We all have negative voices in our head. For some they are subtle, passive, and even deceive us into thinking they are there to protect us and keep us safe. For others, they are much more aggressive, and downright mean. Sometimes we are aware of their words and influence. Most other times we are oblivious to their destructive messages, and they impact our beliefs, sense of self, motivation, and happiness.
One of the best ways to become savvy to the negative inner voices in your head is to practice mindfulness. To be more mindful means to be more aware of your thoughts, feelings and actions in the present moment.
The problem with not being mindful of our thoughts is that we treat our thoughts as if they are facts. We just simply accept whatever comes into our mind as truth without giving it a second thought. And we have these thoughts so often that we believe them as fact. But really a thought is not a fact. A thought is just a thought. And when they are destructive (which they mostly are), they have very negative ramifications.
You may have the thought “I am no good at this,” or “I’m fat,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or “Nobody understands me,” or even “I am brilliant!” Does thinking it make it so? Once or twice, probably not. But if we think it enough, our mind will accept it as truth, regardless of whether it is good or bad.
When you start to pay attention to your thoughts through mindfulness with gentle curiosity and no judgment, you can observe your thinking more objectively. You can notice your thoughts, assess them for truth, then either accept or reframe them more positively. This is a powerful tool. Imagine catching even a fraction of your negative thoughts, assessing them for truth (which most aren’t), and reframing them in a more positive and truthful way.
To further improve your mindfulness, try this activity.
Activity: “The Monkey-Chatter in Your Head”
Start this activity with mindfulness of your breath. Focus specifically on your breath –slowly in and out. Perhaps even speak the words in your mind. “I breathe in deeply, filling my lungs, and then exhale slowly, emptying my lungs.”
Then as you continue to breathe, allow yourself to notice any thoughts that come into your head. Pay attention to these thoughts without judgment. Thoughts are just thoughts – it’s whatever is going on in your mind at this particular moment.
It may sound like this:
“This is different – O.K. I’m going to do this. Hey, there’s a fly. Breathing in, exhaling out. Ouch, my back hurts. I should just get back to work. There’s me thinking about work again. Give yourself a break for a minute.”
Then it may go to something like “I’m sitting here thinking of my thoughts… OK, it’s a beautiful day. My stomach is hungry. Hmmm, I can’t do this very well.”
These are all valid, normal thoughts. And very often they are all over the place like the example you just read. Allow yourself time to think about your thoughts. Don’t rush, don’t judge, and don’t stop. Find curiosity, interest and even humor in your thoughts.
You can also imagine your thoughts floating by like clouds in the sky, or leaves in a stream. Notice each passing thought and then the one that comes after it, and then the one that comes after that. You may notice that just at the moment you become aware of a thought, it passes and is replaced by another thought. That’s what happens – thoughts come, and they go.
Finally, to end this exercise, bring yourself back to the awareness of your breath.
The value in this exercise is to realize first how little attention we pay to our thoughts, yet how extremely powerful they are. Then learning to notice them can lead us to better control them to serve us for the better.