Too often I feel like I’m not in the driver’s seat of my life. Thought spirals take over the current moment. Other people decide over what I want to do. Can I ever take back control of my life?
Most teachings of spirituality or happiness want to lead your thoughts and actions towards alignment with some intrinsic voice. Well, fuck. I guess I’m not enlightened.
In these situations, I feel like a paralyzed observer of an accident unfolding. I observe myself being overwhelmed, feeling hopeless, ruminating, or taking an action I don’t actually want to do, such as continuing a bad habit, procrastinating, or saying “yes” just to please others.
When observing this passiveness, trying to get out can seem hopeless. Eventually, even positive thoughts feel like motion when stuck in quicksand.
But the first step was to become aware of this situation. Done.
There are tools, kind of quick fixes, from different therapeutic schools, that allow for temporary relief. If applied on a regular basis, they can even lead to long-term continuous improvements. This requires self-responsibility, though.
This is a collection I’ve written for myself, maybe it can help others as well. For me, scientific proof points for a technique’s effectiveness is important. Hence, all techniques in this collection are based in at least one evidence-based therapeutic school. They are not designed for sustainably pulling someone out of a severe depression. They do not replace professional help. This list is based on my non-professional understanding.
Think of these exercises to remove the fog around you for you to see more clearly and start acting to pave a sustainable way towards wherever you want to go.
Write down what you’re telling yourself and re-evaluate its truth
Take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. It’s important that it’s not digital and that it’s not just in your head. Write down on top of the left side the feelings you’re experiencing and rank them on a scale of 1–10, e.g. anxious-9, guilty-8. Below them on the left side, write down all kinds of thoughts that are related to these feelings. These are the things you automatically start and keep telling yourself in that situation. These will be at least 3–4 statements of one or more sentences.
Now, it’s time to re-evaluate the written down statements. For each statement, think of an objective voice formulating a more rational and friendly response and write it down on the right side next to it. Be aware that typical distortions for your destructive inner voice include: all-or-nothing thinking, fortune-telling, exaggeration, assuming responsibility. Here’s a full list. Make it your mission to uncover these. Finally, write down on the top of the right side the feelings you’re experiencing with a grade from 1–10.
Invite your inner voices and actors for a civilized debate
This technique requires a bit more awareness and practice than the others, but can also serve with more insight as a result. It is the basis of the therapeutic school called Internal Family Systems (IFS). The idea is to better understand and deal with the different parts of your mental system. The underlying powerful idea is that every part inside you wants to protect you in some way, even though it makes you suffer or forces you to take negative actions, like your inner critic. By creating a relationship with these parts you can become the director of your inner zoo and make sure every part pulls eventually in the same direction.
First, recognize the loudest part of your inner family responsible for the current negativity. Focus on it. Then talk to it in a friendly way to find out what it aims to achieve, what it fears, what it wants for you. Eventually, ask it to step a bit into the background for the moment, so that you can talk to other parts that come up. Finally, you can negotiate with each of your parts and guide communication between them. Sometimes it can help to actually instantiate the parts with physical objects in front of you. Warning: never try to fully suppress or kill a part. It will come back.
Recommended resource to get going with this: Greater than the sum of our parts. Check out the first meditation there.
Create a calendar event with your feelings as guests
Become aware of which emotions are underlying your current mood. Instead of “anxiety”, it should rather be fear of being alone or sadness. Prepare some requisites that are related to this emotion or make the emotion explicit somehow. Next, take a time, e.g. half an hour, to invite and welcome these emotions fully. You can do this very explicitly by talking to them. Allow yourself to fully feel and engage with these emotions. Cry. Scream. But really listen to your body and let it express itself. When the time is over you consciously and emotionally thank your body and emotions and allow them to gently step into the background. The event is over and the time has started to focus on other emotions again.
Use humor to laugh at yourself or other objects of negativity
Transform your negative emotions using humor. I guess humor and negativity cannot really coexist.
This technique always came accidentally and unintentionally for help, even though I occasionally read about it. Personally, I find it helps particularly for anger.
