… you think you should.
I recently had an appointment for an eye test at my opticians and it just so happens the opticians is near to a house I once lived in with my ex-family. I lived in the house with my ex-wife and my ex-children (who are all well and alive adults now and not missing me one little bit as far as I know). It’s roughly 20 years ago since I lived both there and at another house as a married man for 13 years. When I was married everything about me was ‘married man’ and for almost 8 years after I’d left the marriage I still felt like ‘a married man’ despite the fact the woman-I-wanted-to-be-married-to-for-the-rest-of-my-life-and-was-still-in-love-with had taken it away from me deliberately and with great pleasure.
So here I am 20 years later sitting in the optician’s waiting room just down the road from the house in which the most important and dramatic moments of my life so far had played out. As far as I knew none of my ex-family actually lived in the area now but as I closed in on the optician’s office I started to get upset. I had this urge to go walk past the house and take a look and remind myself of what I’d lost to see if I could face it all over again and be OK about it but I was failing. What if I actually saw one of them? How would I cope?
All the feelings relating to my lifelong dream of having a ‘wonderful, Waltons-style family’ and the tortuous agony of watching it crumble – being invested but not being allowed to be involved in my marriage – came flooding back. I’m sat in the optician’s waiting for my eye test knowing the house where the life I started but got finished by someone else is just up the road and I feel pain in my stomach and the urge to lie down and curl up in a ball on the floor. I miss them so much. Miss them miss them miss them. Miss the potential family we could have been. If only there weren’t so many misunderstandings (which there weren’t, to be honest, the only person who didn’t understand what was going on at the time was me).
And then I get this unemotional self-talk message: ‘they don’t give a sh** about you and the only reason you’re having this feeling is because you think you’re supposed to. The only person suffering as a result of your 28 years of struggle is you because you think you should. You think mourning for a lost family is what ‘good’ people do and this is your ‘mourning response’. You think if you don’t mourn it probably means you didn’t care and that means you’re a bad person’.
Thirteen years of marriage followed by 15 years of trying to build a decent relationship outside of the marriage with my children while their mother systematically disconnects me from their lives and then having my children as adults telling me they’re going to be abusive to me and there’s nothing I can do about it if I want the relationships to continue and then five years’ ago I end the whole thing and wish them well … I came here just to get an eye test but instead I get ‘mourning adventures galore’ because at some subconscious level I believe I should keep putting myself through it because it’s what good and caring people do and we all want to be good, caring people don’t we?
And it stopped.
Although I couldn’t directly identify the original ‘should’ thoughts – maybe because I’d created them some 30 years ago and they were buried in my subconscious – I understood the message:
‘Stop – this is your grieving and mourning process and no-one else’s – you should not offer it to these people – they don’t know about it and wouldn’t care even if they did’.
And it feels OK. We feel what we feel because at some point we thought we should – maybe it’s time to think differently now?
A lot of experts say they do. They say if you wanted to you could think thoughts that would help you stop yourself feeling bad no matter what the situation.
They say you can take responsibility for what you think about and in turn control your feelings any time you want so if you feel bad for a long time it’s because it’s all your fault – you just aren’t thinking the right way and it’s your choice not to. Thinking is the thing, they say, while just feeling your feelings is bad. If you let your feelings take over for a while to the point you can’t think much any more it’s a sign of stupidity, basically.
But let me ask you another question. If you’re a parent walking along a street with your child and a car mounts the pavement and hits your child how quickly could you out-think your emotional reactions so you didn’t feel too bad about it? Afterwards, how would you shape your thoughts so you could prevent any flashbacks or nightmares? How quickly could you forgive and forget when the driver turns out to have been drunk and then later the drunk gets probation while your child gets to be crippled for life? I’m guessing that would require a lot of clever clever thinking to be done or you could turn out to be really really angry and emotional for a long time and a bit stupid for all that time too.
