By: Mounia Sami, M.A.
When things get hard and we feel like everything is going all wrong, work is stressful, relationships are strained, and loneliness settles, we might start thinking of ourselves as broken. “Why can’t I get along with other?” “Is something wrong with me?” Lots of people go to therapy because they want to “fix” themselves, implying that something is intrinsically wrong with them, that this is who they are, and they need to change. Sometimes, we are so caught up in these feelings and thoughts that we are not even aware of them. When this is the case, we get so close to our feelings and thoughts that we start identifying with them, in other words, we become them. We believe that everything that our minds tell us about ourselves is true. “If I can’t finish my work on time, then I must be bad at my job” it only makes sense, right? Only if you believe it! A good way to get out of this mindset is to perceive our thoughts as no more than words and images that our brain is creating. Thoughts are real and exist for a reason, but they are not necessarily true, and they definitely do not define who we are as a person. You are not your thought: you can have a bad grade at school and be a good student, you can become angry towards your significant other and be a good life partner, you may have trouble making friends and be an interesting person to get to know. Because this all about the words we choose when we talk to ourselves, telling ourselves that we may be stuck instead of inherently flawed, makes all the difference. This is what will allow us to notice our thoughts when they happen, rather than get caught up in them or let them “bully us around.” Taking a healthy distance from our thoughts is not quick and easy and requires practice. One helpful first step to take in that direction may be to move from saying “I am bad at my job” to “I am having a thought that I am bad at my job” or “I am noticing that my mind is telling me…” In addition to that tip, I’d to pass along a helpful meditative technique that may just work for you, if you give it a try. It is called “Leaves on a Stream” and helps with observing thoughts with openness and curiosity, and no judgment. Here goes:
1. Find a comfortable position and close your eyes
2. Picture yourself sitting by a gentle stream of water, and there are leaves slowly flowing past on the surface of the stream.
3. Take any thoughts you are having right now and place each one on its own leaf, and let it float by. Whether the thought is positive or negative, just put it on a leaf and let the water take it away.
4. Try not to control the speed of the water, let it flow at its own rate and keep observing your thoughts without washing leaves away. They come and go on their own time.
5. Whether a leaf floats by fast or gets stuck, let it them float at their own rate, don’t try to force a leaf to float away or keep a leaf from floating away.
6. When difficult feelings come up, simply acknowledge them. “Here’s a feeling of anger, boredom, impatience…” place them on a leaf, and let them go.
7. It is normal to find yourself losing track of the exercise. When this happens, gently acknowledge it, and then start the exercise again.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple : an easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy . New Harbinger Publications.