Have you ever decided to buy a car, and once you had decided on what type of car you are going to buy, you see it everywhere? It’s like all of a sudden everyone who owns that type of car is out on the road at the exact same time that you are.
The reason why this happens is not because all of a sudden there are loads more of your type of vehicle on the road, but because this is where your attention is. What you think about expands in that direction until you see it everywhere. If you habitually have your attention on how bad your life is, your brain starts searching for evidence of this belief being true. You start seeing everything that is bad in your life and your mind will keep going down that path until you change it, or get distracted with other events.
Sometimes we aren’t even aware of how often our mind wanders into that destructive direction. Sometimes this way of thinking just becomes the norm. All you are aware of is how bad you feel.
This first step on the Mind TRACK to Happiness process is all about becoming aware of your thoughts. It’s about becoming aware of where you have your attention, so you can learn how to shift your attention and consequently, change how you feel. Now I know that some of you are thinking, “I am already well aware of what I am thinking. It rings loud and clear in my mind and I hate thinking this way.”
Well it’s not just the thoughts you need to be aware of, it is more the pattern of thinking, the undertone of what you are thinking. This awareness is going to help you change.
You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge and you are going start acknowledging what these patterns are by becoming the observer to your thinking. You are going to start analysing what you say, when you say it and how you say it. You are going to observe how quickly little challenges spiral into you being a complete failure…again. You are going to become aware of the habitual thinking that occurs whenever life doesn’t go the way you expected it to or think it should.
Becoming aware of your thinking will help you to know what you need to replace these thoughts with in step two – the reality step.
How does my thinking cause me stress, depression or anxiety?
All stress is a conflict between thoughts and reality. When I say reality, I mean two things. There is
a) being in conflict with the reality of what is actually happening; and
b) interpreting what this situation means about me – a belief about your self-worth that is in conflict with the reality of your true self-worth.
Let’s look at three simple examples to illustrate the ways you can be in conflict with reality.
Example A – Your child is having a tantrum. Here’s the conversation you might be having in your mind:
“Why is she having this tantrum? Why can’t she just behave? She knows the rules. Why does she have to do this all of the time? I hate it when she behaves like this. She’s always giving me a hard time and I’ve had enough. All I ever do all day is listen to this noise. Nothing ever makes her happy. She thinks I’m her slave. In fact I feel like everyone’s slave. I never get any time for me anymore. I hate this life.”
Example B – Your baby is crying. Here’s what you might be saying to yourself:
“Stop crying! I hate it when you cry. Why can’t I get you to stop crying? I don’t know what to do when you are crying. What do you want? Why don’t I know how to help you? I’m so weak. I’m such a bad mother. I can’t even get my baby to love me. I can’t even make my baby happy. All he ever does is cry all day and I just want to enjoy him like I thought I would. I hate being a mum.”
Example C – Your house is not clean or tidy. Here’s what you might be saying about it:
“The house is always messy. Look at all this mess. How the hell am I expected to ever get on top of all this housework? I don’t have enough time because I’m always tending to everyone else’s needs instead. What about my needs? What if I don’t want to be slaving away spending every spare minute I have cleaning up? I feel like there is an endless pit of work for me and I never get any time to myself. I feel like I have no purpose other than doing everything for everyone else except me. I hate my life.”
In all three of these examples you have a simple situation common to parents that has very quickly spiraled into meaning that your whole life is worth-less or meaning something about you (your self-worth) or your quality of life. This is all because of how your mind has been taught to think. This is the pattern of thinking that you are going to start becoming aware of so that you can change it.
You will also notice that these conversations all began by thinking that does not accept the reality of what is actually happening – (being in conflict with the reality of the event – the tantrum, the crying baby, the messy house) and then expanded in that direction until it ended with the conclusion that these events meant something about you and your life.
If you have been taught, as a child, to look at the glass half empty and to feel like you are missing out all of the time, then this is where your attention habitually goes.
This is the physical neural pathway that has been formed in your brain. So all you will see is evidence of things going wrong and you missing out.
If you have learnt beliefs that you are hopeless, incompetent, useless, not good enough, not capable etc then this is where your mind’s attention will be. You will continue to see evidence of all these self-worth beliefs in your life.
In order to stop this pattern of thinking you need to first start becoming aware of this pattern. You will do this, not by rehashing your past, but by becoming aware of what your thinking is in the present. Become curious about your thoughts instead of becoming consumed by them. Observe these thoughts with interest, saying to yourself ‘wow, isn’t that interesting that I think this way’ or ‘wow, look at that meme that has popped into my head’.