How would you feel if some qualified professional you’ve gone to see for advice told you despite the reality of what had happened to your child the real reason you felt so bad was because of your thinking inadequacies – you weren’t taking personal responsibility for managing your thoughts properly? What would you be thinking about doing at the moment they told you that and how would you out-think what you were thinking about doing so you wouldn’t be thinking negatively for too much longer and could make yourself all happy and warm and cosy inside again? Mmmm.
Would your thoughts be driving what you feel or would your feelings be driving what you thought at this point?
What do you think or feel about this and is it the thoughts or the feelings producing your answer?
Can you tell me what it is for you? I have two female friends each recently concerned with being more ‘mindful’.
One of them has invested a lot of money in a mindfulness course but she’s not happy with herself. She doesn’t believe she’s getting it right. The instructor does a ‘body sweep awareness guided meditation’ where everyone lies down, closes their eyes then focuses on different body parts under the guidance of the instructor’s voice. The first body part they focus on is the right thumb. This friend complains to me she always falls asleep half way through so she’s not doing it right and she’s frustrated with herself. ‘Do you have any tips I can use to stay awake, Carl?’. I tell her I do the same thing myself at my yoga class and I’ve never heard the full guided meditation my instructor does either. In fact I’m so conditioned to fall asleep now I doze off as soon as I hear the words ‘right thumb’. I believe if she needs to go to sleep she should go to sleep and accept the fact she goes to sleep.
I tell her if I were in her position I would focus instead on the self criticisms; rather than on her going to sleep. I suggest she just accepts she falls asleep half way through the guided meditation but then criticises herself and focus on why she does that. At the moment my friend doesn’t want to do that and continues to feel frustrated but I think her instructor would be pleased if she did and told him.
My other female friend likes to attend hour-long group meditation sessions in the evening and keeps trying to encourage me to go to the same sessions. I’ve been a couple of times but don’t get home until 11.30 pm and I’m really tired the next day. We have conversations about meditation and she tells me she does meditation with the intention of being happy throughout. She also talks about ‘mindfulness’ and tells me I would be happier and mindful if I did what she did. I explain to her my idea of meditation and mindfulness are different to hers. My friend sits down to meditate with the intention of being happy whereas I meditate with a view to allowing whatever comes up from my emotions to come up. I work with negative and positive emotional energies alike; simply watching them go by with minimum criticism or intention. Whenever I try to impose an intention on them it gets in the way of the processing. If I had a bad day I had a bad day and if I had a good day then I did.
Trusting the Natural Process of Pure Observation
I’m going to let you in on a little secret everyone knows but can’t quite believe. Our brains are designed to restructure themselves automatically; purely through observation alone. You know that old saying ‘we only use 10% of our brain?’. It’s not true. The truth is only 10% of our brain is made up of fixed neuronal pathways – the other 90% consists of clusters of ‘glial’ or ‘glue’ cells – which are all constantly on the move. These clusters of glial cells use the neuronal networks like fixed telephone lines to communicate with each other. When current neurones aren’t needed any more or new ones need growing it’s the glial cells that re-route them.
The only thing you need do to cause this restructuring is take your conscious point of focus to the place you decide needs to be observed. The greatest stimulus for generating change in your brain’s structure is pain. So if you’re thinking automatically in a certain judgemental way about something and this causes you emotional pain taking your conscious point of focus into the emotional pain itself and staying there will force your glial cells to restructure your thought networks eventually making your self-critical-pain-causing-thought-habits go away. The part of your brain which makes the decision to take your conscious point of focus ‘in’ to an area of life for closer observation is what I call ‘the Silent Observer’.
This takes a degree of courage because whenever you do this your automatic unconscious thoughts will come up into conscious awareness and warn you ‘you may not survive this’. In a way it’s true – the old ways of thinking and behaving will not survive. But you won’t know whether this is a good or bad thing until you take yourself in ‘there’ and observe it for long enough.
