Do you have a thinking problem? Do you think you have a thinking problem? Or are you just so used to your mind replaying things constantly, insulting you, arguing with you, and generally causing problems that you don’t even notice anymore?
The mind is a wild place to hang out mostly because we never get taught that we can do something about that. We’re never taught that the mind is a muscle that we can actually gain some control over. Now, are there things that the mind does that we probably shouldn’t have conscious control over? Of course. The mind does keep your heart beating, keep your liver and kidneys running, help regulate your body, and so on. The mind plays some critical unconscious functions that we absolutely need in order to keep our human forms alive. But there is one thing the mind does that we should have conscious control over and we just never bother to take it - it offers us thoughts that we do nothing about.
The mind learns to cope with its experiences and the pain it perceives in those experiences. The mind by nature is protective of the human form. That means that its perception of experience and how it manages its experience is protective by design. The natural tendency of the human body is to protect itself at all costs. There are many built in functions that the human body and mind have to do that. There are simple examples like blocking out traumatic experiences when they are overwhelming or shutting down the pain response in order to allow a person to get to physical safety. Those things are protective and automatic responses that we don’t have control over. They just happen.
So the mind in all its wisdom, is using what it knows to protect you. That’s a good thing until it becomes a problem later on in life. For most of us we’ve made a choice to stop the pain in some way. We’re figuring out ways to heal or feel better. We’re getting rid of relationships that are no longer working. We’re figuring out how to make life a little more tolerable for ourselves. The protective nature of the mind can make acting out some of these changes rather challenging because the mind will naturally introduce fear to keep you in a safe, known environment; even when the safe, known environment is still offering some pain.
What we want to do is teach the mind how to be a little bit more helpful to us by giving it some boundaries, not letting it spin the same thing around over and over and over again, and stopping it from making us feel like crap all the time. It is possible to do this but it can take some time because for years now your mind has been running its own show. Its used to doing whatever the heck it wants and when you suddenly intervene it gets a little grumpy. It doesn’t like that so much.
The first thing to remember about the mind and that pesky voice in your head is that it wants an audience. You are the captive audience that it wants to keep entertained. It will say or not say anything so long as it can keep you focused on what its doing. Understanding this gives you a point of control for the mind. This is the hook that allows you to get some control over what the mind offers you. This gives you the ability to take your attention away until the mind changes its tune.
I often compare the mind to a stubborn toddler. It will keep going back to the same thing until you redirect it away to something that’s more interesting. The mind will also change its tune if you just stop buying into what it offers you. Both of these things require you to be more stubborn than your mind. It requires time and patience to do this successfully.
The first thing you have to be able to do is monitor your thoughts without engaging with them. Did you know that you can get outside of your own thinking? You can give yourself the vantage point of being able to watch yourself think. You’re aware of the thought but it’s not yours and it’s not bothering you. You just see it there and you’re not doing anything about it. Some people use the analogy of watching clouds float by. They are pretty and sometimes you can find shapes in them, but that’s about as far as it goes.
By being able to watch your own thoughts in this way you can monitor them, you can decide which ones are worth your attention and which aren’t, and give yourself a point of control you didn’t have before. The mind wants you to interact, so when you stop interacting the mind offers something different. If you interact with the cloud that looks like a horse, the mind offers more clouds that look like horses. But if you ignore the cloud that looks like a clown because clowns are scary, then the mind stops offering clowns in the clouds. Suddenly you have control.
Here’s the catch - most people don’t pay enough attention to be able to do this. I didn’t pay enough attention to be able to do this at first. What that looks like is 6 hours later you realize the mind is still spinning the same thing in your head, but you paid no attention for 6 hours so the mind got away with it until you finally shut it down. This is the autopilot function we all use. The level of autopilot that most people use in their day-to-day lives is rather astonishing. Not being aware of your own thoughts for 6 hours or longer in some cases is where the problem originates. That’s the issue right there. You can’t leave your mind unattended like that if you want to have a calm internal environment. You have to be willing to start paying attention.
We live in a culture of distraction for a reason. The entertainment industry caught onto this idea that people don’t pay attention to their own thoughts because those thoughts are painful and they don’t want to deal with the pain. So what did the entertainment industry do with that knowledge? Create a bunch of crap you don’t need to keep you entertained, thereby encouraging you to stay in pain and not deal with your life. They encouraged you to avoid your own reality and you bought in hook, line, and sinker.
Now you’re stuck in some nasty habits that you want to change and you don’t know how. The first step is to simply decide that you’re willing to do the work to change it by training yourself into a new habit of no longer leaving your mind unattended. You have to train yourself to pay attention to your own thinking; not to buy in and encourage the mind even more, but instead to gain some control so the mind stops offering you nonsense.