I remember when I first started to observe my own thoughts. I was horrified with how I spoke to myself. It was little wonder why I was so miserable. I wouldn’t speak to anyone the way that I used to speak to myself. I was my own worst enemy. I remember a conversation I had with my mum, where I was complaining about something my kids were doing. All she said to me was, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been there.” Do you know what I was saying to myself?
“See, you’re whingeing again. She thinks you’re a whinger. You are always whingeing about everything. No one likes a whinger you know.”
I was really surprised by this nasty commentating going on in my mind. I told my mum the thoughts that I had just become aware of and she said to me, “I was only agreeing with what you were saying and could remember that happening when you kids were little.” But that was the pattern of my thinking – always relating events back to how worth-less I was. My attention was always on how I wasn’t doing something good enough, how I was being annoying to someone or inconveniencing someone, how I wasn’t learning something fast enough, how incompetent I was as a mum. And as it always goes, having my attention on how ‘bad’ I was resulted in finding more and more evidence that confirmed this belief.
I had always thought that I was a relatively confident person, but once I started to observe my thinking, it became clear that it was all a facade. Underneath, I had a very poor relationship with myself and this rose to the surface when I became a mother. I think you will be amazed as you start to see how often you think this way and how it is making you feel.
Here are some other statements that are common among parents that could be causing stress:
“This wasn’t the way parenthood was supposed to be”.
You had a picture in your mind of how life as a parent was going to look and now you may be experiencing it differently to that picture. You start to see how ‘wrong’ it is now that you are experiencing parenthood in this way (conflict with the reality of how it actually is) and then you start to search for what it means now that it’s going ‘wrong’. You see how much you or your child is missing out on. You start to reason how you should be doing this and you should be doing that or perhaps others should be doing something different. As your mind expands in the direction of thinking this way you always end up at the core of all stress – self-worth. What does it mean about me now that I am experiencing parenthood in this ‘wrong’ way? I am a bad mum/dad. I am hopeless. I am weak. I am a failure. I am not good enough.
“Labour did not go the way it was supposed to”
Sometimes we can have an image in our minds of a beautiful, drug free, relatively quick labour followed by a precious momentous meeting between you and your child forming an instant bond – just like the movies show us. However sometimes this does not occur and you may enter into thinking that is in conflict with this new reality. You start by thinking about how it should have been. “I should have had a natural birth”. Then you start to think about how you have missed out on that special experience that you were supposed to have. You think about your ‘poor’ child who missed out on meeting their mother in that special way and getting straight on the breast like they were supposed to. Then you start to reason that you should have been calmer, or looked after yourself better during pregnancy, been stronger, been able to handle the pain better so you didn’t need drugs. Perhaps you think that the nurses or doctor should have been more competent, and finally, you believe that all this means your child’s quality of life from the onset has diminished, or that you have failed at doing what ‘should’ have been an easy, natural experience (because everyone else can do it right), and that you are ultimately weak, hopeless, use-less, a bad mother, not good enough, stupid, selfish or incompetent. You will have your own unique list of names that you label yourself with that, soon, you are going to become aware of.
“I’m stuck at home with the kids day in, day out”
Maybe your partner was supposed to be working less hours and be home more and that’s not happening. Perhaps there has been a marriage break down and your support is not the way it was supposed to be. Perhaps your situation is the way it was supposed to be but you had no idea that it would be this hard. You start to think about how ‘bad’ it is. You very quickly move into how much personal time you are missing out on. You think about how your life used to be and how much fun you used to have and how life is no longer this way anymore (conflict with reality). You think about how you are missing out on having fun with your kids. How your kids are missing out on having a loving parent who enjoys being with them. You think about how angry you are these days and resent your new life as a parent, then feel guilty that you don’t actually enjoying being a parent sometimes. You think about how you should be enjoying parenthood and how you should be able to control your anger. Then of course this thinking expands and progresses into you feeling like you are a bad parent because you feel this way. All of your worth-less labels spring into your mind leaving you feeling like a complete failure.
“I have thoughts about hurting myself or my children, or daydream about me dying or my kids dying when I don’t really want me or them to be hurt”
Let me tell you first, that this is only your brain trying to correct the situation. Your thinking has followed the same pattern the rest of these situations have followed. By the time you have gotten to this point, I’m guessing you have experienced this pattern of thinking over and over again until you are in constant emotional pain. Your brain is looking for a way to protect your self-worth. It is a basic human instinct to protect ourselves from pain. By thinking these thoughts, even though you do not want them to come true, your brain is trying to bring you relief from the pain of feeling worth-less.
This is why self-worth issues always lie at the core of all stress. We are constantly on the pursuit for pleasure and avoiding pain. Our behaviour is always driven by our need to feel worthy. Thus behind every behaviour there is a priority to protect our self-worth.
