There was a night a little over a year ago when I wondered if I was legitimately going crazy. A couple hours earlier, I’d tried to go to sleep next to my partner, and instantly knew it was going to be a long night. All the familiar signs were there. The anxiety was creeping in. Bedtime meant time for my irrational thoughts to amplify, time for my chest to tighten, and breathing to become shallow. After tossing and turning a bit, I moved to our guest bedroom to be alone in my restlessness. I laid in that guest bed with my thoughts going a million miles a minute. Thoughts that I felt terrified to be having. I felt so out of control, like I was just helplessly watching myself unravel. I felt like I was crawling out of my skin. I felt so afraid to share my experience. I felt a lot of judgment around the fact that I’m a mental health therapist, and here I was seemingly having a mental health crisis.
That night was the tipping point to a lot of changes in my life. Aside from making changes in my external circumstances, I’ve since cultivated an internal change that I know will be with me for the rest of my life. It’s a daily practice of witnessing my thoughts. What I mean by this, is being aware of the mental chatter of my mind without overly identifying with it. Allowing my thoughts to flow without attachment to them or judgment about why they’re happening in the first place. Creating separation between my true self and the flow of thoughts that come in and out of my mind. It has been a powerful tool in helping me reclaim my peace of mind.
I’ve put the idea of witnessing my thoughts into practice with a few different techniques. I often identify thoughts with gentle humor. If a judgmental thought towards myself or someone else pops up, I’ll say to myself, “hello ego, good morning! Thanks for making your presence known.” This usually makes me chuckle to myself, and it’s a quick reminder that my true self is not identifying with these judgments. I’ll also use the concept of child’s mind, meaning I respond to my thoughts with a sense of curiosity, much like that of a child experiencing something for the first time. In response to a thought that feels uncomfortable, I may say to myself, “that’s interesting” or, “this is good information”. It’s a neutral response that also helps avoid getting stuck on the endless thought merry-go-round in our minds.
Although witnessing my thoughts has become a daily practice, and it has tremendously reduced my anxiety, I still get caught up every now and then. Recently, I felt triggered. That familiar shame spiral was coming on. Self-critical, judgmental thoughts were popping up like a wave I couldn’t surf. Or maybe part of me didn’t want to ride that wave. Perhaps I was attaching too much meaning or purpose to these thoughts. The urge to be our own worst enemy can be a strong one, if we let it. Our mind is accustomed to stay with the negative thoughts, focusing on all that isn’t going right. It takes a conscious, active role to hop on our surf board and ride the wave of our thoughts, rather than being swallowed up by the swell.
As I noticed myself experiencing all kinds of self-defeating thoughts, I knew I needed to pump the breaks. I walked through all of the previous steps I’ve outlined, but I needed an extra step. I wasn’t just having one or two thoughts that were self-defeating, I was full blown off the deep end. I reframed my thoughts using ideas that truly resonate with me. I encourage you to develop reframing thoughts that also feel true to you. I told myself, “this is a necessary step on my path of healing and loving myself”, “this is the perfect opportunity to apply the insights I’ve recently gained”, “this is a chance to respond differently so that I may break old patterns”. Repeat as many times as needed. Deep breaths, hand on heart. Ok, I’m back on track.
So far I’ve discussed witnessing thoughts in relation to those thoughts that we may label as unhelpful, unhealthy, negative, etc. This is often a great place to start, but we can take this a step further by witnessing all thoughts, and letting go of the label of negative or positive. We can apply the same techniques to those thoughts that stem from positive, feel good experiences, such as, “I wish this would never end”, “I want things to stay just like this”, etc. Those types of thoughts only increase our suffering, as we are ignoring the impermanence of every experience, situation, and moment. When we are witnessing, we are staying grounded in our true self, allowing the stream of consciousness to flow through us. We feed our souls that which we long to receive outside ourselves, so that we show up with more presence and less attachment to the present moment.