Last week I talked about how the truth to taking action lies within the thoughts we think. Feelings of burnout – sadness, shame, exhaustion – don’t just magically appear. Just like feelings of happiness, joy and excitement don’t just magically appear. We can create any feeling we want by thinking a thought that produces a sensation in our bodies, which then drives us to take action (or the opposite, inaction!) Like I shared last week, there are of course circumstances that exist that may make this harder to do – systemic oppression, the environments we live and work in and our own history of mental health and physical wellbeing. But just because it might be harder, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? I wouldn’t be a coach if I didn’t think my influence could help other people. I cannot change people’s thoughts, but I can offer insight into their limiting beliefs, share new thoughts for them to try on and support them with that next breakthrough or aha moment. If you have nobody to support you at work or at home, it’s of course going to be more difficult.
YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS BRAIN TAKES THE WHEEL
The latest scientific research shows that human beings operate around 90% at a subconscious level. We use our conscious brain around 10% of the time. The subconscious things we do become our habits, behaviours and actions that are unintentional. At some point you may have learned a new habit, and after a certain period of time you no longer need to be an active participant in completing the actions that build the habit. Think about when you drive to work or your local supermarket. You don’t need to think about how to get there and which roads to take because it’s become a habit. When you drive somewhere new, you might look at a map, plan your route, take in all the scenery along the way and you pay more attention. This is your conscious brain at work.
The same thing happens with our thoughts. When we think something often enough, or get messages from our environment that we then internalise, our subconscious starts to take over. It’s like a filing cabinet in your mind that saves all the awful things you have ever heard or thought about yourself, just waiting ready to whip one out at any moment. It accepts these thoughts as a habit and so to conserve brain power, the subconscious takes over and does the heavy lifting. Can you imagine if we walked around being completely aware of all our thoughts 100% of the time? Of all our actions? It would be exhausting! Self-criticism and judgement does not produce positive action. They are more likely to produce inaction – actions that buffer us against exploring these thoughts and feelings. It’s like adding another layer to hide thoughts that we believe will hurt us. The truth is, none of these thoughts will hurt us. Even our feelings won’t hurt us. Our feelings are just physical sensations in our body, they will pass if we learn how to process them effectively. When we don’t learn how to do this, we end up suppressing them or buffering against them with negative experiences like over-indulging, breaking away from support systems, people-pleasing and more negative self-talk.
SPACE TO BREATHE
In an ideal world our feelings would be given space to exist and our thoughts would be shared and listened to, validated, and actions that create helpful results would occur. When we are in workplaces or family environments that do not support this vulnerability, then our feelings and thoughts are crushed and we start to believe that there is no way out. I had this exact experience working in toxic workplaces where individual voices were not recognised or respected. The problem exacerbated when I turned thoughts like, “There’s no way out, nothing will ever change…” into “I can’t help myself, I will never change, I can’t get away from this mess.” Turning the thoughts from being about the circumstances to being about a personal attribute is how people end up with depression, anxiety and even just general feelings of helplessness, sadness and upset. There is no space to breathe when your negative thoughts consume you.
“Too many people are unaware that it is not outer events or circumstances that will create happiness; rather, it is our perception of events and of ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions.” – Albert Ellis
So, how do we combat this? Here are two ways you can bring awareness to your thoughts that don’t require any other people to help you (disclaimer: it does however help to have someone ‘check your work’ and help you decipher what the thoughts and beliefs are that lie underneath the surface – this can be someone like a trusted friend, therapist, or even a coach like me!) Just remember, sometimes when you open this filing cabinet it can sometimes feel very overwhelming – remind yourself that you are actually safe here in this space and moment in time. You won’t get hurt like Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty!
STRATEGY 1: Thought Download
There are a few different ways you can get the thoughts in your head out and onto paper. Different people prefer different techniques, so do what feels good for you – the most important thing is getting them out of your head so you can take a really good look at them.
* Begin by setting yourself up for success: turn any distractions off and focus on just getting the thoughts out, it can be tempting to begin analysing them by (ironically!) thinking new thoughts about the thoughts!!! Try to resist this, let them go for now and just write out the thought as it presents itself.
* You can choose how long this takes by setting a timer – some people write longform pages such as Morning Pages, others do a short 5 minutes, some even do just one thought at a time in a list format (I personally do a mixture of all three, sometimes even just writing one on a post-it note if I notice it pop-up while I’m doing something else).
* You can do your thought downloads on paper or digitally – either is totally ok! Some people prefer to handwrite their thoughts, others prefer the extra level of security they feel they get if they save them in a digital format. It’s totally up to you.
* If you don’t know what to write, write that! Writing “I don’t know” or “This is boring!” over and over will eventually get something to shift in your thought process.
Writing your thoughts allows you to get some literal perspective – when they are out of your head you get distance from them and are reminded that YOU are not your thoughts.
STRATEGY 2: FEEL YOUR FEELINGS
Often when I do my play trainings (especially my ‘Worried about Behaviours?’ training!) I like to remind people that infants and toddlers are professionals at sharing their feelings. They need help? They ask for it!!! They just tend to do it in what we grown ups deem as socially unacceptable ways. As adults, we get all up in our thoughts and complicate things by asking for the opinions of others, seeking validation and comfort – sometimes to our own detriment as we start to not trust ourselves.
Our feelings are messages in your body saying ‘pay attention to me!’. For example, when you are sad or worried about a friend, your stomach might ‘tie in knots’. When you are falling in love, you might feel a warmth in your chest or a tingle on the hairs on your arm. These physical sensations eventually get given a name – sad, happy, excited, anxious. This is the vocabulary we use to help children label their feelings, in order to express themselves clearly to others. We need to talk about what that label FEELS like on the inside – tight chest, racing heart, hot cheeks, rumbling stomach.
The best way to do this is by learning how to do a body scan and doing it regularly. I talk about this in this blog post. Feeling your feelings and processing them all the way through frees up so much space in your body and mind.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
The thing I really love about these processes is you can also do them with the positive thoughts and feelings you have in your life – it doesn’t have to be only negative. When you REALLY feel those good feelings, you can begin to savour them. Savouring is an exercise that can actually prolong the positive feelings and even buffer against adversity and enable us to be more physically healthy too. When was the last time you really took delight in a feeling? In an experience? When did you give yourself permission to pause and party with your own self-generated happiness?
Want to take a deeper dive into digging through your thoughts? Work with me 1:1 with my Curiosity Coaching package. Four sessions of freeing up space in your mind to go after your hopes and dreams and get the results you want in your life! Want to share this with your teaching team? Hire me for well-being and self-care trainings here.
Questions or comments? Get in touch today: