Last spring, I was asked a seemingly simple question: “What do you think about?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You mean like, in general, or ..?” I didn’t understand what kind of answer this person was expecting to such a broad inquiry. She continued, “As you go about your day, what kinds of thoughts enter your head? Where does the narrative of your mind go?” I walked through what I had done that day, and recalled whatever accompanying thoughts popped to the surface. As my words hit the air, she looked at me with this strange mix of love and pity. “Don’t you see? Your thoughts are ruling and ruining you.” Our conversation was about how I felt spiritually and physically exhausted all the time without knowing why. She revealed to me: if I wasn’t thinking about everything I had to do, or chastising myself for procrastination, I was appraising what I just did- what there too much of X? Not enough of Y? Should I have done Z instead? If I had interacted with someone- was I open enough? What kind of vibe was I giving off? Do they actually like me? When I looked in the mirror- am I gaining weight? Are my eyebags getting worse? When I looked at my boyfriend- are we getting stronger? Will we last to the summer, to the winter, to next spring? Along with the omnipresent questions- am I working hard enough? Where is my life going? What am I eating for dinner? Somehow I was oblivious to the fact that everywhere I looked, quite literally, there was a queue of questions and worries waiting to have their turn at the center of my attention.
Psych literature hasn’t reached a consensus on how many thoughts per day we have- the guesses range from 25,000 to 80,000- but they’re on the same page about this: 70% or more of them tend to be negative, and 95% or more tend to be repetitive, meaning exactly the same things you told yourself yesterday. Depression, anxiety, and all their cousins are all very much real. They have an equally real solution, namely, the reframing of your thoughts. But it’s just not that easy. I know. But I tried that before and it didn’t work. Yes, I’m sure.But I’m just wired this way. A fallacy. The brains defining feature is plasticity, or the ability to rewire itself, after it encounters new thoughts, behaviors, and experiences enough times.
It’s common knowledge that our thinking plays a part in our wellbeing, but I don’t think we always grasp how critical that fact is and the urgency it deserves. Either you control your headspace or it controls you. You wouldn’t leave a toddler unchecked to do whatever he or she wants- you’d have food, dirty diapers, piles of toys, crayon markings all over your home. So why leave your mind alone to its devices to leave a mess in your mental home with criticisms, worries, and other negative thoughts? Your subconscious ego isn’t too far off from a toddler and it needs the same refining and discipline.
You can’t magically force every thought to be positive- negative ones will come- but you can declare to the kind of space you want for yourself and choose what to accept. You have the power to say no as soon as the wrong thoughts start creeping up. And you’ve seen what happens a parent tells their 3 year old no. There’s resistance. Nonetheless, the parent who puts their foot down, amid the persistent temper tantrums, knows that they’re establishing a standard for what is and isn’t okay. Eventually the child will learn to align with those standards and moreover, respect the parent’s authority. Are you setting a standard for your mind to align to? Are you showing your mind your authority?
So often we place our feelings and thoughts on a pedestal, and that’s why they come back, stronger and stronger. Sometimes you have to say ‘Wait no, I’m the master, not the slave’ and reestablish your position over anything that doesn’t serve you. Seriously, talk back to yourself. Interrupt the ‘I’m so stupid, why did I do that? I always do things wrong and I don’t know how i’m going to-‘ mid thought and say ‘Sorry no, my mind is sacred and this can’t continue’. Keep doing it every time that narrative tries to mutiny you. When we become intentional about making healthy headspace, those thoughts and worries learn to come back less and less because they don’t get the same attention they used to. And with all that leftover space in your mind, you can think about real things, like your accomplishments , what's actually going right in your life, and all your goals. Rewire until that becomes the norm.