Your mind can be your biggest enemy. On a daily basis, it spews out difficult thoughts like “I’m not good enough”, or “I can’t do it”, robbing your energy, and stopping you from going after your goals and your heart’s deepest desires.
However, believe it or not, your mind is not trying to ruin your life. Instead, it’s trying to make sense of it. Your mind constantly judges your experience in an attempt to make sense of the world and to understand your role within it.
Even non-human animals will work to produce signals that tell them they are not going to get much food, or they are likely to be shocked. They’ll work even harder if the news is good, of course, but even if the news is bad, it’s better to know.
The symbolic mind puts that anxiety yearning on steroids. After all, a coherent and logically sensible world means life becomes more predictable, and thereby more safe.
But here is the problem. Non-human animals “understand” by experience. We “understand” by symbolic thought, which works by this simple rule: Anything can be related to anything in anyway.
Look around the room and pick out two objects. How is the first object you picked the father of the second one you picked?
Try it! You’ll come up with an answer! Maybe even a good one.
I did this recently in a podcast. I saw a glass and a chapstick on my desk and asked that exact question of my host: how is a glass the father of Chapstick. “They mixed the ingredients for the Chapstick in the glass” my host answered. I asked him to do it in the other direction. “They drew out the plan for making the glass on paper using the Chapstick” he immediately answered.
Anything can be related to anything in any way.
Welcome to the human mind. Its wonderful in terms of creativity or imagining futures that have never been. it is a s**t show in terms of peace of mind or learning by experience.
While riding this wild tiger called “the mind,” we can get stuck. We see through the lenses of our thoughts, and mistake our judgments for direct experience. We protest “I really AM not good enough, and there’s NOTHING I can do”, while turning our thoughts into commands we need to resist or obey.
It will not help to argue back “but I AM good enough.”
The mind will counter every point, and next thing you know you are into a fruitless argument with the Dictator Within.
This process is called cognitive fusion, and it’s underlying to a wide range of psychological problems, including anxiety and depression. Fusion doesn’t give us coherence or real understanding … it gives us a constant mental argument.
If you want to get unstuck again and disentangle from your mind, you need to learn how to notice your thoughts without getting caught up in them. Only then can you find the kind of understanding and coherence that was there before the symbolic mind got involved: the peace of mind that can come from knowing what works, based on experience.
How to Get Unstuck
In my new book A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters, I offer many different techniques to disentangle from thoughts and to allow a new sense of functional coherence to empower you to pursue your goals and living in line with your values.
The first step is to become aware of the automaticity of your thought process and what makes it noisy and confusing. You can do it right now, and right here. All you need is a pen, a paper, and a minute to spare.
Simply write down a string of thoughts that emerge when you give your mind free reign for one minute. You might notice that your thoughts are remarkably circuitous, and often revolve around rules and punishment. Just write them down.
Next, repeat this exercise for another minute, but this time try to figure out if a thought is true, correct, or appropriate. Judge and criticize. Figure out. Weigh and evaluate.
You might notice the loudness of your thoughts increases, and you’re getting pulled into your thought networks.
Lastly, repeat this exercise for one more minute, but now imagine that your thoughts are like the voices of first graders. Adopt a posture of curiosity and amusement as you listen, while not engaging them. Just chronical what the little kids say — quarrelling one moment; saying something interesting the next.
You might notice more of the flow of your thoughts, while the specific content of the thoughts becomes less important. You have a little more freedom to move. Some of what the kids say may be useful, much of it is not. Can you use what is useful and let go of the rest?
This quick exercise gives you a glimpse into the real-life practice of getting unstuck from your mind. Instead of arguing with your mind, accept your chaotic thinking with a posture of curiosity and amusement, while putting your focus on thoughts your experience tells you are helpful.
Does taking action based on the thought “I’m not smart enough” enrich my life? If the answer is YES, then great! And if the answer is NO, simply take a step back, and notice your thoughts with detached posture of curiosity and amusement.
After all, your mind is just like a first grader.