“A year or two ago my anxiety would sometimes be so overwhelming to me that I could not leave the house. Or I wouldn’t be able to attend a social gathering. I had to stop going to church for a few months at one point. Sometimes I couldn’t even make decisions and Lindsay would need to decide for me… [This] has changed my life…”
My thoughts can be so convincing. Sometimes my brain sneaks up on me and before I know it I’m convinced that I am a horrible human being who is worthless. And I believe it sometimes! This used to happen to me a lot more. Here’s an example. Last year, my 4-year old swung a PVC pipe toward the couch to show his cool move. But rather than hit the cushion, the pipe made a direct hit to the screen of my iPad. I immediately said his name angrily, picked him up and stuck him in his room for a timeout. I felt so angry at him for the next half hour or so until the feeling started dissipating (don’t worry, I didn’t leave him in there for 30 minutes, it was like 5). But even though it was dissipating toward him, it was growing toward myself. I began thinking, I shouldn’t be so mad at him. It’s just an iPad. A thing! This much anger is unacceptable. I shouldn’t want space from my 4-year old son. He doesn’t know any better. I must not be a good father. Actually, I think there’s just something wrong with me in general. I was feeling anger toward myself with a hefty dose of shame. I can go from a little emotion to I’m such a terrible, no good person with the best of them. My brain is really practiced at these thoughts. And they are so painful! Sometimes these thoughts seem like truth. But the truth is: I am not my thoughts or my feelings. Really let that sink in. When I first heard that it blew my mind. That idea had never even occurred to me. This goes along with one of the most effective practices that has helped me rewire my brain and manage my thoughts and feelings. This has helped me feel better and accomplish more. That practice is mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is allowing your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations to happen while observing them curiously, and without judgment. Here is an analogy that I love that I learned from a meditation app called Headspace. Our thoughts, emotions, and sensations are like clouds in the sky. Sometimes the clouds are small, white, and harmless. Sometimes they’re beautiful and exciting. And sometimes they are grey, black, ugly, and block out the whole sky. They can seem threatening. But what if you could sit on the ground, focus on your breath, and just observe them as something that is not you and does not define you. You would never try to stop a cloud from coming because it just comes anyway (like with painful emotion). Likewise, you would never try to hold on to a cloud and keep it from drifting away (like with positive emotion). What if you recognized that the clouds are not going to harm you. Ultimately you would know that they are just clouds. And they will come and they will go. But here’s the beautiful part. You know when you are looking out the window of an airplane and you see the clouds while flying above them? The sun is always still shining and the blue sky is still always blue even when the clouds are blocking our vision of it from the ground. Realizing this, while seeing the clouds for what they are, and not fighting but allowing the process is mindfulness.
When we experience a painful thought, emotion, or sensation, a very natural response is to avoid it. Because it hurts! Or we might resist it. That’s what I was doing with the iPad. I was fighting against it. I was telling myself I shouldn’t feel this way and I’m going to force a different feeling. But that’s not quite how the brain works. We also might distract ourselves from it. This could look like binge-watching on Netflix, over-eating, over-working, over-anythinging really. The other thing we might do is react to the painful thought/emotion/sensation. This could also be called acting out. Do you ever do something you don’t want to do? This is a compulsion. This is addiction. Whether we are mindful about what’s going on in our brain or not, the painful thought/emotion/sensation is affecting us. You can allow it to affect you consciously and respond in a way you want to, or it will affect you subconsciously and you might feel out of control. It’s okay if you do these things. Don’t go and beat yourself up about it. This is so natural.
Practicing mindfulness has changed my life. A year or two ago my anxiety would sometimes be so overwhelming to me that I could not leave the house. Or I wouldn’t be able to attend a social gathering. I had to stop going to church for a few months at one point. Sometimes I couldn’t even make decisions and Lindsay would need to decide for me. I was 40 lbs overweight last year. Now I’m on track to lose all 40 of those lbs by the end of next month, within 1 year. I am a functioning stay-at-home dad (this alone is huge for me). I am living in France, going to church with people that don’t speak my language, and starting a new career. Mindfulness has been a huge part of all of these changes for me.
Exercise: Between now and part 2 of this 3-part Mindfulness Series, I invite you to just notice if you are avoiding, resisting, distracting, or reacting to a negative thought, emotion, or body sensation. Then try to identify the thought/emotion/sensation and just sit with it for a moment with as much curiosity and self-compassion that you can muster.
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