As I’ve started to clear the physical clutter from my life, processing my past and letting go of things that don’t support my values, I am left with my thoughts. Thoughts are not inherently good or bad- we can’t control having them anyway. But when these thoughts distract us, limit our potential, and keep us from the life we want to live, they turn into mental clutter.
Mental clutter can be harder to remove than physical clutter because it isn’t visible to others. My husband may notice a messy countertop, but may not be aware of the running to-do list or negative self-talk in my head. It’s only when this clutter manifests itself in my words and actions that other people become aware. I’m distracted when my kids try to get my attention, or my husband notices that I’m blinking away tears because I’m tearing myself down for not being a good enough mom or wife.
I’ve been focusing so much on letting go of physical items that no longer serve a purpose, but what if I gave the same focus and intention to letting go of thoughts that no longer serve my highest good? Here are four things that are helping me right now.
Try Morning Pages and a trusted system for the never-ending to-do list.
I have heard great things about Morning Pages, a term coined by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way to describe writing longhand, a stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning. As she states, they “provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.” I am trying to make a daily habit out of Morning Pages as part of my morning routine. Throughout the day, however, I follow David Allen’s advice to put notes, reminders, and appointments in a trusted system instead of constantly saying to myself, “Oh! I need to remember to do that.” I use Evernote for notes and to-do’s, Wunderlist for shopping lists, and a shared family Google Calendar for appointments. As Allen says in his popular book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, “There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.” By getting to-do’s out of my head, I can then focus on the most important things to accomplish in my day. (“Keeping kids alive” is always at the top of the list, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been successful at it so far.)
Observe your limiting or negative thoughts and then detach from them.
Our brains are constantly thinking, making judgments and decisions, and providing our internal narrative. Because we can’t control thoughts, they can overwhelm us quickly. Our “stream of consciousness” may start out calm and clear, but can quickly turn into a murky, raging river. This is especially toxic when it comes to negative self-talk, often triggered by a stressful event. I snap at my toddler when he is whining or I make unhealthy food choices during a stressful day and then berate myself for being a bad mom with no self-control. When this happens, it’s easy to hitch a ride with these thoughts on the express route to Shameville.
But what if instead of getting into the crazy car, we decide to stand back and watch it go by? Take a breath. A pause. It can be as short or as long as you want. Realize that this is a thought you are having, but it is not you. Even if it’s a limiting thought that supports a limiting belief about yourself (I am eating these sweets because I am weak and a sugar addict). Or a thought that supports the narrative that’s been in your head as long as you can remember, so you think it is who you are (I am not technically inclined, so I shouldn’t even try to figure it out). It is not.
Like many moms, I frequently find myself jumping into the “I’m not a good mom” car. I react to something my kids do and the voice in my head starts up: “What’s wrong with you? You always wanted to be a mom, but you’d never know it by how you’re acting. You’re impatient and ungrateful. They deserve better.”
Ouch. Instead of believing this negative self-talk as truth, what if I paused and simply observed it but didn’t attach to it, or to the emotions I felt in the heat of the moment? “I experienced anger and frustration and then acted in a way that I’m not happy about. That makes me human. It does not make me a bad mom.”
Question your limiting and negative thoughts.
Once you have observed and detached from your limiting and negative thoughts, you can start to question them. I recently read Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie, where she details a type of inquiry she developed called The Work. It has profoundly changed the way that I look at attaching to thoughts and the suffering that can result. As she states, “It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring.”
According to Katie, the first question to ask is, “Is it true?” You can only answer yes or no, which usually stops me in my tracks. If for some reason it doesn’t, the second question, “Can you absolutely know it’s true?” certainly does. Since I’ve been doing The Work with my limiting and negative thoughts, I haven’t found that any of my negative self-talk has actually been true. The third question is, “How do you react, what happens when you believe that thought?” and the fourth is, “Who would you be without the thought?” Simple inquiry helps me nip limiting and negative thoughts in the bud before they cause an emotional downward spiral, and prevents me from attaching to these thoughts in the future.
Meditation helps me focus on an anchor other than my thoughts, so my thoughts don’t weigh me down. It is a focused exercise in pausing, observing, and not attaching to thoughts so that I become more aware of my internal dialogue the rest of the day. It also helps me find the Sacred Pause between a stressful situation and my reaction. Viktor E. Frankl puts it this way, “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.”
Our thoughts aren’t going away anytime soon, but through intentional observation and inquiry, we can combat the mental clutter that keeps us from living our most exceptional life.