When we talk about ‘mindfulness’ what we’re talking about is paying attention to how a thing actually is, including ourselves, in the natural world rather than how we wish it was or currently think it is. Criticising ourselves for ‘not being mindful enough’ misses the entire point of mindfulness. If you are criticising yourself pay attention to that. Whatever arises pay attention to it. There is no right or wrong. The practice of mindfulness involves becoming non-subjective: being objective. Sitting on the outside, looking in.
Developing the Silent Observer
I got rid of 27 obsessions; 14 phobias; panic attacks and depression simply by developing the willingness to go inside and observe closely and for long enough. This forced my brain to restructure itself. This approach to working on myself has now become an automatic habit – and I continue to get happier and happier as the years go by because I work on accepting how I really work rather than how I wish I did. Early on in my self-work I noticed I was becoming more aware of a part of myself I called ‘the Silent Observer’. It did not speak; it did not feel; it did not produce much at all – but it directed my next steps. It observed. It told me where I should go both internally and externally to ‘observe’ as an action in its own right.
I learned later the Silent Observer is officially called the ‘Prefrontal Cortex’. I’ve written plenty elsewhere on the blog about what the PFC does so I’m not going to go into that too much here. The Prefrontal Cortex decides on ‘direction’ in an Objective Mind (unemotional) way. What it does then, however, is it instructs your emotional brain and body parts to produce emotions whenever you appear to be going off path. In this it acts as a ruthless master controller. Unfortunately what it doesn’t control is what other people do; so when other people are blocking the path your PFC has decided on your emotional brain and body parts start sending out pain signals telling you that you are going off path with the message you must change yourself or do something in the external world about it. Often when the signals coming back tell the PFC the path is still blocked no matter what you do it doesn’t accept what the signals are telling it and starts blocking them. This is when we have started to deny what reality is and we get stuck emotionally and in the outside world.
Our Prefrontal Cortex is a ‘sensory gateway controller’. It opens and closes sensory information routes in our body and brain. If it makes the mistake of refusing to allow signals about reality come on through for its attention, which it does by labelling them ‘unacceptable’ or ‘abnormal’; it sets you up for a lot of long-term pain. You become incongruent – who you really are internally and who you are trying to project yourself as externally become misaligned. So when you sit down to meditate you force yourself to think happy thoughts and when you lay down for a guided meditation you punish yourself for not meeting your unrealistic expectations. Observing yourself doing this is enough to start the ball rolling in terms of genuine mindfulness.
As you practice studying yourself in this way you become gradually more aware simply ‘looking’ is enough to cause deep, long-term changes for the better in your life. You may not at times like or enjoy what you see and experience – it can come as a shock – but that is the whole point. That is genuine mindfulness.
What Does Mindfulness Training Actually Do?
It teaches you to accept who you are and how you operate as a genuine individual human being.
But don’t let me tell you what it is and allow me to sit here all smug in my ‘knowledge’? You tell me what it means to you by leaving a comment!
It’s natural when going into a room full of people – especially if they’re mostly strangers and even more so if you’re going to be speaking to them – to feel a little apprehensive. By ‘apprehensive’ I also mean anxious. Fearful. Sometimes downright terrified. I work with a lot of teachers who would tell you they often feel the same way.
It’s not a pleasant sensation. But you can offset those temporary feelings by reframing them in your thoughts as ‘exciting’. Instead of saying ‘I am afraid’ replace that with ‘I am excited’.
The message ‘I may not be able to cope’ enters your thoughts – reframe that with ‘I wonder what I’ll learn’ or ‘I wonder who I’ll meet?’ or ‘How many people will I make feel good today’ or some other positive message.
In terms of the overall reaction itself reframe that with ‘this is the price for learning; for progress; for growth – and everyone pays it at some point’.
Instead of saying ‘what’s wrong with me/I’m so weak/I wish I didn’t have this reaction’ reframe that with ‘this reaction is designed to protect me in case of dangerous circumstances – I’ll just watch how it works’.
