“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. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.”
-Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is
I’m fully human and wholly imperfect and I want to make a not-so-secret confession: I still revert to a victim mindset from time to time. I often attach to stories that don’t serve me or make up stories in my head. I even fall into the trap of giving my thoughts too much power.
The difference is that now that I’m doing the work, I see these moments as opportunities–not failures. I see them as circumstances from which I can learn and grow, and that is what grants me autonomy and freedom.
At this point in my journey, I actually kind of love it when an icky thought creeps into my head. It gives me a chance to decide whether or not to attach to it and what meaning I will give the thought. Because it is, after all, entirely my choice to believe the story.
We all have a negative story that we’ve attached to in some capacity. A story or a thought, that when we allow it to have power, brings us suffering and dissatisfaction.
“I’m a failure.”
“I can’t do anything right.”
“My mother didn’t love me.”
“I’m not pretty enough.”
“I’ll never be successful.”
“I’m a failure as a parent.”
“I’ll never get out of debt.”
“I ruin everything good in my life.”
“I have no control over my eating.”
“I’ll never be in a successful relationship.”
“I’m stuck in a job that I hate.”
These stories seriously suck, yet we repeat them so often that we really and truly believe them–no matter how far off from reality they might be. But we don’t have to give these stories power, and that’s where the freedom part comes in.
The real danger with thoughts is not the thoughts themselves; it is the meaning we attach to them, and from that meaning we derive our story. The story is powerful, but only because we give it so much power.
Wow. Isn’t that just an unbelievably empowering concept? The idea that the story is out of your hands makes you powerless; it makes you a victim. But realizing that you don’t have to attach to the story, that you can reframe it or let go of it–that’s some powerful stuff.
Of course it isn’t possible or even advisable to eliminate negative thoughts completely. But it is entirely possible to strip the story of it’s power, and stop attaching meaning to it. Through awareness, ownership, compassion, and repetition, we can begin to live a life where our thoughts no longer cause suffering.
Step One: Awareness
First, become aware of the thoughts and the story you tell yourself. Carry a journal with you everywhere and write it down. Become fully aware of the frequency and the power with which the story determines your mood and your daily actions.
This is integral, however: Awareness is not judgment.
It is gentle, honest discernment. True awareness is simply becoming conscious of your thoughts and their effect. There is no judgment here, only mindfulness.
Step Two: Ownership
Secondly, affirm that these are your thoughts. They aren’t facts. They aren’t unchangeable laws of the universe. They may be the result of heavy burdens you’ve carried for years, but they can be set down. They can be turned around.
But you can only do this if you face them, see them for what they are, and take ownership of them as thoughts and thoughts alone. Think of this as the personal responsibility piece–the thing that helps you feel in your power.
Step Three: Compassion
Here is where you turn the thoughts around. When you think to yourself “I’m so fat” write it down. Then directly underneath it, begin to examine how this thought has ravaged your self esteem and dictated your actions.
Come face to face with how deeply the thought of punishing yourself for being “fat” has hurt you. Then begin to list all of the things you love about yourself–both physically and otherwise.
Let yourself feel free-flowing love and compassion for the amazing person that you are right now, while making plans to improve and evolve. There’s no rule that says you can’t like yourself NOW and still want to change.
The next time you have the thought “I’m so fat” immediately change that thought to “I would like to lose some body fat” or “I am working to cultivate a healthy body.” Initially, you’ll cultivate thoughts of a positive nature that tell a constructive story, and eventually, you won’t need the story at all.
Believe it or not, this is much more easily done when compassion is in the picture; shaming yourself into change is not productive or sustainable.
Step Four: Repetition
Practice, practice, practice. That’s how we change a habit, and that’s the truest and surest path to freedom from our thoughts. It’s not sexy or especially fascinating, but it’s the truth.
Go through the first three steps over and over and over again. Don’t judge yourself for negative thoughts or the power you’ve given them. Don’t get frustrated when you stumble and revert to the old story. Just begin again with awareness and move forward through compassion.
If you commit to this process, again and again, you will indeed find freedom, autonomy, and bliss.