And they’re not “You can never have enough.”
February 27, 2022
Don’t get me wrong. Financial and material stability matter to me — I never want to become a burden.
But if you want more out of life than financial and material stability, consider what my first master’s program professor, Dr. Froehling, said on the first day of class.
“If you remember nothing else from this entire program, remember this: “Challenge every thought you have!”
And then he said, “Because, if you don’t, you might end up living someone else’s life.”
Here’s what I think he meant.
Opinions and Ideas Are not Facts
Every day we take in enormous amounts of information from our parents, teachers, peers, siblings, news outlets, and social media.
We’ve learned through experience that we can’t necessarily trust everything we hear. So much of what we hear is opinions — ideas and beliefs of other people — rather than facts.
Despite knowing that, for some reason, we tend to believe everything we think and feel without stopping to ask ourselves if it’s true or not. We’ve developed ideas based on other people’s opinions and information outlets with whom we spend the most time.
We adopt ideas like, ‘conservatives don’t care about the underprivileged,’ and ‘liberals want to give everyone a free ride,’ without doing our own research on whether or not they are true.
Many of us go from birth to death, parroting ideas fed to us by others. Then, finally, we end our lives asleep to what we believe, want, or care about.
So this is what I think Professor Froehling meant. We need to figure out for ourselves what we believe, want, and care about. And to do that, we must be able to notice our thoughts and identify which ones we want to lead the way. No easy task since our mind is blathering 24/7 with random opinions, ideas, and beliefs.
Many of our thoughts are stories we create to make sense of the world. They represent our interpretation of what is happening. However, that doesn’t mean they’re grounded in reality.
So we are challenged to tease out what is true for us. We need to distinguish between random thoughts and feelings, others’ opinions and beliefs, and what we know to be true from personal experience or common sense.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
For example, your boss doesn’t say hello as she walks by you in the hall. Your first thought might be, “Oh crap! She looked right through me. I must be in trouble.” Your emotional reaction is, of course, raging fear that propels you into even more negative thinking. “If I lose my job during a pandemic, I’ll never be able to get another job with the same pay and benefits…” and off you go to a sleepless night of hell.
But if you’ve practiced mindfulness, you can see your thoughts and hold them lightly, with a bit of skepticism about their substance. You can pause, breathe all the way out, and soften your body so you come back to reality. And then ask yourself if there is any evidence that your boss would be unhappy with your performance. If the answer is no, the probable explanation is that she didn’t see you because she was thinking her own thoughts.
Thoughts that take us out of the present moment’s reality can keep us in a cycle of scaring the crap out of ourselves. Mindfulness of our thoughts and feelings brings us back to what’s really happening.
So here are four ideas to help you get in touch with what you’re thinking so you can challenge thoughts that get in the way of creating the life you want.
Make friends with discomfort.
If you’re awake and breathing, you spend a lot of time feeling uncomfortable. You tell yourself you don’t like this, and you want that. So seeking pleasure and trying to get away from discomfort is natural. It just doesn’t work.
The trick is to get more comfortable with discomfort.
Typically, when I’m uncomfortable, I want to find out who or what is making me feel bad. And my first thought is not usually my own mind. But it turns out that my mind is the culprit more often than not.
“Life isn’t fair.” Where on earth did we come up with the idea that life would be fair? But how often do you hear yourself, or someone else, repeating that mindless phrase when they don’t like what they got.
“People are so unkind.” Come on! Human beings are sometimes kind. And often, they’re not. Spending even five minutes bemoaning someone else’s poor behavior is a recipe for endless misery. And a distraction from managing ourselves and others with kindness.
If you’re lucky enough to hang around for many years, life will hand you many uncomfortable moments. If you can experience them with some degree of acceptance, you will skip the soul-deadening activity of arguing with reality.
You may not prefer what you got, but if you can accept it, you can work with it. When you’re in resistance to what is, you are in a self-imposed prison.
My favorite mindfulness teacher, Joseph Goldstein, often encourages his students to practice ‘noting’ thoughts rather than attaching judgements to them.
For example, I have the thought, ‘It’s too hot.’ In my mind, I quietly say, ‘there is heat.’ The noting allows me to acknowledge a thought without attaching a troublesome judgment.
Is it really too hot? Or is it simply weather doing itself?
Noting allows us to make our peace with life, the present moment, and what is actually happening. We don’t have to prefer it. But if we don’t accept it, if we resist it, we’re magnifying and adding suffering to the experience.
We constantly process what’s happening around us in a non-stop barrage of observations, judgments, and questions. If we’re not aware of what we’re thinking, we can take ourselves down rabbit holes from which it’s hard to return.
Do The Work of Byron Katie.
Another way to challenge your thoughts is to do the work of Byron Katie. Katie came up with four questions and a turnaround that let us see the imaginary world we create with our shoulds, shouldn’ts, and projections.
Here’s an example:
State the problem: My friend should call me more often.
- Is it true?Yes, I really think she should call me more often.
- Can you absolutely know it’s true?Well, I guess I can’t say that she has to call me more often if she doesn’t want to. If she doesn’t want to get together, I probably don’t want to guilt her into it.
- How do I feel and how do I behave when I think she should call me more often?I feel angry and rejected. Then I withhold myself from her.
- How would I feel if I couldn’t have the thought that she should call me more often?I’d probably feel fine. At least I wouldn’t be angry or feel rejected.
- One or more turnarounds:1) My friend shouldn’t call me more often than she does if she doesn’t want to. 2) I should call my friend to talk with her more often.
The exciting thing about The Work is that it’s you alone with paper and pen (or laptop) challenging the stories that are making you miserable.
Doing The Work has often grounded me before I self-destructed.
Use Advice from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
ACT (Acceptance and Commitment therapy), a third wave Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach, suggests that the only meaning many of our thoughts have is the meaning we give them.
ACT’s basic premise is that by managing ourselves according to what we value, rather than making life decisions based on random, repetitive, and unpredictable thoughts and feelings, we can make choices that serve us.
You can challenge thoughts like, “I have to be a doctor because my father and grandfather are doctors, and it would kill my dad if I become a writer.”
Would it kill him? Or might it simply make him feel uncomfortable or disappointed for a bit?
Your values, rather than your thoughts, might remind you that life is short and you might be better off pursuing what draws and excites you if you want to be happy and feel fulfilled. So if you’re living according to your values, you might end up a dancer. And your dad might feel disappointed, but it certainly won’t kill him.
Challenging your thoughts is an ongoing process. You won’t arrive. You have no control over the random and repetitious thoughts that show up, or over what life hands you. But you can manage all of it if you’re able to see your thoughts for what they are — a bunch of words strung together, and the only meaning they have is the meaning you give them.
Use discomfort as a tool rather than a weapon aimed at yourself or someone else.
Enlarge your world.
Challenge every thought you have to ensure you’re not living someone else’s life.