This will be discussed in more detail as we progress, however for now, understand that if you are in constant pain and continually seeing more and more evidence of you being a failure (worth-less) then your mind is simply trying to find a way to protect you from this pain. Your brain searches for how to do this and comes up with ideas on how to do this (which is the images that you are visualising). Removing yourself from the situation that is causing you pain seems like the logical answer. Taking you out of the equation or even your kids out of the equation seems to be the answer to stopping the pain and the emotions. Even though you don’t want either of those things, these thoughts that you are having are simply your mind’s way of trying to change the situation and stop your pain.
Thinking these things does not mean that you are a bad person. It just means that you have some self-worth beliefs to correct. You need to change the way you see your life and understand why you are always worthy. Again, all of your thoughts relate back to those incorrect memes about self-worth set up long before your PND and becoming a mother. These memes are what need to change, not taking you or your child out of the situation. This is what this program is all about.
“I’m constantly second guessing myself”
This line of thinking starts with the incorrect beliefs (memes) that there is a right way to do something and a wrong way to do something. Do it the right way and I will be a good person/parent or I will gain approval or love. Do it the wrong way and I have failed.
As discussed last week, thinking like this can come from a childhood where there was pressure to do the right thing otherwise you would get in trouble a lot, criticised, ridiculed, punished or possibly even abused.
Now in adulthood you are protecting your self-worth using the same childhood mindset by trying to control all situations so that you get it all right and don’t suffer the consequences of getting it wrong – which could still be the fear of getting in trouble, being disapproved of, being criticised, ridiculed, not loved, punished or abused. Even if none of these things are likely to happen anymore, it is because your brain had these memes physically set up as neural connections as a child, you could still be operating through this incorrect thinking.
You can see again, that what starts as a simple comment about second guessing yourself, when looked at further, really goes down to protecting your self-worth, trying to feel worthy and avoiding feeling worth-less. This example runs more in alignment with anxiety than it does with depression. Anxiety, as previously discussed is all about control and prevent. I am going to control my life so that I get it all right and prevent anything from happening that will make me do it wrong. So I set up all of these little goals so that I get it right. I second guess myself because I have to get it right. If I make the wrong decision or do it wrong, then this means something about me. This means I will be a failure, stupid, not accepted, a bad parent, not loved, not good enough, not smart enough, in danger (another way of being worth-less)– again, all of those self-worth labels that you have been taught to define yourself by come out to play.
There are loads of examples that I could use here to illustrate how your thinking is in conflict with reality and how it progresses and expands in that direction until the event becomes all about your self-worth. Now it is time for you to start becoming aware of the pattern of your own personal thinking and what you are saying to yourself.
How to apply this step:
When thoughts come up, simply become aware of them. Become aware of what you are thinking, what you are saying in conversations with other people and what your mind’s commentary is about those conversations and the events going on in your life. Become curious about what you are saying to yourself rather than identifying yourself with it. Detach from these thoughts by reminding yourself that this pattern of thinking is simply the memes that have been set up from childhood by the minds of others who didn’t know any different. These are your habitual tapes that you have running in your mind and they do not define who you are. Imagine this thinking as the physical neural pathways in your brain (like you saw in the videos last week) and remember that it makes sense that you would think like this and that you are working to grow new connections and change this current superhighway of thinking.
Take notice of the patterns that emerge. Is your thinking always about how wrong everything is or how life isn’t the way it’s supposed to be – that is, in conflict with the reality of the situation? Is your thinking more often about how much you are missing out on things or your child is missing out on something? Are you more often riddled with guilt, anger, blame, or judgements about life because it should be another way, you should have done things differently or someone else should or could be doing something different? And finally, what does all this mean about your life? How does this effect you? What does it mean about you (your self-worth)?
Remember that a lack of self-worth (worth-lessness) is at the core of all stress, depression and anxiety. What are you saying about yourself in these situations? Take notice of how often you relate challenges to meaning something derogatory about you or how often you relate this challenge to meaning something dramatic about your quality of life.
Keep in mind that you are not going to be able to capture all of your thoughts. The mind has approximately 70,000 thoughts per day, so you’re not going to be aware of all of them. At this stage, you may still find that some of your thinking still consumes you. Hang in there. The more you apply this step the more you will learn to detach from these thoughts merely by being aware of them and disassociating your self-worth from them, and as you progress through this program, you will begin to change these thoughts too and feel better about life.
In tomorrow’s lesson, we will start to look at step two – reality. I will give you an overview of how to change your thinking to be in alignment with the reality of the situation and the reality of your true self-worth.