As a career mental health and substance abuse professional you get the chance to work with hundreds of people who are all thinking about improving their lives in some way. For us the phrase, “heading into the office” translates literally into working directly with clients to facilitate some type of positive life change. Sure, people vary in terms of their willingness, desire, beliefs, and commitment to the process. Nonetheless, as the facilitator it’s always my job to support my client in achieving whatever improvement it is that they want to make. In a similar way, we generally look at the new year as an opportunity to make a commitment to improving our lives. Whether it’s returning to the gym, giving up sugar, saving money, or a simply making a vow to never drink tequila again, a new year means a chance to turn the page on the old – and to “bring in the new.” Change something that we know is no longer good for us! Sounds like a such a beautiful thing, doesn’t it? Lurking inside this equation, however, is the potential for a very serious problem, a problem rarely spotted, and seldom discussed, even by mental health professionals – those of us who work with people 365 days out of the year to help improve their lives!
As positive as it may sound to be actively taking steps to tackle the “monkey on your back,” this can be a very slippery slope. Hidden just below the surface of this noble effort lies a painful truth. If we are not ever so careful, we can find ourselves stuck in a pattern of desperate desire and deep disappointment indefinitely. Even to the well-trained eye it’s easy to miss. You see, every facet of our lives, be it money, relationships, career, love, family, or health, is really two separate facets. It’s what we want our lives to be like and what we don’t. We’ve been taught from the beginning that our thoughts are irrelevant, that because they’re invisible they don’t matter, that it’s only what we do that matters. We don’t understand that our thoughts absolutely do impact what we see, hear, taste and touch around us. We see no harm in spending time obsessing about what it is that we want to change and why. Often when we are looking to make a change it is for a good reason! The status quo is not working and often is very painful at that critical tipping point – the point where we decide it is time for a change! Some of us even revel in the pain. Even when things are OK-ish now, we find ourselves replaying scenarios of the past, trying to “figure it out,” asking, “why is it like this?”, “why did this happen?”, “where did I go wrong?”. A black hole of digging around back there, as though there’s some great mystery to be solved. As though knowing why things got just so f**ked up to begin with will produce a spontaneous change going forward. And why not? Why wouldn’t we think that? No one has ever taught us the dangers in doing this. Sadly, mistaken due to years of bad information, ignorance of the nature of perception, and how the brain actually works, we don’t see that by spending time obsessing over the way we definitely don’t want it to be, we increase the likelihood of it staying this way forever!
Here in lies the challenge. When trying to fix some aspect of our lives, it’s far too easy, in fact much easier, to look at what we don’t want, the way it already is, rather than how we want it to be. The problem with this is pretty simple. Once you understand the nature of human perception, how the mind and body (brain) work together to create our experience, you understand that as long as you are focused on the “problem,” the problem will just get bigger. The brain works a lot like a navigation system. When we don’t program the system on purpose with where it is we want to go, the brain defaults to what it is we are looking at in the here and now. It mistakenly thinks this must be what you want because you keep looking at it over and over again. I guess I will make this thing (you don’t want) bigger and bigger in your perception. I know It’s hard to understand. Believe me I do. The mechanisms at work are a combination of your beliefs, your sensory perception, memories, and emotions. Most of us think of the brain as a one-way street. As though we are neutral observers of the world around us. As though we simply see what is and interpret it as it is. That, however, is grossly untrue. It’s more like a double lane superhighway where information travels from the inside out, and from the outside in. As though there is an invisible filter between you and the world in front of you carefully selecting and sifting based on how you feel, what you believe, what you expect, and what you’ve learned. The brain’s primary mechanism of action is really prediction and it’s that prediction that offers often illusory “feedback” specific to each one of us. Hence, this is why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable, or why two people can watch the same presidential speech and walk away with entirely different and even opposing versions of what is “true”. The change you want will come from your willingness to let go of how it is right now and how you feel right now so you can embrace the way you want to feel instead.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, how can I give my attention to what it is I want if it hasn’t happened yet? Well congratulations! You’ve just stumbled upon the million-dollar question and the good news is, if you don’t happen to be among the lucky few of us that can tap into your child-like ability to fantasize, don’t sweat it! There is another way! Rather than spend your time trying to cling to some “future memory” that feels impossible from your current position, bring your attention to the here and now. Begin to practice things like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, myndful fitness, and countless other tools designed to help you feel better. If you are willing to distract yourself away from the negative emotion, however, you will begin to see the change you want.
Why not try it? What do you really have to lose?
Add any or all of the suggestions below to your routine to ensure your new year’s resolution makes it past the third week of January!