Keep an eye out for ‘catastrophisation’ – ‘making mountains out of molehills’ thinking; this is the thinking where your imagination creates scenarios of ‘terrible things that could happen’ and it causes your body to react as if they are happening but after they haven’t happened you feel a bit silly. Be aware if something negative were to happen you can always use social systems designed to deal with it or you can simply take better control of which groups you go into. Expect to go into lots of groups and not enjoy some of them – but the anxiety of going into a group is a different thing to what happens when you’re actually in a group, isn’t it? Anticipatory fear like this is a just in case response.
Don’t criticise it – just observe it. Observe it with criticism and you’ll maybe block the response from releasing (which can lead to emotional disorders). A lot of the agoraphobics I come into contact with have developed the reaction because they couldn’t accept this natural process and have started to fight it automatically. Observe it in the same way a naturalist observes gorillas in the wild and you’ll just be accepting it as a natural reaction and eventually the whole thing dies down from an intense reaction to a tiny little twitch of ‘excitement’.
There are some groups you don’t want to go into; you’re not suited to them and they’re not suited to you. That’s why we all have this reaction. But you won’t know whether you’re mutually suited unless you’re going into them. It’s important not to make the mistake of saying ‘it’s just silly me again’ and forcing yourself into groups you’re not suited to in order only to overcome emotional discomfort. If you find yourself definitely being treated badly in any group I suggest you leave it at your earliest opportunity.
But don’t let the protective mechanism designed to protect you from unsuitable groups stop you going into those you do want and need to go into by criticising the mechanism itself.
One of them was a long-term background problem which had been going for several years coming to a head, and which threatened possible financial disaster for me, while the two others were unpleasant one-off interactions with two stupid egotistical men in separate locations. The end result was I felt in a really angry mood. If you’ve read the rest of my blog you’ll know I’m always giving out the advice on how to overcome emotional problems (which are actually nothing more than trapped moods we’ve identified with and made permanent) but that doesn’t mean I escape being human. I get into moody states too.
Drop a Happiness Seed in Your Head
‘I am not happy now but I will be eventually’. Create a picture of yourself having felt your bad mood out and returned to a calm, happy state. Then return to feeling your current actual mood. It’s important not to try and escape the symptoms of a mood because the mood then remains for much longer – sometimes even becoming ‘permanent’. Acknowledge you have to endure and work with the mood until it has been fully released but know you will eventually return to a much happier state.
Fester on the Cause of Your Bad Mood
In a ‘safe place’ – by this I mean in a closed off room where no social damage can actually be caused or with the help of supportive others, positively fester on the issues concerned and think about exactly what it is you’re upset about. Agree with your reactions. Do not attempt to ‘moralise’ your feelings away – emotions are neither good nor bad, they are natural temporary states. It’s what you do with the energy produced, rather than the fact you produced the energy itself which decides the question of their morality. By ensuring you do the work in your own space and time it completely removes the question of emotional morality.
At different points along the journey repeatedly introduce the idea of ‘eventually happy me’, repeating the idea your mood is temporary and without attempting to impose happiness immediately.
Express Your Mood with Various Mock Purposes
A mood produces a lot of energy and the energy needs funnelling and directing. Write an ‘unsent letter’; draw pictures; create imagined scenarios. In imagination only take excessive revenge and go through the physical actions; do anything which allows the energy to come up and be released. Feel the full power of your mood knowing at some point you will release it while extracting some useful information from the experience – even if it is only the knowledge you are able to funnel and direct the energy of your own moods without causing unnecessary harm in the outside world.
Normalise the Journey
Create a mental picture of yourself as you travel through the mood, releasing the energy and returning to a happier self (I create the image of an ‘energy hill’ in my head knowing once I’ve released the energy at the hill’s peak the mood will soon pass through me). Acknowledge this is how almost all people behave when in a mood. Also acknowledge if they try to pretend they’re not in a mood and refuse to release the energy they remain stuck in a suppressed state – holding the mood in, and criticising themselves.
