The other day, one of my sisters texted me about scheduling our annual “sisters’ Zoom” for the day after Christmas. I’d offered to host, because I have a paid Zoom account. She sent me the time that worked for all of us, and I acknowledged the text. Less than an hour later, she texted the time again and said added, “If you’d be willing to set it up.”
At first, I felt hurt and angry. Did she not trust me? Did she want me to send the Zoom invites right-this-very-minute? How little did she think of me?! As the day went on and I continued to believe these thoughts, I felt defensive. A few hours later, it hit me: Maybe she didn’t realize she’d sent two nearly identical texts. I mean, I’ve done that on occasion. I checked with her, and yep, that was the case. I’d been making myself miserable over a story in my mind. As soon as I recognized that, I laughed and the tension was gone.
After 12 years of practice, I’m generally pretty skilled in not believing my thoughts, but I’m not immune to making up stories that cause me pain. It takes constant practice, though. (Especially when it comes to family, because we have the longest histories with them.)
Most of our default thoughts and responses come from childhood and cultural conditioning. The practice of learning to observe those conditioned thoughts offers multiple benefits, including:
You’ll have increased self-compassion
Nearly all of us talk to ourselves all the time, though most of us do it silently. That inner monologue is so constant that we don’t even notice it. And often, the comments we make to ourselves are much harsher than anything we’d ever dare say to anyone else.
For most of my life, I thought constantly, but I never questioned whether my self-talk was true. Instead I believed the old refrains, “I’m an idiot,” “I’m ugly,” or “I drive people away.”
By noticing and questioning our automatic thoughts, we can find greater compassion for ourselves. If we have an awkward social exchange, for example, we might think, “Ugh, I’m a goof.” Then we start berating ourselves about each aspect of the exchange. If we’re not aware of our thought, we might continue to criticize ourselves. Once we become aware of that thought, though, we can become curious where it came from, and we can choose whether continuing to believe that thought is in our best interest.
In other words, if you’re beating yourself up with a verbal club, ask yourself who handed you that club.
Today, sometimes these old self-attack tapes still play, but I’m able to see them as just old tapes that I’ve been conditioned to think (most of the time). These come up without any emotional charge, and I’m able to dismiss them.
You’ll feel less anxiety
Pretty much all the anxiety I’ve experienced in my life—and I’ve had nearly every anxiety-related label in the DSM—has come from believing my thoughts about myself, about other people, about a situation, or about the future.
Once I learned to notice and question my thoughts, a significant amount of anxiety subsided. Much of my anxiety came from subconscious thoughts, and it took a considerable amount of meditation and quiet in order to see them. Then I questioned each thought: Where did I learn to have this belief? Is this true? Is it something I want to keep believing?
When we can question our thoughts about an uncomfortable interaction or awkward situation, we feel less anxiety and become more resilient. Even if the situation is unpleasant, we don’t need to make ourselves more miserable with thoughts that the situation is wrong, or that we are bad. If we can feel our feelings without resistance, emotions pass through us quickly. If we cling to our negative thoughts about a situation, those thoughts keep the emotion stuck in our bodies. The thoughts also reinforce painful neural pathways in our brain, which can lead to more anxiety or depression.
Important caveat: Sometimes intense anxiety or panic is the result of emotionally flashing back to traumatic events or times (possibly even a time before you could speak). If you’ve experienced trauma, particularly ongoing/complex trauma, you may want to build this skill while working with a trauma-informed therapist.
Your relationships will be better
Often, uncomfortable emotion arises when we’re believing an uncomfortable thought about a person or situation. We may believe we know what the person is thinking, why they did what they did, or (for example) that we’ll embarrass ourselves at a presentation. We don’t know those things for sure. They’re assumptions, and as the old saying goes, “When I assume, I make an ASS out of U and ME.”
These thoughts make us feel miserable. We may rant and rave at someone in our minds, but the only person we’re hurting is ourselves. The best remedy for this, in my experience, is practicing what I call “fierce presence.” That, and becoming curious.
Instead of jumping to conclusions, we can ask questions to determine why the other person acted as they did. We can focus on our needs, and whether someone’s action met our needs. Or we can use the framework popularized by Buddhist teachers, “The story I’m telling myself is…”
You’ll contribute to a more equitable world
If we truly want to create a world in which all beings are valued and included, we have to learn to notice and question our conditioned thoughts. In order to truly change the systems of oppression that are in place, we need to be willing to look at the ways in which we were programmed to have certain thoughts, beliefs and opinions. We need to be able to see and question each conditioned thought, and then release those that no longer serve us or our vision for the world.
How can we possibly take responsibility for reversing our role in systemic problems—our conditioning—if we can’t notice and question how we were conditioned in the first place?
I once saw an Indigenous seer, back when I was looking to everyone but myself for guidance. The first thing he told me was, “You have to drop that ‘silly white girl’ crap.” Somehow I knew exactly what he meant: Stop performing.
Middle-class and wealthier white women are conditioned to perform emotions rather than experience or express them directly. That’s the ‘silly white girl crap.’ In systems of classism and racism, expressing emotions is considered déclassé, or literally “lowered class.” Who
If you’re a white woman and don’t believe you’ve been conditioned into certain ways of expressing yourself, just watch this clip.
Observing thoughts helps us to heal
I was embarrassed when I realized I’d misinterpreted my sister’s text, though we were both able to laugh about it. This is a lifelong practice. Short of living a completely isolated life, old patterns will continue to come up. Thoughts will arise. It’s up to us to interrupt those patterns, for the benefit of the world as well as ourselves.
Today, I’m able to see that I was conditioned into beliefs that weren’t true. Most of the time (not all), I can make a choice whether to continue acting in a conditioned way or whether to make a more skillful choice. It’s not possible to make that choice, though, until we’re able to observe and question our thoughts.
This isn’t to say that thinking isn’t important. It’s a great tool, like a hammer, for specific tasks. But our conditioning, and our thoughts, are not who we are.
Can you think of a time you believed a thought that turned out not to be true? If you’re willing, please share them in the comments.
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Why, yes! This morning I had a lot of anger. I woke up thinking about the struggles I’ve been going through these past few years and it seems like nothing I do can change my circumstances. I could feel the anger seething in my heart and my throat.
When I sat down to meditate an image came up from my childhood about money and my parents (I’ve been money conscious a lot these past few years). I sat with that image, thanked the anger for being there for me during that time, surrendered to the anger and then released it, letting it know that I don’t need it like I used to.
Honoring hard emotions has been transformative for me. I don’t try to push the emotions away now. I observe, honor and release. Because at some point in my life my anger felt righteous so it was there to help me then. Often times lately when I do thank it, there are some tears that come.
As you say, it’s a practice but I’m finding that the more I do this, I feel different. I’m lighter, optimistic and present.
A very, well, thoughtful piece, Sarah. Part of loving yourself — and loving yourself is, for me at least, Step Number One in any kind of effort at mental health — is to treat yourself as you would a loved one. Be curious about them and ask questions. Seek clarification if they say something that bothers you. Seek out the truth, as well as we imperfect humans are able to discern it. I’ve been dating lately, and that’s online as is the common way these days, and I see examples on both sides (she and me) of thoughts that on further examination turn out to be inaccurate. One woman took my offer, during our discussion of language, to get her a good dictionary (which she said she was missing) as a “transactional” ploy to get something (sex) in return. With another date, I read her description of her work day followed by our date (“I’ve got a busy and exciting day ahead of me”) as the excitement applying to the work as well.
Both of these were false. I’m an analytical person so I tend to mull written and spoken things over. But sometimes a bit too much.
In addition to loving yourself, it’s important to realize that if this date doesn’t work out and there is no relationship ensuing, then you are still left with … _loving yourself_, which is a great gift and power to have.