How To Entertain Your Mental Hijack
Loosen the grip of the painful thoughts that are busily generating personal stories of failure, fraud, shame, and fear.
You are sitting in the office conference room with your colleagues and hear yourself say something that you immedPiately judge as stupid and unnecessary. For the next 30 minutes, the only conversation you hear is the dialogue in your head narrated by shame and self-loathing. Your world shrinks. You feel like your mind is devouring itself. You narrow your attention, focusing only on the stupid comment, and what it now means about your reputation. You have been hijacked by your brain.
Why? Because your brain is trying to make sense of the painful experience to better deal with it. Your brain is seeking control to avoid the same mistake in the future. When your brain takes control, you get hijacked by your emotions and your inner narrator. A mental hijack is the focus on specific thoughts or feelings at the exclusion of all else. We all get hijacked by shame, fear, anger, and anxiety. What we do about it is what transforms our relationship to it.
David Kessler, author of the book Capture, provides a framework for this mental hijack. He suggests a hijack happens,
“When something commands our attention in a way that feels uncontrollable, and in turn, influences our behavior, we experience capture.” The event “takes hold of our attention,” and with this increased focus, “the way we think and feel may not be what we consciously want.”
Said differently, you feel as if your brain has taken over, and your ability to regulate your response has been hijacked.
You’re now in a mind bind — your brain instinctively wants control, and demands increased focus as a way to resolve the discomfort; yet, the more focus you give the situation, the stronger the mental bind. In other words, the more you repeat the capture, the more your working memory retains it. Known in psychology as experience dependent neuroplasticity, and commonly phrased, “what fires together wires together,” the more you linger over the situation, the stronger the capture becomes.
As the response grows stronger, and in discord with your intention, you feel you are losing control. And once you feel a loss of control, you try to regain control by arguing with your brain. On and on this cycle continues. And this cycle only serves to strengthen the pathways in your brain.
The way out of mental hijack is to do the opposite of your instinct. The way out of mental hijack is to release control and surrender.
Return to the 2,500 year-old philosophy and Buddhist practice of mindfulness to cultivate an open and non-reactive awareness. The result is a nimble, flexible, non-judgmental state of mind that is ready to respond in a curious and neutral way. In this state of awareness, when your mind is hijacked, you do not let it hold your focus or carry your thoughts off in a new direction.
Rather, you openly monitor your inner experience (i.e., your emotions, thoughts, and sensations,) acknowledge them, and then release them.
An allegory I read long ago explains how to achieve this inner state of open, acknowledged awareness. Imagine your mental hijack as a person knocking at your door. Let’s say your mental hijack is shame and self-loathing for example. In your mind’s eye, give shape to shame’s image. Imagine shame knocking on your door. What you do next matters. You can choose to let shame in and allow it to take over your house. Shame can take over in two ways: 1) You perseverate on how shame is right by scanning for evidence — you are an imposture, you are a failure, you really are an idiot. Or, 2) you perseverate on how you’ll behave differently next time — I should have said xyz, next time I will make a better plan so I don’t look like an idiot. In both of these mental models, you give shame the run of your house by agreeing with it or defending against it. In either of these options, you strengthen your association with shame. It doesn’t go away.
Another option is to invite shame in for tea and get curious. This type of invitation is what Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at U of Mass, calls mindfulness. You bring non-judgemental awareness to thought rather than substituting a negative thought or emotion for a positive thought or emotion, or rather than controlling a thought or emotion,
“you’re looking at the direct essence of thoughts and recognizing that your thoughts are actually little ‘secretions’ of the mind that come and go very quickly, and they only have power over us if we believe that they are true — that their content is indistinguishable from fact.” says Kabat-Zinn.
This process of mindfulness is like opening the door and inviting shame in for tea, and by so doing, you recruit another dimension of yourself that allows you to look with compassion and curiosity. Then all of the sudden you’re looking with a different kind of lens.
So how do you loosen the hold of thoughts busily generating personal stories of failure, fraud, shame, and fear? The key is not to argue the facts; trying to think your way out of a rumination only deepens the ruts of the neural pathways. Rather you invite the thought and emotion in, to sit on the sofa, while you sit next to it and recognize “the toxic pattern of self-deprecation is really just a thought habit.” says Kabat-Zinn.
“Moment by moment you call upon your body sensations and your inner awareness to stand back and see thoughts as just thoughts. “You exercise that muscle over and over again, then you can actually shift the default mode to realize that ‘Oh here I go again, that old pattern is emerging, but if I hold it to awareness, I don’t have to collapse to it.”
Gathering the courage to change is perhaps one of the most courageous parts of transformation, as it requires a deliberate leap into the unknown. The next time you’re hijacked, surrender through mindful curiosity and compassion. Stop trying to control your emotion by fighting the feeling. Stop trying to control the thought by debating with your brain.
Surrender and get curious with these two questions: 1) What am I afraid will happen? 2) What does this mean to me?
Mental Hijack: “You sounded like an idiot and added no value to the meeting. What the hell were you thinking speaking up outside of your area of expertise?”
Mindful You: “What are you afraid will happen?”
Mental Hijack: “That the team will think you are stupid.”
Mindful You: “What does this mean to you?”
Mental Hijack: “What does this mean!? I’ll tell you what this means. You are an idiot. You know better. You should have written your cogent one liner before you voiced your psycho babble. Your CEO now knows you’re an imposture. The team sees you for what you really are — a fraud.”
Mindful You: “Good to know. It may be true that I sounded like an idiot. I can see how that bothers you. You feel vulnerable and exposed. You feel weak and stupid. I choose to see that making a stupid comment does not mean I’m stupid. Adding no value to the conversation does not mean I am have no value. I can hear your fear and understand that it is mind chatter and nothing more. Thank you for showing up for tea. Goodbye.”
The next time you are hijacked by an unwanted visitor, rather than dispute or agree with it, surrender to the visitor; and invite your thoughts and emotions into tea with non judgmental awareness and curiosity. During your tea tete-a-tete, this also means being mindfully aware when the visitor starts eating off your plate. Tea need not take long. You openly monitor your inner experience, acknowledge it, and then release it. When the unpleasant emotion has been heard, the tea cups are empty, and the visitor will get up and exit your house. Your entertaining time is over.
Originally published at lesliesantos.com.