“It's not a matter of letting go, you would if you could. Instead of ‘Let it go,' we should probably say ‘Let it be.'” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
I always believed that a busy mind was a bad thing.
And for a large part of my life, it was.
Looking back, I don’t ever recall a time when I wasn’t caught up in my thoughts. There was always a “narrator” in my head. A constant commentary.
I tried meditating but would spend ten agonizing minutes trying desperately to push my thoughts away or make them stop, which we know is impossible. Not thinking wasn’t unlike attempting to separate a limb from my body. Yup, such was my attachment to my thoughts.
Yoga presented yet another futile attempt at mindfulness. I’d notice the other participants perfectly present and focused, while my mind would be hammering away, comparing me to others, debating why I was actually there, or criticizing my performance.
The uninformed might think that only “negative” overthinking is the problem. However, in my experience over analysis or overthinking of any topic or event (even really happy ones) generally leads to a bad feeling place.
For example, if someone paid me a compliment I would more often than not talk myself into believing that I wasn’t deserving of it. That the person in question was simply being kind, or feeling pity for me.
Back then I felt trapped. My thinking mind was something I feared. It could start up at any time and unravel me. I would long to be able to simply switch it off.
I over-analyzed everything. Simple conversations would become unnecessarily intense and uncomfortable. I found hidden meanings in every innuendo.
My thinking knew no limits. It would scrutinize the past, present, and future. And boy, could it create some intense stories—none of which were true, of course.
I felt cursed. Burdened. Why couldn’t I be normal??
And, of course, those near and dear to me reflected that back to me.
“Get out of your head!”
“Don’t overthink everything!”
“Why do you need to analyze everything??”
And my personal favorite…
“It must be exhausting being you.”
It was exhausting. I was at constant war with myself. Was there a way to think less? Could I dummy-down my thoughts?
In desperation, I learned how to smother my thinking. Food, drama, and bad relationships became my vices. They enabled me to co-exist with my manic mind.
I was simply a victim of my thinking. Out of control.
Until I happened upon a new understanding about our thinking.
It’s an understanding that’s completely changed my life, about how our thinking is separate from who we truly are.
We are not our thoughts. Nope, quite the opposite.
We have a constant stream of thoughts meandering through our minds. That’s part of being human. However, we get to choose which of those to engage with.
Author and blogger Pam Grout has a brilliant analogy for thoughts: They’re like a line of ants marching across your picnic blanket. You can choose to observe them as they keep on marching straight off the other side of the blanket and disappear, or you can choose to scoop them up and interact with them. Make them your focus. Fuss over them. And they’ll probably bite you too.
But there’s your power: It’s your choice.
You decide which thoughts you pay attention to.
Because thoughts come and go. All the time. And that’s normal.
If you’re able to observe the fact that you’re overthinking, then you’re already noticing the separation of you and your mind.
It really is that simple.
Like anything new, it’s taken time (and practice) for me to allow this understanding to really resonate and to notice the benefits, of which there are many. To name a few:
- I’m more accepting of what is. I no longer feel the need to intellectualize and/or judge every facet of my life. And with that comes a real sense of ease.
- I experience far more contentment. A busy mind often ends in a dark place if left untethered. By not engaging in the endless chatter, feelings of contentment have become a familiar friend.
- I’m more empowered. Knowing that I can choose which thoughts to engage has removed any sense of victimhood I previously felt.
As with any new habit, persistence is the key.
What I’ve realized is that I don’t have to stop thinking, I simply need to be selective about whether I believe my thinking. Because most of our thoughts are just stories we make up, often regretting the past or worrying about the future.
Most aren’t true. At all.
I used to be a bit of a helicopter parent. I admit it.
So when my daughter reached the age of legal driving and nightclubbing, my over-thinking mind went into overdrive. She would go out with her friends (as young adults do), and I would have an internal meltdown. Quite literally.
My mind would imagine every worst-case scenario possible, in great detail.
Car accidents. Date rape. Abduction. You name it, I imagined it.
And it would replay over and over and over again in my mind, until I was a knot of nerves and worry. Sleep just wasn’t ever an option.
I would start texting her from about midnight, just to check she was alive. (I was that bad…)
When she finally got home in the early hours, I would feel such a flood of relief it was almost overwhelming.
It was exhausting experiencing such intense emotion from one end of the scale to the other.
Yet, it was all a result of my thinking. That’s all.
And after a year of this roller-coaster ride I finally took action. Not with my daughter—with me. Or my thinking, to be more precise.
This flood of thoughts that invaded my mind each time she ventured out would always be there, but it was my choice whether I took them seriously or not.
So I started acknowledging their presence when they showed up, then I let them flow through me. I reasoned with myself that her life was hers to live, and that I had no control over her destiny. And that made it easier. Because that’s the truth.
If I felt that familiar knot of anxiety in my gut, I would remind myself that none of those thoughts were real. I was okay. She was okay.
And in time, it got easier. I worried less and less. I even managed to sleep while she was out!
Nowadays, I only really listen to my thinking when it’s telling nice stories. Stories that makes me feel good. The rest of the time I either consciously change my thinking direction toward better feeling thoughts, or I just let my mind waffle on, without paying attention.
It’s a bit like having the radio on in the background. And when a song starts that I like, I pay attention.
Yup, I choose when to pay attention.
My thinking doesn’t control me anymore. I control how I engage with it.
My busy mind is my ally. My friend. My inner play-mate.
And one of the things that makes me, me.