• Linda Farnden

How to break free from thinking traps and our inner critic

With the increase in quality of life, we have never been safer. We don't have to fight for survival or safety like our ancestors had to. When our basic needs are satisfied, we have time to pursue other things. Mostly though, we end up living inside our minds, ruminating about our past (often with regret) or thinking about future (often with anxiety and worry). Very few moments in our day are lived in the present moment. In this blog post I will be focusing on our inner life, on all the negative thoughts and all the negative judgements that influence how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. And I will share with you a simple technique from ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy) you can use when you get stuck in a thinking trap.

I often wondered why our mind seems to be our harshest critic and our worst enemy. We would never dream of calling people some of the names we call ourselves, such as ‘you are lazy’, ‘you are a loser’, ‘you are a failure’, ‘you are fat and ugly, and no one loves you’ and many more. These judgements are very powerful, but very rarely do they spark a change in us. It’s very unlikely that you would suddenly become successful if all you ever tell yourself is what a loser you are. Or that you would be motivated to lose weight and eat healthier just because of that negative inner voice that keeps telling you how fat you are. If anything, these inner voices will only make you feel worse and you end up reaching for that biscuits in an attempt to make yourself feel better, if only for a little while. And then you are back in the trap of your own thinking, judging yourself with more harsh words because you failed again. But that’s all they are. Words.

Our thoughts are just words; a group of symbols we use to describe things. We rely on our thoughts a lot. They tell us stories about who we are, how we should live and what we should or shouldn't be like. Sometimes the words are true and based on facts, but very often they are not.

In Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), the main focus on a though is not whether it’s true or false, but whether it’s helpful. If you pay attention to this thought, will it help you create the life you want? Will thinking ‘I am fat and no one loves me’ help you create a life where you are fit and healthy and have fulfilling relationships?

Very often we react to our thoughts as if they were the absolute truth and we feel we must give them all our attention. And this is why we so often get stuck in our thinking. We react to words in our head, such as ‘I am a failure’, ‘I am fat’ orI am a loser’ and we take them seriously and completely believe them.

For me, this often shows up as thoughts about how I should be and what I should do, such as ‘I have to be on time’, ‘I have to complete all the tasks on my to do list’, or statements about myself such as ‘I am not good with money’ or ‘I am a not good enough to do x, y and z. And when I absolutely believe that these thoughts are true, I feel powerless, and I often respond with passive resignation. Ok, this is who I am. Why bother if I fail anyway? Or, I might respond by supressing the feelings, avoiding the situations or tasks, distracting myself with impulse buying or numbing the emotional pain with binge watching or binge eating.

So how do we break free, you ask?

In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris recommends a simple exercise I found really helpful, and I want to share it with you. You can use this in situations where you feel trapped in your head or stuck in a loop of your own negative thinking. You might find it helpful to practice this exercise beforehand to get familiar with it.

1. Think of an upsetting thought such as ‘I am not good enough’, ‘I am a failure’ or ‘life sucks’. You might want to pick one that often recurs and that upsets you. Now focus on that though for about ten seconds and believe it as much as you can.

2. Now take the same thought and insert a phrase in front of it so that it goes like this: ‘I am having the thought that I am…’ For example: ‘I am having the thought that I am not good enough.’ Now repeat this in your mind for about ten seconds. Notice what happens.

3. Change the phrase to: ‘I notice I am having the thought that I am…’ The example above would look like: ‘I notice I am having the thought that I am not good enough.’ Do this for another ten seconds and notice what happens.

This exercise helps us take a step back and it gives us some distance from the actual thought. The thought often feels less powerful and less overwhelming. If you didn’t notice anything, try this exercise with a different thought. In ACT, this process is called ‘defusion’. It’s about recognising that our thoughts aren’t always true or important, and most importantly, we don’t have to believe them or pay attention to them. I would love to hear from you and your experience with this exercise. Did you find it helpful?

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