Have you ever woken up at night with your mind racing, desperately jumping from one worry to the next, in search of a solution, or at least some respite or release? The mind is amazing and our cognitive capacity is immense, however not every aspect of our lives necessitates or indeed is responsive to the focused attention of our thoughts. Sitting stewing on a problem or ruminating on a past event, revisiting it, contemplating what might have been, should have happened, or would have helped, is territory that is very familiar to the mind. It seems that we don’t quite know when or how to tell our minds to stop and let go. We seem to believe that we can “think-fix” anything. If we can just keep directing thought at an issue for a long enough period of time, surely that will resolve the matter. But does it? Could there be a less wearing solution, and a better route to getting unstuck?
It seems almost reasonable, doesn’t it, this think-fixing approach? But when we take the think-fix approach we literally turn our lives, or even ourselves, into problems to be fixed rather than experiences to be joyously lived. How often do you allow yourself just to watch your mind, or to be present to your thoughts? We humans tend to find that all rather uncomfortable to the point that we can go to quite extraordinary lengths to distract ourselves, from ourselves.
Take the fascinating experiment undertaken in 2014 by Timothy Wilson, a behavioral psychologist, and colleagues at the University of Virginia, to see how people dealt with being alone with their thoughts. The study participants were left in a room for a mere 15 minutes without their cell phones or anything to distract themselves with – well, apart from a device which would deliver a painful, though not dangerous, electric shock to them if they pushed a button. How uncomfortable do we feel if left alone with our thoughts? Well, 67% of the male and 25% of the female participants chose to shock themselves – and some more than once! Wow, that’s some crazy sh*t! Before the experiment every single participant had also stated that they would pay to avoid being shocked. Hmm…
I get the sense that we have a less than optimal relationship with our thoughts. We can at one extreme completely entangle ourselves in them in an effort to think-fix some area of our life, and at the other extreme we can become so desperate to escape them that we might literally choose physical pain in order to distract ourselves from them. I think there must be a more peaceful, and definitely less painful, way to relate to our inner world that might serve us a whole lot better. I’ve tossed and turned at night trying to think-fix. I’ve busied myself with endless distractions so as to not look at the root thoughts underlying my feelings of unease and discomfort. If you look at the top 25 internet sites they are in the business of selling distraction and escape in the form of shopping, celebrity “news”, and bite-size social interaction. I have many an outfit, unnecessary Amazon purchase, and have consumed a not insignificant amount of chocolate, all in the service of escape and distraction from my very own thoughts. The attempt to escape from oneself can have expensive and pretty unhealthy consequences.
So, apart from the gods that move amongst us, what are we mere mortals to do about all this? I love to run now which has helped to off-set the more obvious consequences of those periods of peak chocolate intake but I want to be and feel fully in charge of me rather than like I’m tip-toeing around some part of me I don’t want to awaken. I’d also like to stop my mind from treating all of life, and sometimes me, as a problem that can, or needs to be think-fixed.
So what’s the deal Eimear? Time to drop some how-tos right about now, right?
The Delphic Maxims are a set of 147 maxims (sayings or mottos) inscribed on The Temple Of Apollo in Delphi, Greece. They are said to have been given by Pythia, who was the Greek god Apollo’s oracle. The first of the three most well-known maxims given by Pythia, which are inscribed in the forecourt of the temple, is Know Thyself (for you super curious folk I’ll save you googling and tell you what the other two are; Nothing To Excess and Surety Brings Ruin). So the ancient Greeks recognized the importance of this inner work stuff way back when! It seems we’re still learning.
What does it mean to really know myself? Here we walk down the path of those big questions like “Who Am I?”, “Why Am I Here?”, and “What’s the meaning of life?”. That might all sound very high-brow and philosophical. Who has time for that? I need to get back to work, and over-thinking, and worrying, and pay my mortgage for gosh sakes! Let’s get back to distraction and seeking external validation shall we? That’s much safer, more comfortable, and familiar! And so it goes, and the days, the weeks, the months and years pass by, and nothing much changes. It reminds me of a passage from the play Macbeth that I studied in school;
Tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5
I think it’s so easy to be hypnotized in life and to not really know ourselves. I speak so often to people who are in jobs that they don’t really enjoy but that “look good on paper”. I hear from the exhausted people-pleasers who sacrifice or sabotage their own calling for the approval of others. It’s so easy to fall into a way of life that seems good because it receives so much external validation and in the process we become masters at ignoring the internal ache that signifies all is not as it could be, that there is something more fulfilling than this. That’s where Know Thyself comes in. Who are you really and what do you want to be about in this one wild and precious life that you have, (as poet Mary Oliver describes it).
Begin with Values
I find values work to be the most important work that I do with people because it’s so easy to get out of the habit of asking ourselves the big questions around what truly matters to us and why. There’s also a lot of confusion around what values actually are and how to leverage them. If you’d like to go a little deeper on this topic download my Guide To Clarifying Values which takes you through a process of identifying what your values are and how you can begin to leverage them.
Values act as a compass and draw us in the direction of what is most fulfilling and rewarding for us. If you’ve ever felt stuck it’s because you are disconnected and out of alignment with your values. When we’re consistently taking action that’s in alignment with our values, we feel energized, motivated and, well, aligned!
