Minding Your Thoughts
“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring.”
What do you think about when someone brings up the topic of mindfulness? Most people associate the topic with meditation. While mindfulness does include aspects of meditation, it also includes paying attention to what is happening in this very moment including what you are thinking. I found the best definition of mindfulness in the book Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan. Tan references Jon Kabat-Zin who shares that “mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This definition opens a host of opportunities to practice mindfulness during our waking hours throughout the entire day.
Tan also connects mindfulness to many of the principles offered by Daniel Goleman in “Working with Emotional Intelligence”. According to Goleman, Emotional Intelligence encompasses five major domains including self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. It is through an understanding and deeper knowing of these domains that we become mindful. Goleman identified competencies within each domain which also connect with mindfulness. Self-awareness competencies include having emotional awareness, the ability to accurately self-assess and a healthy self-confidence.
In working with clients, I have discovered that being able to recognize and name one’s emotional states can be a challenge. I believe this sometimes is a result of suppressing emotions as children and then having only one or two outlets for those emotions. The word emotion means energy in motion and when we block our emotions we block not only the negative ones we are trying to suppress but also the positive emotional states as well. Accepting that emotions are neither bad nor good but just exist is the first step in becoming more emotionally aware. This process expands the range of emotions we may be feeling and at the same time provides us with choices about the emotions.
It is the choice of how to respond to emotions that takes place in the second domain, self-regulation. Competencies in this domain include self-regulation, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, and innovation. Once we have acknowledged what we are feeling, we can then determine how we want to respond. One of my favorite books on emotions is Chip Conley’s book on “Emotional Equations”. He shares that we become more successful in life when we develop the ability of emotional fluency and are able to sense, translate, and effectively apply the power of emotions in a healthy and productive manner. That is one of the best definitions of self-regulation that I have read because it puts the power back into our hands to manage our emotions. Note the operative word here is manage, not block.
Tan calls the situations that create emotional distress for us triggers. Here’s where the monitoring and changing your thoughts has the most impact in dealing with triggers. Tan cites a quote from Marcus Aurelius which illustrates this fact, “if you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any time.” What I often share in stress management classes is that the trigger is not the issue, rather what you say about the trigger determines the amount of stress you feel. For example when you are driving in traffic and someone cuts into your lane you have the choice to get angry or let it go. Depending upon how this impacts you it might be something you share with others when you arrive at work or home. Tan calls this feeding the monsters-experiencing a trigger and then continuing to add energy to the trigger making is bigger than it really is.
So what are your options to feeding the monsters? I am using this choice of words because it helps us see what we are doing in a humorous way and may lead to different choices because who would really want to feed monsters? Byron Katie in “Loving What Is” (4) shares a turnaround statement that works for emotional triggers. As we make a statement about the trigger, we are invited to ask “is it true?” Many times we might respond to this self-coaching with “yep it’s true!” Next we ask ourselves, “is it really true?” In having this self-conversation twice, we might recognize that our judgment or statement about the trigger is only our perspective based upon our own biases and beliefs. Once we arrive at this realization we can ask ourselves “how do I feel when I think this way?” Followed by “how would I feel if I didn’t think this way?” When we come to understand that we can choose how to respond to emotional triggers we have unlimited power to change our experience.
A second method for dealing with triggers that Tan offers in his book is a five step process that begins with stop. Once you recognize you are being triggered stop your thoughts which most likely include an element of judgment. Next breathe. Deep breathing will begin to relax you and provide you with the opportunity to calm you thoughts. Next notice and name what you are feeling. Most of the time we are angry when we are triggered but there could be other emotions as well including frustration, sadness, disappointment, etc. Follow this noticing and naming with reflecting. What is really happening for you? Why is this situation causing you to feel the way that you do? Finally, once you have gone through the first four steps, you can respond. In many instances, we may choose to respond differently than when first triggered.
Try one of these methods when you experience emotional triggers over the next month. You might be amazed at the difference in how you experience other people and situations.
To Your Success!