Creating a happier and more intentional life doesn't mean that we'll never again feel upset, overwhelmed, or anxious. It doesn’t mean that we'll never again wake at 4 a.m. with terrible thoughts swirling around our heads.
What we can have though – with a few new practices – are less of these moments, for shorter amounts of time.
I first learned the following practices from the book, The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, by Dr. Russ Harris.
This book had originally been recommended to me by another coach, so I could offer its techniques to my clients. However, as I read, it hit home for me personally.
At the time, I’d just moved from the U.S. to Spain. I was attempting to start a business in a foreign country; adjusting to a new culture, language and lifestyle; and about to get married! I had underestimated how tough it would be to handle so many changes at once. I was feeling upset for days at a time.
When I read The Happiness Trap, I realized that it wasn’t necessarily my actual situation that was making me miserable – but rather my thoughts about it. My fixation on a few fearful thoughts were the real source of stress. Such as:
“I can’t do this.”
“This is too hard.”
On some level, it wasn’t groundbreaking for me to recognize that my thoughts were making me unhappy. We’ve all been told at some point or another to “look on the bright side” or “adjust our attitude” about a situation.
I, probably like many of you, had attempted “positive thinking,” only to find that my positive thoughts never stood up long to my more convincing negative thoughts.
What I really appreciate about the techniques in The Happiness Trap is that they aren’t about trying to drown out negative thoughts with positive ones. Instead they help you learn how to be more selective about what thoughts you give importance.
The radio broadcast of the mind
Before we get to these helpful practices, I have to break some bad news.
You’re never going to be rid of all your negative thoughts. Sorry, but you and this busy mind are going to be together your whole life.
I know this stinks. Because that means that the nasty thought –
“My nose is too big” … Might still come to mind when looking in the mirror.
“I sound dumb” … Might still surface when public speaking.
“I can’t do anything right” … Might still pop up after making the slightest mistake.
No matter how “enlightened” we become.
The mind will always produce thoughts, positive or negative, absurd or accurate. As The Happiness Trap points out, the mind is like a radio that plays in the background of our lives – and unfortunately we don’t have the ability to turn it off.
But you know how you can have a radio on and sometimes you really notice it and other times you completely tune it out because you’re focused on something else? We have that same ability with the random broadcast of our mind.
Getting started: Become aware of your thoughts
Recall a recent time that you were upset, whether it was for an hour, an afternoon, or even a set of days. What thoughts were bothering you? What story were you telling yourself?
Here’s an example of a very common story:
I’m getting ready for work in the morning. I’ve tried on three outfits and am beginning to run late. Ugh! I can’t find anything to wear! I think. Nothing fits right today. I’m too fat! If only I had stuck to my diet last week, I wouldn’t have this problem. But I don’t have any self-discipline. I can’t get anything right.
When I finally leave for work that day, I feel terrible. And it’s not even so much about what I’m wearing anymore, but about the idea that I can’t seem to get anything right in life.
(Any of this sound familiar? The mind is a crazy place, isn’t it?)
Take a couple of minutes to reflect on your own thought pattern the last time you were upset. Grab a piece of paper and jot down some of the thoughts you had, and where they led you.
Then, from the techniques below, select at least one that you will try the next time this chain of thoughts starts up again.
Technique #1: Put some distance between you and your thoughts
This technique builds on the idea that your mind will generate these thoughts whether you want them or not, and that you can choose whether you allow them hook you or not. When we get "hooked" on a thought, we feed it with our attention so it grows. We also might believe that it defines us.
Use this technique to begin breaking your pattern of getting hooked on a thought. Take a step back instead to become an observer of the thought.
When you find yourself thinking a thought such as: “I’m not good enough.”
Notice that you’re having the thought by then thinking: “I am having the thought that ‘I’m not good enough.’”
See how this puts a tiny bit of distance between the thought and you? No longer are you presuming the thought is true of you; you’re simply a person thinking this thought.
Personally, after I use the phrase “I’m having the thought that…”, I like to follow it up with an image that I learned in meditation, which is to imagine my thought as a cloud drifting across the sky. I can allow it to shift or drift away, as clouds do.
Using this re-phrasing might feel a bit awkward at first, but soon you’ll start to feel a greater separation between you and your thoughts. They’ll begin to define you less, and you’ll feel more in control.
Technique #2: Defuse your thoughts through humor
This is one my favorite practices from The Happiness Trap.
It works with whatever thought you often have that declares, “I am X.” Such as “I’m a failure” or “I’m unlovable.”
Bring to mind one of these typical thoughts for you. Complete this sentence: “I’m ….”
Hold it in your mind. What do you feel?
Now, hold this second thought in your mind: “I’m a banana!”
How did the latter thought affect you? Some of my clients love this technique, bursting out laughing every time.
The underlying message here is: We can have all kinds of thoughts. Thoughts are just words. It’s completely up to you if you want to believe you’re a failure, or a banana.
Technique #3: Ask, “Is this helpful?”
We often assume our thoughts are true. Many times, after having a thought, we are quick to collect evidence to back it up.
This technique challenges you to stop evaluating a thought according to whether it is true, and instead ask: “Is this a helpful thought?”
Remember, the whole point is that you can choose what you want to do with your thoughts. And if you want a happy, fulfilled life, it makes sense to pay more attention to helpful thoughts that prompt you to improve your life rather than unhelpful thoughts that simply make you feel bad.
Let's say that at work I have the thought: I’m terrible with technology. I could spend my time reflecting on all the ways that this is true – how long it took me to scan a document on the new copy machine yesterday, how often I have to call the help desk – and generally make myself feel hopeless.
Instead I can ask if this thought is helpful and can prompt me to take an action to improve things. Perhaps I then decide to take a computer class.
Or maybe I decide the thought is not helpful, so I defuse it and let it go from my attention. Sayonara, little cloud.
Which of these techniques sounds the most appealing for you to try this next week? Give it a go! I’ve seen great results from people who begin using even just one of these small tricks; at last they feel release from thought patterns that have created a lot of turmoil for them.
If you want to go deeper, read The Happiness Trap in its entirety or check out the many free resources on Dr. Harris’ website. You’ll find many exercises like these that are aimed at helping you improve your quality of life, starting on the inside.