If you are married or a parent you may say that Family is a top value. But Family is a Life Domain and not a value per se. Your values are about how you show up in life. They are ways of being and doing that others who interact with you would probably notice. So whereas Family might be the Life Domain that is your number one priority, the relevant values could be Loving, Patient, Generous etc. Values guide actions whereas a Life Domain is an area or aspect of your life like Work, Intimate Partnership, Friendship, etc. Values can be, and often are, relevant across a range of domains.
Once you clarify your values it will be more apparent to you where you are honoring them and where you are not. This alone will lead you to a greater understanding of yourself and why you feel a certain way in certain situations. Then you begin to ask yourself other questions like, What does success mean to me? and, What is the life I want to create for myself that will be a reflection of my values? Doing values work exposes where you have been operating under the rules of others, where you have been seeking external validation rather than honoring your internal needs and wants, and ultimately whether you are taking up all the space in this life that is meant for you.
Allow What Is
If it feels uncomfortable then it’s our internal guidance system looking for our attention and asking us to course correct. We are out of alignment with our values in some way and are not going to reach our desired destination without some shift. But this is where we distract ourselves to avoid looking at what’s really going on. It’s easier to busy ourselves with some surface task and of course we live in a culture that glorifies busy. Sitting curiously in the presence of our discomfort is unusual. I find an added layer of difficulty with this is the self-judgement that I can bring. I’m thinking I should have worked all this out by now. This is my “mind-speak” noisily intruding and trying to bait me into a spiral of self-judgment, or even self-loathing, which de-rails that whole effort and I’ll be grasping for distraction before I know it.
The results of that experiment where electric shock seemed like a good idea don’t seem quite so crazy once you decide to get curious rather than default distract from discomfort. What I find most helpful is self-compassion. I grew up with so many cultural messages around toughening up and powering through things that it was really easy to pick up unhelpful beliefs and rules like you’ve got to be really hard on yourself to get results. I thought that berating myself and being highly self-critical was the only way to really motivate myself and get results. Relinquishing that habit would surely mean I would turn into some sloth-like failure! Really well thought-out rationale in evidence there! Self-compassion allows me to bring curiosity to discomfort so I know myself, without judgement. I practice allowing what is and that includes what I see in me that I don’t like.
Allowing what is doesn’t mean that I don’t change. It means that I don’t punish myself for what I see in myself but rather see the opportunity to alter my course. It’s a commitment to growth without the admonishment piece. It’s also a lot more fun when I give up the nonsense of perfectionism that lurks behind much of my discomfort. It’s like being afraid to be fully yourself because you don’t meet some unrealistic standard in some area so that must be hidden. Allowing what is, means unshackling yourself from perfectionism. What is perfectionism but a contract we make with ourselves to disapprove of ourselves, to criticize ourselves, and to injure ourselves? It is a highly absorbing diversion from our true work – the contribution we are here to make.
Perfectionism is the opposite of owning our power. We place some other as the judge of our worth and this external other then shields us from the responsibility of our own lives. You are not here to be perfect, you are here to create and contribute.
Own Your Response, Always
A quiet mind doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable place. With time, practice, patience, curiosity and self-compassion, what before might have sent you frantically into think-fix mode, or rushing to distract, will be met with openness and a peaceful presence. There is magic and power in owning your response in any situation.
Viktor Frankl said;
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor Frankl -Concentration Camp Survivor and author of Man’s Search For Meaning
I call that space The Powerful Pause. This is where you connect to your values and ask yourself a question like, If I allow this feeling or this thought to guide my response now, how will it help me to create the life I truly desire? When you own your response it’s like a super-power. No-one can trigger you. Nothing can disrupt you. When I ask a client how their life would change if they had no buttons that could be pushed, if they could not be triggered, the response is typically that they cannot even imagine such a reality. That’s freedom though. Why is it so hard to imagine freedom?
When you choose to own your response you are claiming your freedom. I’m not saying that you master this immediately or even quickly, but I am saying that it seems to me like a worthy use of a person’s time. I’m a redhead and growing up heard stories about the supposedly fiery temperaments of redheads. I remember once hearing there was something in Irish folklore about redheads not being welcome on an island off the coast of Ireland because they were considered bad luck because they had such tempers. I dutifully took on the challenge of living up to this reputation and cultivated my own fiery temper which was easily triggered by anyone and anything. It’s exhausting and distracting to be at the mercy of external stimuli. We always have a choice, if we choose to own that choice.
Cultivating the Powerful Pause creates the space to make the choice that serves us. We don’t need to magically transform into an angelic being who doesn’t feel irritation or anger ever. We can feel all the feelings, notice them, pause, and choose a values-aligned response in any situation. It is a matter of practice and when we know ourselves, are connected to our values, and have a vision for the life we want to create and live, the choice becomes easier and easier.
My top value is Freedom and honoring that value often means taking action in its service in the presence of uncomfortable emotions. Being consciously aware of that value though makes the action meaningful and that is the key. I don’t try and distract myself from the discomfort and I don’t try and think-fix my way out of the situation either. I let worry thoughts come and go, connect into my values and the thoughts that support them. With freedom as a top value I am constantly challenged to own my life fully and that requires that I choose my response in that space between stimulus and response as Frankl said. I still lose my temper, but less often. I still get irritated but less frequently and for shorter periods of time. I am consciously re-orienting in the direction of my values more consistently each day. That’s growth on the path to, and in service of, my highest value of freedom.