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Overcome Limiting Thoughts: 5 Ways to Be Happier and More Present

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Happy and Present

“The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality.” ~Robert Pirsig

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by unpleasant thoughts and feelings? Do they show up like an uninvited guest when you’re least expecting them?

About eight months ago, I quit a lucrative corporate job in finance to follow my passion, writing.

Like most things in life, this decision came with a cost.

And all the angst that comes with it.

A few months into my venture, I noticed my angst had become a large part of my mental world. I worried I’d run out of money, that my dream of being a well-paid writer wouldn’t materialize.

I’d admonish myself for leaving a perfectly secure job to chase a pipe dream. “What were you thinking?” I’d say to myself, “I mean, how stupid could you be?

Eventually, I noticed something interesting.

All the obstacles to my happiness were about imagined future scenarios (i.e.: I will never earn a living again), or doubts about past choices (i.e.: Did I make the right choice by leaving a lucrative corporate job behind?).

None of them were rooted in the present moment.

In fact, they stole my present moments like thieves in the night.

Eventually, I realized that if I didn’t deal with these feelings, I’d snap. I had to find a way to deal with these obstacles to my happiness that kept me from taking positive action in the present.

So I did what anyone would do: I turned to Google.

I researched various approaches of dealing with my feelings that held me back from acting in the present.

I discovered meditation and daily mindfulness practice as a powerful solution, and subscribed to various mindfulness blogs.

A few months down the track, I came across this post by Lori Deschene.

Lori’s words around letting go of emotions (dealing with the mental demons once and for all) struck a chord with me:

“Feel it fully. If you stifle your feelings, they may leak out and affect everyone around you—not just the person who inspired your anger. Before you can let go of any emotion, you have to feel it fully.”

The truth is, you can only let go of feelings after immersing yourself in them.

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

But that’s the one thing that always works.

The following are five great ways to overcome the obstacles to happiness and feelings that keep you from living fully in the present.

1. Fully embrace your feelings with openness, even the negative ones.

That’s right.

Embrace your feelings fully in each present moment. And let them pass when they’ve run their course.

So, if you’re feeling fear, feel it fully in the now. Without reacting to it.

Watch the fear as it manifests in your body. Fear manifests as butterflies in my stomach and tingling in my forearms.

How does it manifest in yours?

Remember, the only way to truly let go of feelings is to allow them to run their natural course with conscious awareness.

2. Use journaling to create mental spaciousness and increase your ability to let go.

This is quite effective in slowing the mind down.

Most writers would agree that seeing your thoughts appear on a page before you is therapeutic.

Writing also increases your ability to detach from the immediacy of painful thoughts and feelings.

Journaling is a great way to bring awareness to your destructive thought patterns, so you can change them.

At the end of each day, write down what you learned from the day. What upset you and what made you feel fantastic? If something upset you, how much of that was based on your interpretation of the situation, which arose from your assumptions about it?

How often do you journal?

3. Use your breath to bring your attention back to the present moment.

Mark Twain famously said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

So many of our fears (future projections) never actually come to pass.

And anyway, the past and the future live only in our imagination—in this present moment.

When your mind is fully in the present, you can’t engage in fearful thoughts about the future or regretful thoughts about the past.

So, focus on your breath in this present moment.

The benefits of doing this are as follows:

  • It brings your attention back to this moment.
  • It engages your mind in something non-conceptual.

What’s your breathing like right now? Is it deep? Shallow?

4. Recognize that your reaction to events dictates your life experience, not the event itself.

In his book called Your Erroneous Zones, Wayne Dyer explains the importance of separating our reactions to thoughts from the thoughts themselves.

Imagine this.

Cal agonizes over the idea that his boss thinks he’s stupid. He loses sleep over it. It’s the bane of his existence.

Now, let’s say Cal had no idea that his boss thought he was stupid.

Then he wouldn’t be unhappy, right? How could Cal be unhappy about something he didn’t know?

The point: Cal’s boss’ opinion isn’t making Cal unhappy. It’s Cal’s reaction to his boss’ opinion that’s making Cal unhappy.

By taking ownership of his reaction of his own thoughts, Cal can take charge of his mental world.

He can choose to react differently to his boss’ (low) opinion of him. Cal can choose to give his boss’ opinion less importance by recognizing that it’s one person’s opinion among many.

Paradoxically, this would actually enable Cal to see it as constructive criticism and better himself as a result.

Think about the last time you were upset. What were you telling yourself about the event that upset you? Were you upset because of your reaction to the event or because of the event itself?