Just imagine your object of negativity in the funniest way possible. Equip your coworker that you want to strangle in your fantasy with some clown costume while they fall of a chair in a meeting. Visualize the scene in full detail and observe yourself smile. Or visualize your inner annoying voice in a funny way:
One time, I took a wrong steep hill. I was trailrunning already for over 4 hours and took the time to really consider that this was the right turn. My water was basically gone, I was quite exhausted and was looking forward to arriving back at my van. When I realized that I’ve made all the way up that hill just to add another hour to my run, I got into a pretty angry headspace. It struck me as really powerful how this ended: for some reason I started visualizing myself as an overweight complaining-about-everything hiker and started laughing about this. The dissonance of how I want to see myself and this visualization was so drastic and ironic, that it made it impossible for me to be angry and I went fully into an enjoying flow state, feeling even stronger than before.
Mindfully meditate your way out of it
Practice mindfulness meditation and see where it leads you. You might be calmer afterward and in a position to make better decisions. A guided meditation focusing on gratitude, self-love, or self-compassion. Check out the insight timer app which allows you to filter for these meditations (even different emotions).
Bonus meditations: visualizations
Quick-relief: you’re a mountain that cannot be shaken
When you’re experiencing an inner storm, just sit down stably and comfortably with eyes closed. While trying to enjoy your own breath, play vividly with imagining yourself to be a stationary majestic mountain with clouds (your thoughts) coming by. Notice how sometimes there’s more thoughts, sometimes less, but the mountain stands still. Eventually, the thoughts always pass by.
Where do you want to get?
Note that for different forms of success there is a technique that is proven to be effective and basically used by every top-athlete. Visualize success. However, it’s typically not a quick fix for me, but more beneficial when done on a regular basis, like a process tool. Still, this could be helpful as a quick-relief: visualize yourself in a different position and very, very vividly visualize every little step in every detail of the flawless execution of getting there.
Don’t reward the negativity—distract yourself
Well. I think it’s not my favorite advice, as it is often used in a way that invalidates perceived suffering: “Just be happy instead”. But distraction can help in certain situations, where you don’t want to let your negative emotions to take over. Redirect your energy into something beneficial for you. Go for a run. Engage someone in a conversation. Or in physical contact. Read a book. Play music. Think of a positive upcoming happening. Just learn to give less attention time to your negativity.
Remember that distraction might shed new light on your mood. Use this to get out. Don’t get addicted to distractions to escape dealing with your situation.
Bonus distraction: go for a challenging workout
Exhaust yourself with some exercise. This requires a special mention since it is a pro-active way of dealing with the situation: you will not just distract yourself but also align your hormones beneficially to get out of your situation and profit from other causalities that explain the correlation of exercise and your mental wealth.
Bonus distraction: reconnect with friends you haven’t talked to for years
Also, this one can be seen as distracting yourself (see below). But this one also deserves a special mention, since social relationships play a special role in your biology and psychology. Plus, you might have someone to talk about your situation if you wish.
Sometimes it can be hard to reach out to old friends in such a bad headspace since you might feel embarrassed for your current situation or whatever your negative narrator comes up with to prevent you from doing this. Reach out to good friends that won’t judge you for not connecting in a long time and that do still care about you. Just reach out to them and express your gratitude or positive feelings for them by naming a specific memory. You will see it’s easy, low-risk, and gratifying.
Realize how everyone has their baggage to carry
This is particularly helpful if part of your negative headspace includes comparing yourself to others. Everyone, really everyone, has their insecurities, fears, and so on. It’s really just part of the human condition. The more you feel like someone is more successful, prettier, more popular or whatever than you, the more you can assume that they have other depths of instabilities haunting their mental states. We’re all on the journey to somehow better deal with this, consciously or not. Also, notice to not judge yourself for this. The darkest moments can lead to the most profound and lasting insights about your life.
Oh, there is also an app that has just launched that I found to be profoundly helpful with this realization.
Here are some things which won’t help me. Please don’t do them.
But it’s really hard to actually not do them. Please don’t. Remember: be friendly to yourself.
- Random inspirational quotes
- Going on facebook, reddit, or whatever entertainment platform
- Staying inside or laying in bed all-day
- Drinking alcohol or smoking pot
- Talk to people that want to give advice instead of listening
- Self-isolate yourself for days (or at least, if you do, digitally engage in a community, such as NOCD, human.online, or one of these subreddits)
This text is now my reference for when things get worse. For this reason, I’ll also keep it up-to-date if I find new fixes that work for me. Maybe it helps you too.
Never forget: you create your reality. At the end of the day, it’s all about being friendlier to yourself and taking more self-responsibility. This is such a complex journey, though.