How to be the boss of your brain, rather than letting it master you
Posted Apr 02, 2013
You may have tried to control your thoughts at one time or another. With the aid of self-help books, perhaps you really tried to “Be Positive” and “Show Negativity the Door.” And this may have even worked for a while. But sooner or later, you probably found yourself back at the starting point. I’m here to tell you that there is another way. And that is to become the CEO of your own mind – skillfully directing it to live in harmony with the other players of self – body and spirit.
If you follow the six steps below, you will be the master of YOU in no time.
STEP 1: LISTEN AND ACKNOWLEDGE
Like all good leaders, you’re going to have to listen to your disgruntled employee, and acknowledge that you’re taking its message seriously. Minds, like people, can relax and let go when they feel heard and understood. Practice gratitude and thank your mind for its contribution. “Thank you, mind, for reminding me that if I don’t succeed in making more sales, I might get fired.” “Thank you for telling me that I may always be alone and never find love and have a family.” “These are important areas of life, and I need to pay attention to them, and do my best to take advantage of every opportunity that comes up. I also need to learn from past experiences so I don’t keep making the same mistakes.”
STEP 2: MAKE PEACE WITH YOUR MIND
You may not like what your mind does or the way it conducts itself. In fact, all that negativity can be downright irritating sometimes. But the fact is, you’re stuck with it and you can’t (or wouldn’t want to) just lobotomize it away. In the Book, The Happiness Trap, Dr Russ Harris uses the example of the Israelis and the Palestinians to illustrate your relationship with your mind’s negative thoughts. These two old enemies may not like each other’s way of life, but they’re stuck with each other. If they wage war on each other, the other side retaliates, and more people get hurt and buildings destroyed. Now they have a whole lot less energy to focus on building the health and happiness of their societies. Just as living in peace would allow these nations to build healthier and more prosperous societies, so making peace with your mind – accepting that negative thoughts and feelings will be there -that you can’t control them, can allow you to focus on your actions in the present moment, so you can move ahead with your most important goalswithout getting all fouled up. You don’t necessarily have to like the thoughts or agree with them – you just have to let them be there in the background of your mind, while you go out and get things done.
STEP 3: REALIZE YOUR THOUGHTS ARE JUST THOUGHTS
Most of the time we don’t “see” our minds. They just feel like part of us! Dr Steve Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, uses the concept of being “Fused with your thoughts” to illustrate this relationship. To be fused means to be stuck together, undifferentiated. You feel like your thoughts and feelings are YOU and so you accept them unconditionally as the truth without really looking at them. “I’m thinking I’m a failure and boring – gee, I must be a failure and boring. Well. Isn’t that nice? Now I feel really wonderful.” This kind of simplistic logic seems to prevail because we can’t see our own minds, so we have difficulty stepping outside ourselves and getting an objective observer’s perspective.
In actuality, our thoughts are passing, mental events, influenced by our moods, states of hunger or tiredness, physical health, hormones, sex, the weather, what we watched on TV last night, what we ate for dinner, what we learned as kids, and so on. They are like mental habits. And, like any habits, they can be healthy or unhealthy, but they take time to change. Just like a couch potato can’t get up and run a marathon right away, we can’t magically turn off our spinning negative thought/feeling cycles without repeated practice and considerable effort. And even then, our overactive amygdalas will still send us the negative stuff sometimes.
STEP 4: OBSERVE YOUR OWN MIND
The saying “Know thine enemy.” is also applicable to our relationship with our own minds. Just like a good leader spends his time walking through the offices, getting to know the employees, so we need to devote time to getting to know how our minds work day to day. Call it mindfulness, meditation, or quiet time. Time spent observing your mind is as important as time spent exercising. When you try to focus your mind on the in and out rhythm of your breath, or on the trees and flowers when you walk in nature, what does your mind do? If it’s like mine, it wanders all over the place – mostly bringing up old worries or unsolved problems from the day. And, if left unchecked, it can take you out of the peacefulness of the present moment, and into a spiral of worry, fear, and judgment.
Mindfulness involves not only noticing where your mind goes when it wanders, but also gently bringing it back to the focus on breath, eating, walking, loving, or working. When you do this repeatedly over months or years, you begin to retrain your runaway amygdala. Like a good CEO, you begin to know when your mind is checked out or spinning its wheels, and you can gently guide it to get back with the program. When it tries to take off on its own, you can gently remind it that’s it’s an interdependent and essential part of the whole enterprise of YOU.
STEP 5: RETRAIN YOUR MIND TO REWIRE YOUR BRAIN
There is an old and rather wise saying, “We are what we repeatedly do.” To this, I would add “We become what we repeatedly think.” Over long periods, our patterns of thinking become etched into the billions of neurons in our brains, connecting them together in unique, entrenched patterns. When certain brain pathways – connections between different components or ideas – are frequently repeated, the neurons begin to “fire” or transmit information together in a rapid, interconnected sequence. Once the first thought starts, the whole sequence gets activated.
Autopilot is great for driving a car, but no so great for emotional functioning. For example, you may have deep-seated fears of getting close to people because you were mistreated as a child. To learn to love, you need to become aware of the whole negative sequence and how it’s biasing your perceptions, label these reactions as belonging to the past, and refocus your mind on present-moment experience. Over time, you can begin to change the wiring of your brain so your prefrontal cortex (the executive center, responsible for setting goals, planning and executing them), is more able to influence and shut off your rapidly firing, fear-based amygdala (emotion control center). And, this is exactly what brain imaging studies on effects of mindfulness therapy have shown.
STEP 6: PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION
The pioneer of Self-Compassion research, Dr Kristin Neff, described this concept as “A healthier way of relating to yourself.” And that’s exactly what it is. While we can’t easily change the gut-level feelings and reactions that our minds and bodies produce, we can change how we respond to these feelings. Most of us were taught that vulnerabile feelings, are signs of weakness – to be hidden from others at all costs. Or “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” These bits of common-sense philosophy were dead wrong! Authors,such as Dr. Brene Brown, provide us with a convincing, research-based argument that expressing your vulnerability can be a source of strength and confidence, if properly managed.
When we judge our feelings –we lose touch with the benefits of those feelings. They are valuable sources of information about our reactions to events in our lives, and they can tell us what is most meaningful and important to us. Emotions are signals telling us to reach out to for comfort or to take time out to rest and replenish ourselves. Rather than criticizing ourselves, we can learn new ways of supporting ourselves in our suffering. We may deliberately seek out inner and outer experiences that bring us joy or comfort – memories of happy times with people we love, the beauty of nature, creative self-expression. Connecting with these resources can help us navigate the difficult feelings while staying grounded in the present.
To be a successful CEO of your own mind, you need to listen, get to know your employee, acknowledge its contribution, realize it’s nature, make peace with it, implement a retraining or employee development program, and treat it kindly. It will repay you with a lifetime of loyaly and service to the values and goals that you most cherish.