5. Discover how your underlying assumptions are secretly affecting your life.

Our underlying assumptions, of which we are often completely unaware, are responsible for a lot of self blame and distress.

Let’s go back to my example at the start of this post.

My feelings of fear, anxiety, and worry were all based on an implicit assumption that my writing career should have taken off within six months. My assumption just wasn’t valid. Getting traction as a writer often takes years.

My underlying assumptions were wrongly implying that I had failed without me realizing it.

Once I recognized the absurdity of the underlying assumption, the feelings of fear around never being able to launch a successful blog dissipated immediately.

What are the underlying assumptions that have you judging yourself harshly?

Conquering your demons isn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile is.

Sure, it’s often uncomfortable to embrace your feelings fully, or to be mindful of how your underlying assumptions are sabotaging your life. But each of us has the capacity to do it.

The question isn’t, “Can I do it?” but rather, “Will I do it?”

If you want to live a full life, resolve to set yourself on the path this very moment. Right now. Don’t put it off for another second.

You have to realize that this life is yours to be lived to the fullest. And only you can determine your attitude toward letting go of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.

So take a deep breath. Breathe in this moment. And give it your best.

Right now!

Happy yoga woman image via Shutterstock

About Ash Roy

Ash Roy teaches busy people how to work smart and live better by eliminating stress and increasing productivity. Download your free copy of 10 Time-saving Tools That Will Make You a Productivity Ninja.

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  • I really like this. Instead of hiding the fear and pretending it doens’t exist, you experience it, and say, ok, now what? The fear usually isn’t as bad as what we imagine the outcome to be. Feel the fear and do it anyway. I wonder if this works for depression, anxiety, and other self created limitations.

  • Michael Alexander

    An excellent way to process it all. We learn a lot from processing our own negative thoughts and being able to look at them objectively and not get caught up emotionally in it all. Thanks for passing on the wisdom!

  • I really liked the post Ash! The most important change in my life has been with my personal growth. Reading 30 minutes a day, listening to audios as often as I can and watching personal development videos on a regular basis are the 3 key ingredients that helped me in my personal growth and have conditioned my happiness.

  • Tamsin

    This is wonderful. Thanks for writing it, Ash! Wow! I am inspired, to say the least!!

  • Michelle

    Super post, Ash. It seems so counterintuitive, but I think you (and Lori in her original post!) are absolutely right that the way to get over negative feelings isn’t by going around them but *through* them.

    I’ve been practicing this over the last couple of years, and it IS hard. Absolutely terrifying at first. But one thing that really helps me with this is, as you suggest, tuning into what’s happening in my body.

    Doing that helps me in two ways: It short-circuits my panicky thought loops and gives me something concrete and NON-emotional to focus on. It’s hard to catastrophize when my mind is focused on my breath or the sensations in my stomach or head or wherever.

    I need to remember to focus on your point #4 more often–that one can be a real sticking point for me. But they are all great reminders. Thanks for a really well-written post!

  • Ash

    Hi Lawrence,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I completely agree that the fear usually isn’t as bad as we imagine is going to be.

    The biggest challenge for me overcoming the resistance to face the fear. In other words, I think I have fear of facing the emotion — fear.

    I think this approach of feeling you’re fears fully works for low level anxiety and depression (mild reactive depression for example). I don’t think this approach works for serious endogenous depression or severe anxiety.

    As I understand it, serious depression and anxiety disorders are physiological in nature and must be treated with medication at least in the short term. Using mindful approach is an embracing your feelings might be a good longer term strategy.

    Another excellent way of overcoming limiting thoughts and being happy in the moment is to step outside of your mental world. I find that a great way to do this is to express genuine gratitude to people around you.

  • Ash

    Hi Michael

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with you. We learn a lot from processing power and negative thoughts or any thoughts for that matter.

    I think the degree to which we are able to witness our thoughts and the context in which they arise is the degree to which we understand ourselves, our patterns and the triggers that set them off. In the long term this makes us less reactive and also gives us really valuable insights that make this journey a lot more interesting and filled with learning.

  • Ash

    Hi Michelle

    Yes it does seem to be counter intuitive at first. I think it was Robert Frost who said “The best way out is always through”.

    Great to know that you’ve been practising this over a couple of years. And yes it is really hard. You’ve hit on a very good point about body awareness.

    The third paragraph in your comment sums it up beautifully. I agree that it’s very hard to catastrophe eyes when the mind is focused on the breadth and bodily sensations. Body awareness is fantastic because it’s not conceptual and takes all the drama and projection out of the equation (that our thoughts tend to be made up of to a large extent).