1) GET PRESENT
Learn to handle your past and future thinking
The average person, for reasons we won’t begin to tackle here, spends the vast majority of their time thinking about what was or worrying about what will be. Rarely are people giving their complete and total attention to the current moment. At MYND MVMT , we always begin with awareness! Awareness refers to the practice of being able to hear yourself think instead of just reacting to whatever it is that is happening in front of you at any given time. It means slowing things down so that you can hear your own inner dialogue. Once you hear yourself clearly, you can begin to do something different. At MYND MVMT, we see “doing something different” as shifting attention and focus elsewhere when it is in our best interest to do so. Once you begin to see that you do not have to be a victim of your crazy knee jerk thoughts, you realize you can select what you give your attention and focus to deliberately. This power is truly synonymous with freedom.
2) SHIFT YOUR CELL PHONE HABITS
Wait to pick it up!
I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they’re anxiety is overwhelming when they see they have an unread email or text notification. Talk about victim mentality! Your cell phone is a tool for you to use to improve your life. It’s not just another reason to feel like life is perpetually screwing you over! If you’re feeling as though your phone is controlling you and not the other way around, then maybe it’s time to do take a step back and rethink how you interact with your phone. The least you can do is wait 30-45 minutes after you wake up before you check texts, email, social media, news, messengers, or any other way someone can reach you!
3) WIN THE DAY!
Start Your Day the Right Way!
Now this is really, really important! How you start your day is critical! Although most people never stop to think about it, their day is won or lost typically within the first hour! You see, your thoughts are mood dependent. That means that if the first thing you do every day is pick up your phone, you take the risk of letting whatever happens to be on the other end dictate how you feel. If it’s bad news or a reason to worry – maybe an overdue phone bill or an email from your boss asking for that report you forgot to write – panic sets in. Before you’ve even had a chance to take a shower your thoughts are already racing! This is what we would call “losing the day” or letting the day get away from you! Instead, see what happens if you start your day with a glass of water with lemon, five minutes of guided meditation, a few pages out of your favorite inspirational literature, reciting a gratitude list, meditation on an affirmation, a few sun salutations, ten jumping jacks, a few bounces on a rebounder, a favorite morning motivation audio, or some combination of the above.
4) Enjoy Your Life Again!
As we get older and as life picks up the pace, be it your career, family, kids, or something else, having fun is typically the first thing to go! Especially in Western Culture, we often view fun as an extra thing. Something you do when absolutely everything else is checked off the list. Practically speaking, however, “fun” is worth a lot more than most people realize. Why? Well, believe it or not, having fun is the fastest way to inch closer to whatever it is you really want for two reasons. First, when our mood improves so do our thoughts! When we feel good, no matter what’s going on around us, we can see the good in things. We will find the silver lining. Second, remember what I was saying earlier about the nature of perception? You have to understand that you’re mind-and-body system is so good at doing its job, at producing your experience, you’ll never even realize how true what I am saying actually is. How when we focus on all the things we don’t want, what we don’t want gets bigger. To you, it will just seem like the problem has gotten worse. In actuality, the problem has gotten worse, but it’s because of your attention to it. By focusing on your responsibilities, fears, and things that are completely out of your control, your brain has no choice but to pull into your perception that which will cause more of the same.
5) Use Your Imagination…Again!
Engage in Fantasy
As human beings we are truly fantastic dreamers! As kids we used that wonderful imagination of ours to turn toy trucks into superhero robots, arrest the “bad guys” in a classic game of “cops and robbers,” and to turn the bath tub into a Jaws sequel where Barbie gets her leg chomped off, yet magically prances away unscathed! We learned to create a world filled with magic unicorns, smiley faced flowers, and one in which a fat man and his reindeer somehow fly around the world on a magical sleigh only to deliver toys to every child in the world by climbing down the chimney… all in one night! Kids have this fascinating ability to think their way into all kinds of grand plots where anything we they possibly imagine can come to life. As we get older, sadly though, we stop dreaming in favor of the “reality” we see in front of us day after day. Instead of thinking up ways to see our lives the way we want them to be, we get caught up in the way things really are or worrying about the way they will be. We use our imagination to calculate all the ways the future could possibly play out as to best prepare for all of them, or at least, the “worst case scenario”. Rather than using your faculties to give yourself another heart attack, try taking 10-15 minutes out of your day to dream up the best case scenario, the way you want it to be, or to allow yourself to be playful again, like you did when you had your entire life ahead of you still! At best you walk away feeling better and have just planted the seed for a better future, rather than the one you will settle for instead.
About the Author
Samantha Benigno is the CEO of MYND MVMT, a program that offers an alternative approach to mental health & addiction treatment. MYND MVMT uses an integrated, health & wellness model where mindfulness, nutrition, fitness, and long term goal attainment are built into the rehabilitation process. Mind Mvmt specializes in the treatment & recovery of depression, anxiety, substance use & abuse, behavioral addictions, and working with those who struggle to feel fulfilled in their lives. Samantha is a career mental health professional, educator, and consultant.