Equally, acknowledge people often get the energy release mechanism wrong in that they project their mood energy onto others and this can cause social damage. You’re not going to be one of those people. Emotional maturity does not come about as a result of never having a mood – it comes about by realising the responsibility for managing your moods is ultimately your responsibility. That does not mean, however, nothing needs to change in the external world. That’s going to be the next thing to do – but before we get to that …
DO NOT SELF-CRITICISE.
Reverse any and all self-criticism as you do this work in private. If you made a mistake say ‘I learned from that mistake and it’s a normal part of the training’ and move on. The ‘should-not thoughts’ are all unrealistic. Your emotional core is probably more of you than the rest of you is; it is your caring core. It reacts and you have to work with whatever it does. Criticising it does not make it go away and if you try to make it go away it will fight back. Emotional disorders are moods fighting moods with more moods. Trapped energies fighting trapped energies. Releasing the initial response safely using this, or any other effective method you use, ensures you don’t get stuck in the emotional disorder trap. Self-criticism is evidence you are automatically trying to block a natural process. Learn not to do this. And don’t feel bad when you do do this because that’s what I’m talking about! Feeling bad is a natural thing – don’t feel bad because you felt bad – move on.
Drop another ‘happy seed’ in there while you’re at it. If the mood’s still present continue to be with it knowing it will go of its own accord. Now about that needed ‘change in the external world’ stuff.
Channel the Energy into Producing Positive Outputs and Outcomes
An output is a thing while an outcome is the overall affect of the thing.
You do not have total control over how the positive output and outcome are received by others – you only control your intentions. There are quite a few situations I’ve been in where no matter how I responded the feedback would never be exactly what I’d hoped for and it was just a matter of making the best of a bad situation handed me by life. Become firm on your intention to produce a positive outputs and outcomes habitually and then accept you have limited control of how the things you produce are received. Just think ‘whenever something bad happens to me and I produce the energy to deal with it I do my best to ensure I produce a constructive output or outcome using that energy’. That’s enough – then make sure that’s what you do. Here are some examples:
- A group of young men passing make threatening remarks and it frightens you – you walk by without saying a word in reply in order not to make the situation worse but you’re still left with the fight/flight reaction to deal with. You take your reaction to the gym. As you work out in the gym you imagine yourself hitting those young men in self-defence. You get a really good work out. After finishing the workout you picture the group of young men and mentally thank them for enabling you to get a really good workout. Their intention was to upset you but you transformed their intention into something else; remind yourself you are a person who takes negative energy and converts it to positive outcomes. If you see the same group of young men and they repeat the behaviour, however, you phone the police and let them deal with it – the young men concerned are a social problem; not your problem. Having used this approach multiple times successfully you find yourself mentally thanking those groups of aggressive young men even before you get to the gym
- You remember the ‘unsent letter’ technique I mentioned above? This involves writing everything you think and feel down in a letter you may or may not send later. Once you are calmer read through everything written and extract those points you think can be sent to the right people with a view to resolving the initial triggering problem. Don’t be accusative if you can avoid it – get formal; almost helpful. Learn how to persuade people rather than punish them. Avoid being too demanding. Show some empathy for them – but don’t be too forgiving either, eh? Sometimes they really are as evil as you think they are. Start nice and if nice works then stay nice but if it doesn’t move on to necessary
- Intend to share your experience with others with a view to benefiting them – this is my most important mood normalisation and release technique – to use my experiences to support others in ‘what it is to be human’. We often feel alienated and isolated when stuck in a mood and society is full of folks who feel bullied, picked on and disempowered. Break the spell by sharing your inner world with others. You can start by leaving a comment below! Or you can write me using the feedback tab on the left and tell me what techniques you personally use to escape a bad mood.
May your today be full of flowering happiness seeds!