"Dr. Laura....When I stop and take a breath, I am amazed at the amount of negative thoughts in my head—typically criticizing my ability as a mom, or a wife, or an employee, or a daughter or a friend. It’s so hard to feel like I’m doing anything well at all. How do we get out of the negative thought patterns?" -- Amy
We all feel at times like we aren't good enough. Sometimes it's because we're in an impossible situation where there simply isn't enough of us to go around. (Anybody out there the parent of multiples, or very closely spaced children, or really, any two children?)
But often -- regardless of the objective situation -- we get stuck in negative thought habits. We beat ourselves down, which makes a bad situation worse. If we could only support ourselves to feel like we were more than enough, we might be able to make peace with our situation. That's the first step toward making it better.
The bad news is, the mind's negativity bias is constantly “on.” The mind's job is to spot potential problems and set off alarms, so it's constantly scanning for threat, including our own imperfections. The mission of the mind is survival, so it’s motivated mostly by fear. Happiness is barely in its job description.
Worse yet, the mind's tendency toward negativity is often reinforced by the messages we received in childhood. As Peggy O'Mara famously said, our parents' tone of voice with us becomes our inner voice.
But even if we're raised with a generally positive self view, the mind has a tendency toward worry that wears us down. Brain research shows that our minds are constantly looping through thought patterns that get etched into our neural pathways with frequent use. This often shows up as “My child is doing X… I must be a terrible parent ....and a worthless human being...This is an emergency...I have to MAKE my child act differently!” Sound familiar? Some people call that the monkey brain, or the lizard brain. I call it the inner critic.
The good news is, you can disarm your inner critic. You can even transform it into an inspired inner parent, which is something we all need. It isn't your mind that's the problem, it's those bad habits the mind gets into. So as we head into spring here in North America, I'll be devoting some of these posts to mindfulness practices that together add up to a Blueprint to Transform Your Inner Critic.
These aren't my ideas -- they're time-honored mindfulness strategies designed to address this most fundamental challenge all humans face. But research shows that practicing any or all of these techniques over time will rewire your brain, increasing the neural connections that help you regulate your emotions better, and making you less reactive, so you can be a more patient, peaceful parent. I think you'll find life inside your head happier, too.
You might think of this as “ Spring-cleaning for your psyche” (a gift to yourself at any time of year, if you live in a part of the world where it isn't spring at the moment!)
Strategies to disarm your inner critic tend to fall into three categories:
- Bring awareness to the activity of your mind.
- Change what your mind thinks and says.
- Give your mind a vacation.
We'll be exploring multiple strategies and giving you tools in each of these areas.
For today, let's begin by simply observing your inner world.
1. Become aware of your thoughts. Stop. Take a breath. Just sit for a few minutes, with your attention turned inward and notice the thoughts that arise. Don't try to change anything. Just observe.
2. Notice how your thoughts trigger small waves of emotion. You might think about the newly blooming flowers outside and feel a glow. Then you might suddenly remember something you forgot to take care of, and you feel a bit anxious.... That can easily cascade.... "One more thing to add to the list... All this work, taking care of everyone else".... Maybe you realize you feel tired, unappreciated... a bit hurt and resentful.... You might think "It's time to get the kids to start helping more"... But you can just imagine the fight that will result... Are your kids growing up lazy and undisciplined?.... You must be doing something wrong.... Fear clenches in your belly... Maybe a muffin would make you feel better?
Isn't it amazing how quickly negative thoughts can spiral into more negativity? Each negative thought triggers upsetting emotions, which lead to more negative thoughts and anxiety. (And then there are the coping mechanisms we all use to manage that anxiety, like eating or pulling out our phones.)
3. Now, take a step back. Consider that maybe you don't have to believe your thoughts. Really. Your thoughts are not gospel. Many of your thoughts are not even true, they're just fears, or habitual reactions, or conclusions you came up with long ago based on limited evidence. (For instance, Who says you're not good enough? Let's let that one go right now!)
Once we become aware of our thoughts, we can stop automatically believing them, which means we stop acting on them. It's like sunshine melting away the fog.
For today, just take as many opportunities as you can to Stop, Drop what you're doing, and Breathe for a minute or two. Notice the chatter in your mind.
If the thoughts are negative, challenge them.
- Ask yourself: "Is that absolutely, definitely true?" (Hint: If it's about the future, it cannot be absolutely true.)
- Ask yourself: "Is there another way to see this situation that is also true and that empowers me to act more positively, or helps me see things from the other person's perspective so we can find a win/win solution?" (Hint: There always is.)
Notice how this gives you a choice about how to feel and respond, instead of getting swept away by the emotions the thoughts trigger. Notice how your anxiety decreases.
You're choosy about who you spend time with, and what you put into your body. Why not choose to simply refuse admittance to any thoughts you don't want darkening your doorstep?
There. Isn't that liberating?
In the next few weeks, we'll be interspersing more Spring Cleaning for Your Psyche with our regular posts about kids and parenting. Watch for the other posts in this series: