You stand on the scale and you’ve gained 5 pounds. You think, “Fatso, why did you have that extra chocolate chip cookie?” You avoid setting up the meeting with your boss because you are sure your idea will be shot down. “She doesn’t think I’m smart. She’ll never like my ideas.” You gossip about your co-worker because you know they will never get the promotion they want. “He’s an idiot. There’s no way he’ll get it.” All these thoughts are wearing a super highway of negativity in your brain. The good news is you can change that.
Your brain is malleable and can be changed–and it doesn’t even involve surgery. The key to disempowering your negative or unwholesome thoughts is to change your pattern of thinking. It takes practice. But when you start creating wholesome thoughts, they beget more wholesome thoughts. Soon, you are a wholesome thought-machine. As Professor Mark Muesse taught in the Great Courses: Practicing Mindfulness, “Unwholesome thoughts break down into three areas: selfish desire (I want my neighbor’s car), hatred (I hate that person because they are different from me) and deluded thoughts (I think I’m the greatest or completely unworthy).”
Here are Professor Muesse’s four “R’s” of disempowering thoughts:
- Simply replace the negative or unwholesome thought with something opposite. If someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of angrily swearing and tailing them, you should instead think, “I’m sure they are in a rush for a good reason.” I’ve done this when my boss’ door was shut. I would switch my paranoid thinking: “She’s going to fire me” to “She must be working on my raise or a new challenging project.” When I had a four-hour unplanned airport layover a few weeks ago, I replaced my “I hate this airport and this lousy airline” thought (which became my new negative mantra for a few minutes) to “This’ll be a great opportunity to listen to my book and get in 10,000 steps.” I also cultivate compassion by saying, “Just like me.” If someone steals my parking space, I say, “They want to be happy, just like me.” Replace the unwholesome negative thoughts with positive, wholesome ones.
- Reflecting on results. Think about the long-term results of this thinking. Contemplate the forward trajectory or consequences of these thoughts. If I believe that I am a nervous speaker, I will become a nervous speaker. If I think that I am financially insecure, I will become financially insecure. Seeing the long-term consequences helps squelch the inner critic. Another way of looking at it is: do you want to be the Grinch? Even Grinch-like folks were small children at some point. It took years of unwholesome, greed-filled thoughts to result in the vengeful person they became. What are you really creating with all those unwholesome thoughts? Your best you?
- Redirecting attention. This is where you direct your attention away towards something more wholesome. Like your breath, your toes or your ear lobes. I advise my clients to do this when they get angry and have regressed into their lizard brain (the fight-or-flight part of your brain). When you are hijacked by emotions, it’s important to get out of your head and back into your body. Especially before you say something you might regret. Your best thinking is in your prefrontal cortex but it’s impossible to get there as long as you are in a state of fear or anger. Remember the phrase This too shall pass. Good or bad, everything is impermanent. We just need to accept that it is impermanent. Joy or terror, thoughts pass away, lose power and fade. Bring it all back to the breath.
- This is all about challenging your assumptions. It might be that you’ve become jealous of your co-worker’s new convertible sports car. You assume that if you had that car, you would be happy. Examine what you might feel you’re lacking. Maybe you want some freedom. Maybe independence. Look at the underlying assumptions of why you might be envious. You might be envious of your boss’ new smart phone. You want to have the latest technology. But won’t that phone be an out-of-date piece of junk in three years? I recently moved my home office. I thought about a nice chair I wanted for it. I realized that I didn’t want to add any more furniture to my already fully-furnished house. I realized there was a chair and ottoman that was unused in another room. So instead of feeling like I was lacking, I discovered I already had what I needed. Challenge your assumptions.
Any type of mindfulness is a practice that takes time and consistency. Habitual thoughts are not easy to break but it can be done with persistence. I personally journal each evening about how I have reframed my thoughts throughout the day. I think the reflection helps me hardwire the new positive, wholesome thoughts. Good luck!