Do your thoughts sometimes feel overwhelming; even suffocating at times? Have you had that awful experience when you feel that you just can't get enough oxygen into your lungs, which then only heightens your anxiety and sense of fearful apprehension? Well, you're certainly not alone. Millions of people suffer in this way, but none of those millions have to suffer in this way, and neither do you.
I'm not saying your thoughts and feelings - or more accurately, your experiences of those thoughts and feelings - are made up, manufactured, fiction, a rouse. Certainly not. There is no doubt this mental anguish is as real as it is horrible. What I am saying is this, just because it makes you feel this way now doesn't mean it has to make you feel this way forever. There is a way of reclaiming your power and autonomy. There is help, and where there's help there is hope.
I have conducted a great many mini thought experiments in session with clients, and within past blog articles, where I have asked people to think a blue square, before replacing it with an imagined red circle, before replacing that by thinking of a gold star. Without exception, everyone who has ever fed back to me has been able to change their thinking from a blue square to a red circle to a gold star at will. This obviously denotes how we are capable of changing our thoughts on a whim, which takes the wind right out of some people's sails, but it has equally been a welcome epiphany for others.
The thing is, as a species we've largely corrupted the thought process. We've imbued our thoughts with way too much power and omnipotence over us, when thinking was only ever given to us a tool, not an overlord. This subservience to thought has to stop, because it's largely making us sodding miserable! It's weakening us and leading many of us to dis-ease and into living fearfully.
Is it my imagination or can I hear you arguing with me? Okay, let me give you this.
To begin with, I'd like you to remember this one central point from the CBT tenet: our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings create our behaviours and our behaviours reinforce our thoughts. It's a proper vicious cycle to be sure. Here's a handy little visual to help illustrate what I mean...
ESMERELDA AT ACME INC.
I'm now going to tell you about Esmerelda who worked at Acme Inc, where she said her colleagues made her life hell with their snarky comments and snidey ways. Everything felt false, because in many respects everything was false. Esmerelda had had an initial expectation that everyone should and would play nicely, and be morally responsible with each other, but they were not.
In the first instance, Esmerelda was upset because other people didn't share her values, but realistically, on a planet of almost 8 billion, what are the odds? So, isn't it wiser to adapt our individual thinking than to expect everyone to play by the same subjective rules? In the second instance, with Esmerelda's upset being rooted in her expectation of something that could never be (that everyone shared her values and would play nicely with each other) it's the expectation that stoked the disappointment and misery. So, in essence, the root of Esmerelda's misery was actually her own thoughts, thinking processes and limited beliefs.What was needed now was a thought shift.
It wasn't what was happening around her that was the problem (because the behaviour of others will always be outside of her control), it was what was going on inside her that was the problem (because we can only every control what we think and do); which prompted an additional thought experiment, which you can now apply to your life and whatever presenting problem you may be wrestling with. Here it is:
The biggest jerk at your imaginery place of work is named Bubbles [hat tip to Ab Fab, but that's not why I've named them this, the real reason will become clear in a moment]. We've all worked with a Bubbles at some point or another, haven't we, so by all means project their crass, overbearing, annoying qualities onto this imaginery charcter right here.
Now imagine everything Bubbles says to you - no matter how rude, wrong, infuriating or boring it may be - is being shouted at you in earnest in a Swahili; making no sense to you whatsoever. And the less you understand or react to them, the more emphatic and animated Bubbles becomes, so you end up amused by their performance.
You end up amused because you're simply unable to accept their foreign words, rudities and accusations; or own them or carry them around forever as your own. You're unable to pick up those words and possess them, because you have zero perception of what those words in Swahili mean. You may get the gist via their body language and facial expressions that Bubbles is energised about something, but their insulting or demoralising words are sliding off you like butter from a hot knife.
And what does this teach you?
That it's only your perception of a thing that makes it real to you. Perception is a thought and thoughts aren't real. Can anyone show me footage of a surgeon removing a thought from a brain? No, because thoughts are nothing more than dynamic creative energy; they are not a gas, liquid or solid - so how and why have we imbued them with all this power over us?
Then, when you decide to combine your perception of a thing with your ego and decide to be offended by it, well, that's the secret sauce that makes it all a goddam problem. Can you see where I'm going with this?
So, let's have another thought experiment. If unintelligible words can slide off you, are wholly impotent and unable to hurt you - and most certainly can never get to live inside your head - then why can't the same be true for intelligible words - because after all, they are all just words - noise shaped air, that you're allowing to spoil your mood, day, week or life?
LEFT AT THE TRAFFIC LIGHTS
Humour me for a moment please. If an avocado looked at you the wrong way in Sainsburys, would you let it ruin your life? No, of course not because I'm being absurd, but it's essentially what you're doing! An avocado can't hurt you (unless you're highly allergic), and neither can words, and neither can thoughts.
It's you that's hurting you.
So, what if you stopped doing that?
What would happen if you neutralised your thoughts and ego when the likes of Bubbles went off on one? What if you imagined the words being hurled at you were in a foreign language, and you're only just proficient enough to pick up on the salient finger pointy bits, to avoid getting fired? Can you do that?
Can you now treat all annoying Bubbles-type characters in the same way you would treat an absurdly pissed off avocado from Sainsburys?
This all stems from the same train of thought behind 'imagine the audience sitting on the toilet' advice for newbie public speakers, it neutralises the fearsome component and changes our perception of the event. If you can change your perception of the event, it'll change your thoughts, which will positively affect your feelings. This is especially insightful advice for young people navigating the Mean Girls/Boys phenomena in secondary school, so do please pass it on.
Oh, and why did I name the annoying workplace jerk Bubbles? The next time you're angry, frustrated and agitated, and want to shift your mindset onto a higher plane, stand privately in front of a mirror, make the angriest face possible and shout "BUBBLES!" - and see what happens. [Chuckles].
On that note I will leave you in your own capable hands, in full confidence that you can now change your perceptions, thoughts and feelings, but of course, you're always welcome to give me a call if you'd like some help perfecting the skill to mastery over your own mind. You know where to find me.