would make me feel great to get out there. But I have a lot to do today. I feel anxious right now, and I need to reply to those emails from yesterday. I really should call and make an appointment to have my car serviced. Why am I so disorganized? The kitchen is a mess! I’m so lazy. I’ve got three phone calls I need to return, and I haven’t paid the water bill yet. Wow, it’s getting late. If I don’t get ready for my appointment, I will be late. Maybe I’ll walk tomorrow.”
If this sounds the least bit familiar, then at least you are paying attention. That’s a great step. Here are the next couple of steps.
Notice the Pattern
Perhaps this happens to you; you have an impulse for a positive action (like a desire to go for a walk), and then your inner dialogue talks you out of doing it. This process is repeated throughout our days and years. We have good ideas, but our conditioning starts in right away, telling us how busy we are, how lazy we are, how disorganized we are. By the end of this tirade we feel hopeless and helpless to change. It triggers feelings of anxiety, disappointment and discouragement. Under that barrage of negative thoughts, who can possibly change anything?
Create Choice Points
When we’re mindful, we simply notice this inner dialogue and the feelings it triggers. It’s surprising how this gives us the power to make changes. We don’t have to make up affirmations or try to reprogram these thoughts into positive ones.
Be attentive. Notice the voice that’s beating you up. This internal voice is a learned behavior. Once you realize that, you can distance yourself from that voice. It is not Truth; it’s just a thought. Usually it’s even someone else’s thoughts about you from a long time ago.
Map it out. Draw a map of these thoughts, feelings and actions. Start with one thought or feeling, write it briefly on a large blank piece of paper. Circle it. Then draw an arrow leading away from the circle, and draw a second blank circle. In that space write your next thought, feeling or action. Keep going until you have filled the page with circles and thoughts, feelings or actions in each. Now you have a map of how you get from point A to point B.
When you come to a choice point, take a different path. Once you know how you do this to yourself, it suddenly has less power over you. It only operates well in the dark. Once you can say, “Oh, I recognize that conditioned response!” you have opened up a choice point. You can either continue down that conditioned path, or you can be suspicious of that path, knowing exactly where that leads because you have a map. Turn off the autopilot and try a different route.
Jeanne Strauss is a therapist in San Antonio working with individuals and couples. She has been a licensed clinical social worker for 25 years, specializing in anxiety, stress, personal development, couples counseling, communication and resolving negative relationship patterns. She can be reached at 210-787-6384 or www.jeannestrauss.com.