While we are engaging them, thoughts feel productive because we release dopamine when we think we’re solving a problem. This allows us to remain hopeful for progress, despite the fact that the thoughts degrade into pointless rumination.
I fell into a pattern indicative of this useless overthinking; let me know if it sounds like you. One day, I would feel miserable, and as a result, think about what I could do to change that. I would spend hours researching methods by which I could control my thoughts, create a structured plan to follow, and hope the plan would see itself through. However, my mind was adept at avoiding the responsibilities I had set for myself. According to Freud, rationalization is a defense mechanism and an attempt to avoid addressing the underlying problems for a behavior.
For me, rationalization can take many forms, all of which are harmful to my actual desires. Sometimes it sounds like:
- “You wouldn’t have to meditate if you weren’t crazy.”
- “Why should you have to go to therapy when no one else does?”
Sometimes I beat these thoughts, and then trickier and more damning rationalizations make themselves heard. These sound like:
- “Do you even have free will to do what you want?”
- “There’s no reason to meditate today.”
- “Do it tomorrow.”
I could most often convince myself to not do the thing I set out to do. These kinds of thoughts could run infinitely if you let them. As they progress, the chance of actually getting yourself to do that thing you want grows slimmer and slimmer. We bury the potential for action by thinking of it and thereby paralyze ourselves. Our inaction decreases our confidence in our ability to choose because we become convinced we are at the whim of our thoughts, and that is a horrifying feeling. When we become unpredictable to ourselves, we grow hateful of our actions and thoughts. So how can we cut those feelings off and do what we set out to do when our minds come prepared with every excuse in the known universe to avoid them? What will get us to work out, wake up early, eat healthier, meditate, try yoga, journal, and cut caffeine? Unfortunately, it has to be ourselves.
You spend enough time in your thoughts to understand how they tend to run. So also understand that when you set out to do something productive or emotionally healing, your mind is going to try avoiding it, because, like a parasite, these thoughts will do anything in their power to stick around and be heard. Once you accept the fact that your thoughts are going to fight your progress, you can develop a more realistic attitude toward what you want to do and a more realistic method by which you’re going to do it. Stop expecting and hoping that tomorrow will be different. Because it won’t be—you will still have the same old malfunctioning thoughts that you have today. But once you realize this, you can develop a plan of action against the obstacles you know you will face.
According to healthline, grounding is a practice where we learn to “pull away from flashbacks, unwanted memories, and negative or challenging emotions.” Effective grounding techniques stop or at least seriously slow the winding and dizzying nature of rationalization. It will make you uncomfortable at first to pull away from the thoughts you’re convinced are helping you, but it’s necessary for change. To maximize the utility of grounding techniques, you should be prepared to top what you’re doing and take up to 10 minutes to allow yourself to “come back.” The most important part is being patient and allowing yourself to take all the time you need. Once you allow yourself to slow down, your body and mind will thank you for it. There are hundreds of different grounding techniques, but they all have the capacity to bring you closer to yourself and away from your thoughts.
Here are some suggestions:
- Cold Shower (The discipline this requires is an excellent boost to productivity, and you can just tack it onto the end of an activity you already regularly perform.)
- Holding a piece of ice in your hand until it melts (Another one that deals with cold, this is uncomfortable and feels longer than it is, but by doing something of this nature, you trick your brain into giving you more freedom to choose your subsequent actions.)
- Do push-ups (As many as make your arms stiff—it helps you get blood away from your brain)
- Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 5, breathe out for 4 seconds (Perform several times)
For me, the best grounding techniques are the ones that make me slightly physically uncomfortable. It’s also crucial that you stick to techniques that are safe and not painful; rather, an uncomfortable but brief test of discipline. This is why some may be attracted to self harm—hurting yourself allows you to feel you’re in control. But pain is unnecessary and scars are regrettable, so these grounding techniques work just the same.
After performing one of these techniques, notice how you feel. Your mind may ask itself “Why did I do that?”. You will feel lighter and a bit more confident because you know there isn’t a real reason you did it. So your response to your mind will be, “Because screw you, that’s why.” You had the discipline and bravery to make yourself uncomfortable, so of course you’re going to feel proud. Use that energy and move to your next task.
Sense of choice as a muscle
Just as with anything physical, the workings of our minds are a changeable muscle. Neuroscientists understand the various ways by which gray matter in our brains reshapes, reforms, and how this influences behavior and thought.
From my experience, nothing provides an empowering sense of free will like doing something for no apparent reason. It’s crucial to take a bit of time away from your goals and thoughts to do something that reminds you that you are in control.
If you want to regain your spot in the front seat from your mind, understand that simple actions will give you the confidence to feel you’re in control. Gaining and keeping that feeling of control is deeply important, and it’s sometimes all I need to get through the day.
The nature of thinking is unfair. We can’t think our way out of thinking, but we can do the opposite: we can think our way out of action. You’ll recognize this is a cycle you may have been trying to solve for a long while. But it isn’t possible: the only thing we can do to break it is take action. Lucky for us, almost any action that reminds our brains that we are in control works.
Remember, be patient and curious with yourself, and if you have any questions or need help with accountability, comment or message me directly. Good luck learning how to empower yourself and reminding your thoughts that they are bogus suggestions at best.