We all have conversations going on constantly in our heads. For some of us they are subtle, passive, and help us feel protected and safe. For others, they are much more aggressive and destructive.
Sometimes we are aware of these conversations and our reactions to them. More often though, we are oblivious to their destructive messages, and how they impact our beliefs, sense of self, motivation, and happiness.
Notice that you have internal conversations
One of the best ways to become savvy to the negative inner voices in your head is to practice mindfulness. To be mindful means to be aware of your thoughts, feelings and actions in the present moment.
The problem with not being mindful of our thoughts is that we treat our thoughts as if they are facts. We simply accept whatever comes into our mind as truth without giving it a second thought.
But a thought is not a fact. A thought is just a thought. And when thoughts are destructive or self-defeating (which they often are), they have very real and negative ramifications.
You may have the thought “I am no good at this,” or “I’m fat,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or “Nobody understands me.” Does thinking such things make them so? Once or twice, probably not.
But if we think the same thought enough times, our mind will accept it as truth, for better or worse. As that happens, the conversation we make up entirely in our heads begins to limit what we attempt to do and are likely to achieve.
Observe what your thoughts are saying
When you start to pay attention to your thoughts through mindfulness, with gentle curiosity and no judgment, you can observe your thinking more objectively. Notice your thoughts, assess them for truth, then either accept or reframe them more positively.
This is a powerful tool. Imagine catching even a fraction of your negative thoughts, assessing whether they are true (which most aren’t), and reframing them in a more positive and truthful way.
To further improve your mindfulness, try this activity. Start by being mindful of your breath. Focus specifically on your breath – slowly in and out. Perhaps even speak the words in your mind. “I breathe in deeply, and then exhale slowly.”
As you continue to breathe, allow yourself to notice any thoughts that come into your head. Pay attention to these thoughts without judgment. Thoughts are just thoughts – whatever is going on in your mind at this particular moment.
They may sound like this: “This is different – O.K. I’m going to do this. Hey, there’s a fly. Breathing in, exhaling out. Ouch, my back hurts. I should just get back to work. There’s me thinking about work again. Give yourself a break for a minute.”
Then it may go to something like: “I’m sitting here thinking of my thoughts… O.K. It’s a beautiful day. My stomach is hungry. Hmmm, I’m not sure I’m doing this mindfulness thing very well. I really ought to stop wasting my time and get back to writing that memo.”
Choose what to do with your thoughts
These are all valid, normal thoughts. And often they are all over the place like the examples you just read. Allow yourself time to observe your thoughts. Don’t rush, don’t judge and don’t stop. Look for curiosity, interest and even humor in your thoughts.
You can also imagine your thoughts floating by like clouds in the sky, or leaves in a stream. Notice each passing thought and then the one that comes after it, and the one that comes after that. You may notice that just at the moment you become aware of a thought, it passes and is replaced by another thought.
That’s what happens – thoughts come and they go. And none of these thoughts require that you accept them or even act on them. Hence the idea of choosing how to react to them.
To end this exercise, bring yourself back to the awareness of your breath for a minute. Try doing this for 5 to 10 minutes once or twice a day and see what becomes more clear to you. You may be surprised how certain problems just seem to go away all by themselves.
The value in this exercise is, first, to realize how little attention we pay to our thoughts, yet how extremely powerful they are. Second, learning to notice our thoughts can lead us to better use them to achieve what we truly want to achieve.
An idea for further reading
If you want to read about how one successful entrepreneur in our industry used this technique to create a market-leading software company, read the book, “The Surrender Experiment” by Michael A. Singer. If you read it, please let me know how you like it.