By: Mayer Solomon, LCSW-C
Do you ever feel like you’re not really in charge of what you think about? Maybe you keep worrying how things will work out, or you judge yourself about past choices.
Steve used to be quite anxious and was dragged wherever his worry thoughts took him.
“Am I saying the wrong thing? Are people going to think I’m not smart?”
He had a hard time enjoying things. He’d be out at a nice restaurant, but stuck in the past.
“Did I pick the wrong restaurant? Should I have ordered a different menu item? Did I deserve to get my way?”
He’d often find himself worrying about things beyond his control. He’d be at work and get pulled into the future.
“Will I know what to say at the meeting tomorrow? Will I get out of work on time? Will I be able to find parking?”
Now when Steve’s worry or guilt turns on, he knows how to take charge of his mind. He has less worry, enjoys life more, and feels more confident. He began practicing Mindfulness to become the director of his thoughts.
Mindfulness in Action
Mindfulness is about focusing your attention:
Bring Attention to the Present Moment
When you focus on the past you likely feel regret and depression. Similarly, when your attention goes to the future, you’ll usually end up thinking “what if!” and be left with a sense of anxiety and worry.
By bringing your attention to the present moment you can help yourself feel better and accomplish more. The present moment is the only moment that we actually have any control over. If you feel bad about the past, you can make amends in the present moment. If you want the future to go well, it’s in the present moment that you can prepare.
Focus on One Thing
Have you ever eaten a ton of chocolate while watching TV and been like, “Hey...Where’d all my chocolate go!?” Because your focus was split and not intentioned you missed the potential pleasure in that experience (but still got all the calories)!
The next time you’re eating chocolate take a moment to bring your full attention to the texture, smell, look, and taste of it. You might be surprised how much taste and pleasure is actually in each bite.
Focusing on one thing in the moment helps decrease both emotional and physical pain. Is the glass half full or half empty? It’s both, but how you feel will depend on which part of the glass you choose to focus your attention on.
Observe the Moment Non-Judgmentally: Choose Acceptance
You may think being harsh on yourself will prevent you from doing something regrettable again, but in reality what helps you change is:
When you fail a test or get embarrassed in a social situation, it’s not the beating yourself up that helps, it’s the being aware and doing something differently. Judgment really does two things that are problematic:
Instead of judgment, practice Acceptance. We hear that word thrown around a lot, but it’s often misunderstood. Acceptance is not about approving of or even liking something that didn’t go well or that we regret; acceptance is about not fighting reality.
When we fight reality, we lose. The more we accept the moment we are stuck in, the more we have the ability to think and problem solve. Trying to fight reality often makes the situation worse and leads to suffering. Said differently: Pain + Non Acceptance = Suffering.
Acceptance is about “being in the present moment as it is” and making the most of it. If we are experiencing emotional pain, acceptance is about recognizing “I am in pain now, but if I choose effectively in the present moment, I can decrease my pain.”
Often times there are multiple things you can focus on in any given moment, so how do you decide what to focus on? Effectiveness is about doing what works-- focusing your attention on what will help. For example if you’re at a restaurant with friends and someone you don’t like is there, you can get caught up in them, or you can keep refocusing your attention to the people you are enjoying being with.
You might wonder, if my attention is in the present moment, how do I repair mistakes from the past, or how do I prepare for the future.
It’s effective to reflect on the past and learn from it, but once your reflecting becomes “dwelling” on the past or getting caught up in what I “should” have done, your mind is no longer in an effective place. If you notice this happening, invite your attention back to what’s effective in the present moment.
Similarly, recognizing you need to prepare for something in the future is important, but “worrying” about the future is not. Once you know what you need to do, then you want to bring your attention to what you can do in the present moment. If you have a job interview tomorrow, it doesn’t help to worry about whether the interviewer will like you or not. Instead it’ll be more effective to identify concrete ways to prepare for the interview, and then focus your energy on doing that preparation.
Strengthening Your Mind’s Attention Muscle to Help Relieve Anxiety
By learning skills to focus your attention in the present moment, you can create greater joy and pleasure in your life. Think of your attention as a muscle, if you haven’t worked it out, it won’t be as strong as you need it to be. Mindfulness helps you strengthen your minds attention muscle so you can feel better and connect to greater joy in your life.
Wishing you the best on your mindfulness journey,
Mayer and The Team
Want to learn more about decreasing judgment and self-criticism?
You’ll like this audio lecture... Stopping Judgment and Self-Criticism from a DBT Perspective
Acknowledgments: The above ideas are based on the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Thank you to Dr. Linehan and my DBT teachers. Want to learn more about how DBT can help you? Visit our DBT page.
Mindfulness is about focusing one's attention, non-judgmentally, in the present moment. It's about awareness and paying attention in a way that makes experiencing life more enjoyable, and in difficult times more bearable. When we turn our mind to the future, it often creates anxiety and worry about what will be. When we turn our mind to the past, it often leads to regret and depression about what we "should have" done. By focusing on the present moment, without judgment of how the moment "should" be, we are better able to embrace reality as it is and either accept or change it as appropriate. Mindfulness can be a helpful way to deal with difficult emotions.
The following Mindfulness writing by Thich Nhat Hanh is a beautiful application of mindfulness for help with anger...
The first function of mindfulness is to recognize, not to fight. "Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me. Hello, my little anger." And breathing out, "I will take good care of you."
Once we have recognized our anger, we embrace it. This is the second function of mindfulness and it is a very pleasant practice. Instead of fighting, we are taking good care of our emotion. If you know how to embrace your anger, something will change.
It is like cooking potatoes. You cover the pot and then the water will begin to boil. You must keep the stove on for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. Your anger is a kind of potato and you cannot eat a raw potato.
Mindfulness is like the fire cooking the potatoes of anger. The first few minutes of recognizing and embracing your anger with tenderness can bring results. You get some relief. Anger is still there, but you do not suffer so much anymore, because you know how to take care of your baby. So the third function of mindfulness is soothing, relieving. Anger is there, but it is being taken care of. The situation is no longer in chaos, with the crying baby left all alone. The mother is there to take care of the baby and the situation is under control.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
-Viktor E. Frankl