Question:

I am seeing a therapist and she recommended Headspace – I’m only on to my fourth meditation practice so far. My problem is negative thoughts when it comes to my abilities to do absolutely anything, and being very nervous in social situations. I find it hard to make conversation and hard to make friends. I find I am always tense and self aware when talking to people. I also convince myself I can’t do something before I’ve even tried, or am waiting for myself to fail, or find I’m criticizing whatever I do until I give up. This means it’s hard to improve on what I can already do. Any advice as to how to combat the negative voices and introduce some more encouraging ones?!

Thanks for your time any advice you have!

Andy’s answer:

Great to hear your therapist is recommending Headspace alongside the therapy sessions and well done for signing up.

You say your problem is negative thought. But if I may, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. I suspect it is actually your reaction to the thoughts which is causing a feeling of discomfort and stress, as opposed to the thoughts themselves. At first this may sound neither here nor there, but it’s actually a really important difference which is very subtle and surprisingly difficult to spot.

So, let’s say a thought arises in the mind. Ok, at that stage, in that very first moment, we cannot say that it is either good or bad. Without us giving it meaning, a thought is simply a thought. Needless to say, we have a lifetime of association of what we think is good and what we think is bad. So, usually we will be quick to label the thought as good or bad and head off down our habitual pattern of thought. This might be into a spiral of sadness, anxiety, frustration or any number of emotions.

The good news is that this is completely normal. Sure there’s a spectrum, a range, and at certain times in life we might lean more toward one end than the other, but the truth is that everyone experiences these thought patterns to some degree. It’s just a part of what makes us human. It’s tempting to think that the “real” human experience is being free from any so-called negative thoughts and feelings, but in fact it has much more to do with being aware of them, at ease with them, and cultivating a sense of empathy knowing that others experience them too. This alone can help us feel less isolated.

So it then becomes more about what we can do to be more aware of this habitual reaction to our thoughts and feelings. How can we learn to witness them without ignoring them on the one hand, resisting them on the other, and at the same time not getting involved in them and overthinking it all. That’s really where meditation and mindfulness come in. Mindfulness is more about how we maintain that sense of stability in everyday life, no longer being overwhelmed by the mind. Meditation is more about taking a small period of time out each day to get more comfortable and confident with that feeling of simply being present.

While it is possible to “try and think” more positive thoughts, I’m always a little dubious of this approach. It’s almost like a form of denial if we are feeling unhappy and really being honest with ourselves, to sit there and repeat “I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy,” fearful that the not-so-happy thoughts might arise. Instead, we can take a slightly more courageous position of standing back and starting to see those thoughts with a different perspective, knowing firsthand that they are just thoughts which we can learn to let go of.

But it’s important to recognize that these thought patterns can be quite stubborn sometimes and it is unrealistic to expect them to change overnight. That’s not to say you won’t experience some immediate changes, but it is good to look at meditation as a journey of a lifetime. So approach this skill like any other skill, knowing that it takes practice, patience and time. But the rewards are far beyond escaping thoughts we don’t like. Instead, meditation offers us the potential of a mind which is calm, clear, caring and content, at ease when we are alone or with others and no matter where we are or what we are doing.

Warm wishes,

Andy