At first your mind will get away with it for hours on end until you shut it down. Then slowly you’ll gain a little bit more control and instead of 6 hours it’ll only be two or three. Then over time you’ll get to where it’s only minutes or seconds and you’ll have awareness, you’ll have control, you’ll redirect your mind and you’ll finally be the one in charge. The mind will finally be calm.
We’re not going for complete radio silence. What we’re going for is just a level of “not crazy” that is manageable. Manageable means that your mind isn’t stopping you anymore. When you decide to change something the mind is no longer offering you a bunch of fear and doubt. When you decide to try something new the mind no longer tells you that you suck and you can’t do it. When you make a choice the mind no longer offers you concerns about what other people are thinking. You’re under your own power and you move freely without the mind getting in your way. There are enough hurdles in the external world without allowing the mind to create additional hurdles with its crazy thinking.
If the mind does try to stop you for whatever reason, you have enough awareness that you can shut that down in seconds. The mind no longer has control. It can’t stop you anymore because you’re no longer bothered by the thoughts it offers you. You recognize that they are just thoughts, they are often clouded with faulty perception and pain, and they are designed to protect you but that you don’t need to be protected from your own happiness.
A big part of the thinking problem is our faulty perception. So let’s talk about perception and what it is, what it isn’t, and how you can manage it so that it isn’t a problem for you anymore.
Perception is the story you tell about the external experiences that you have. When the mind is not under control yet, our perception is very clouded by our own pain and past experience. This is a function of protection the mind offers. By adding in its own pain and memories, the mind keeps you in the same familiar scenarios. That’s the key - the mind only likes known situations and experiences. If it hasn’t had the experience before it doesn’t want anything to do with it. That’s a protection mechanism. The idea that any new experience is bad keeps you safe from new experiences. The mind likes that idea.
The mind intentionally skews your perception in an effort to protect you. The problem with this is that you can’t heal if you’re being protected from the healing process by your own mind. You have to allow yourself the ability to question your own perception if you intend to heal. You have to stop protecting yourself from yourself to heal fully.
There are essentially 4 stories that the mind adds into its perception of external experiences. They are blame, shame, guilt, and victimization. All of these can be internalized or projected onto others depending on the situation and how it suits the mind to use them.
Blame when projected allows the mind to escape responsibility for its experience. It makes you hold onto the pain in the experience and push control over the pain onto other people. When internalized it tells you the story about how awful you are reinforcing the idea that you’re not good enough to heal or be okay.
When we project shame onto others, the intention to is to make others feel as bad as we do. We’re trying to equalize the internal and external pain. If you put a car under water and try to open the door you can’t until the pressure equalizes between the inside and outside of the car. That’s essentially what we’re trying to accomplish in our minds when we project shame. When we internalize shame we end up with a similar story as we had with blame. It validates the perception that we suck in some way.
Guilt whether projected or internalized offers these same ideas of either trying to make other people feel bad or reinforcing the perception of our own unworthiness. Blame, shame, and guilt all offer us an internal story of unworthiness. The frame of the story changes slightly depending on which story you’re telling, but the underlying effects are essentially the same. All three also offer us the ability to punt control out onto other people to try to make them responsible for how we feel in some way, whether to equalize the pain or to make our healing conditional on what other people do or don’t do. Both of those things tend to keep us stuck in the pain for a long time as we often never get what we were looking for from the outside world.
Victimization when internalized makes us a victim of our external experience. This puts control outside of ourselves. It says that because I can’t control the external experience, I’m powerless and therefore pain is inevitable. It essentially encourages the idea of giving up before you even get started. When we project the victimization and make others the victim of their own experience, we take their power away from them and encourage them to give up as well. Victimization is essentially giving up or not even bothering to try because of a perception that it’s not in our control anyway. I can’t control it therefore I can’t heal from it either.
Generally, we take on one or more of these stories as the primary source of the pain we’ve experienced in our own lives. I was powerless so my stories were mostly victimization and blame. I blamed others for my experience, victimized myself because I felt powerless to change it, and then stayed stuck in the pain for a long time. If you had to summarize your own story in this way, what would it sound like?
These stories skew our perception of everything that happens. The mind uses the same strategies all the time. Once you figure out what those strategies are this whole thing unravels really quickly. Once I realized that blame and victimization were the major stories I was telling, it unraveled 90% of my life experience in less than a minute. Suddenly everything made sense because I saw where I was blaming everyone for everything and victimizing myself while I was at it. Past experience became crystal clear very quickly. Applying this to new experience has taken longer because the patterns and habits run deep and it can be hard to spot in the moment, even with reasonably good awareness of self.
Unraveling the past experiences frees you from a lot of the pain. It stops the healing process. You’re now done with the past. You don’t have to do that anymore. When a new experience comes up that triggers the past, there is no healing to do. Your job now is just to figure out how you’re still living from the pain. What’s the behavior that needs to shift?
I don’t heal past experiences anymore. I haven’t done that in a long time. I’m working through how I still live from the pain. I’m working through coping mechanisms and survival skills that I created years ago. It doesn’t matter if past experience gets triggered or not, I don’t need to go back there. I’ve done everything I need to do with those experiences. I no longer work on healing them. I now only deal with my present experience because that’s the only thing that matters these days.
How do you know when you’re there? When you’ve unraveled the stories. When you start telling the same stories about the past. When you start seeing the same punch lines. When you stop getting new information from your past experience.
When things happen in your life, which they inevitably will, the mind naturally wants to interpret that experience. Your job is to control that interpretation so that it doesn’t get all warped by the mind. You have to look for the filters of the old stories so that you can see where you’re adding in your own pain.
One of the biggest ways this shows up is in how we interpret other people. The mind doesn’t like the unknown, it also doesn’t like blanks. It doesn’t like empty space so it will fill that in with something. Where the blank space often occurs in our experience is when we try to fill in the reasons why other people do things. This is the perfect opportunity for the mind to add in some blame, shame, guilt, or victimization.
I’m all for mental clarity. I believe getting the brain on board in terms of healing is a must because without a mind that’s willing to play along healing is extremely challenging. That said, we can’t know everything. We can’t explain other people’s actions. We can see the pain that other people express or project, but we don’t always know the depth of the burden behind the pain. That leaves us with some unknowns that we have to learn to be okay with and not try to fill in by making up stories about what they are doing or not doing. Those stories generally aren’t true and often they just create more pain in the long run.
I’ve learned that lesson the hard way in my life and it did create a lot of pain. I made choices based on my untrue assumptions of other people and their pain. This did create a lot of additional pain that could have been avoided. I’ve stopped filling in the blanks in my awareness. I’ve stopped making assumptions. I recognize the pain in other people and I do my best to honor or acknowledge that while still moving forward with my own truth and alignment. I can be flexible with other people, but I don’t have to make myself miserable to keep them comfortable. There is very definitely a balance to be found. The shortest path to finding it is to not fill in the blanks with assumptions and stories.
The other way perception gets us into trouble is in our perception of what the outcome will be. The unknown future is another blank the mind attempts to fill in, often with failure and more pain. Why does the mind do that? Because it bases the future on the past and recalls previous failures when it does that. Why? Because that is how it chooses to protect you from more pain. If we just assume the worst and we never try, then we don’t have to worry about getting hurt. The protection is the perception of self-defeat. I can’t do it anyway, so why try?
If you do manage to jump the hurdle and try it, usually your reality will prove you right, meaning it won’t work because you never believed it would. The power of that underlying belief that says it won’t work anyway skews your choices, it skews how much effort you put into things, and it skews your perception of what’s happening while you’re doing it. Your focus is on the pain of failure instead of the possibility of success. Until you shift that focus you’ll continue to prove your underlying belief right.
There are many pitfalls in our thinking that come from underlying beliefs, not recognizing the cycles we’ve created in our lives, pain and previous experience, and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening around us. Shifting those is a process that takes time. We don’t get them all in one shot.
It’s taken me 8 years to figure out how to get a podcast out, write a blog or two, post on social media, write a book in the background, and manage it all at the same time without losing any one of those things. Books would take me 12 months to write because they kept getting put off in favor of the instant gratification of things like blogs, podcasts, and social media posts. It took me 8 years to figure out how to balance all that and to allow myself the freedom to balance it. I used to think that if I wasn’t posting immediately visible content constantly that my business would fail. Well guess what? My business never went anywhere anyway. The strategy didn’t work and all I was succeeding in doing was making myself unhappy. My focus was the problem. I had some underlying beliefs that kept me stuck in patterns that didn’t work. When I finally shifted the focus, I figured out how to balance it all and now I’ll probably finish this in a few months.
How long will it take you to unwind your own pain? It depends on how deep the pain runs and how much it’s affecting your day-to-day behavior. What you think should be fairly simple to unwind may be tied into a ton of pain in ways that you can’t see right now. My ability to balance my work this way took a long time because it was tied to a fear of not being able to pay the bills, not being good enough, not being confident enough, and an argument I was having with my reality around how many hours a day I had to work on those things. Each of those individual pain points had to be unwound and healed before I could balance my work properly.
I also had to argue with what my work needed to look like. I had to argue with my perception of what business was supposed to be. I had to argue with what I was creating, how I was creating it, and what I thought I was supposed to be doing versus what I actually wanted to do. You know what? I finally resolved those arguments and it’s created a stable base for me to work with.
The shift in your focus requires you to understand the individual arguments you’re having with yourself, the pain points those arguments have created for you, and the previous pain that caused you to engage in those arguments in the first place. When you have mental clarity around those things you can free yourself from them because you’re no longer tied into the pain of them and you’re simply looking for the truth of what you want to create in your life.