    Don’t worry too much about Point #4. You will inevitably become increasingly aware of your reactions and your patterns as you go deeper into this mindful journey.

    Thank you so much for your kind words.

    🙂

  • Ash

    Hi Benja

    I’m so glad you liked the post. It’s excellent to know there’s reading 30 minutes a day, listening to audio is as often as you can and watching personal development videos have helped with your personal growth.

    Have you considered writing in a journal?

    I find that writing is a very powerful way to crystallise all the information that I devour through reading, audio and video. I find when I write about what I read/watch/listen, it engages my ‘writing brain’ and somehow helps to ‘embed’ the knowledge in a very specific way as it relates to my life. I can then apply the learnings and incorporate them into my life on a practical level.

  • Ash

    Hi Tamsin,

    Thanks for taking the time to stop by and for your kind words. I’m delighted to know that you’re inspired.

    If this post can inspire even one person to bring mindfulness into their life then I think it’s done its job.

    Do you have a meditation/mindfulness practice at the moment?

  • Nathalie

    Great article. I’ve been having a tough time with a job decision recently and just feeling stressed and overwhelmed as to which direction to take. Fear is definitely part of it. Fear of letting go of something thats close to my heart, the job where i interned as a student and where i was given my first professional job. And now deciding to leave that to grow with the company and pursue a full time job with the same company but at a different location. I think change is scary, for most, definitely for me. I feel like I’m being pulled in two directions. But i also feel that sometimes we need change in our lives instead of becoming complacent where we are at because then how can we grow? I guess taking a risk like you did. I don’t know what my final decision will be. But your article did help to shine a light for me. Thank you.

  • Ash

    Hi Nathalie,

    Thanks for sharing your personal story with us. Stress and overwhelm are (unfortunately) a part of our daily lives in this information age, and change is too. It’s difficult to let go of a job that is close to your heart — especially Given the fact that you interned as a student and had your first professional assignment there.

    I agree that change is scary. Probably because we grow up being conditioned to fear change.

    What I find very interesting is that my own breath which keeps me alive is by its very definition an agent of change. I see the movement of the air through my lungs as being dynamic, constantly changing, and life-giving. When I realise that my very own (constantly changing) breath is the thing that’s keeping me alive, it softens my attitude to change (which is usually quite fear based)

    I completely agree with you about discomfort usually leading to progress, and complacency to stagnation. A close friend of mine once said to me, if he wasn’t feeling uncomfortable then he knew he wasn’t growing.

    Every moment of our life has some element of risk in it. Sometimes we take conscious risks and at other times we aren’t conscious of it e.g. every time we get into the car to go somewhere.

    Taking conscious and calculated risks are good in my opinion. Sometimes they pay off and other times they don’t, but either way we learn something valuable.

    I’m really glad the article helped to shine a light for you. As far as I’m concerned, the article has done its job 🙂

    By when do you need to make a decision about the new role?

    Please do come back and tell us what you decide in this comments section here.

  • Pernilla

    Very good points – came when I needed it the most!

  • Ash

    Hi Pernilla,

    Really glad you found the points helpful. Thanks for stopping by and leaving that kind comment. Knowing that the post made a difference to your life really inspires me to write more.

    🙂

  • It is easy in our troubles, to not see the good things. Gratitude is an amazing tool to help place your focus outside yourself and gain new perspectives in life. I recommend people think of the 5 most influential people throughout their lives, and send them a card to let them know how you feel and why. It would not only make a difference for you, but will touch the reciever as well.

    Think if this. How would you feel if you got and unxecpected note from someone from your past, that said you were one of the 5 most positive influences in their life and they would not be the same without you.

    Often, I will have someone’s name pop into my head. Without too much hesitation, because I have practiced the habit, I will send them a quick note to tell them a quick positive thought I had and let them know I am grateful to have them in my life. You would be surprised how often people have called me back, saying “You have not idea how much I needed that card, that day…How did you know?” Because it is such an easy habit to pick up, I hardly remember that I sent them the card.

    Consider a gratitude challage. Think of a different person every day for whom you can show appreciation. After 30 days, see if you don’t feel better, and happier.

  • Tiago Silva

    I just love it! It’s practical and really teaches how to deal with emotions; at least, it shows where to start. Thanks indeed!

  • Philippe

    Very good post.
    Excellent process to go through negative feelings, and letting go of fear.

  • Ash

    Hi Philippe,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated. I’m really glad that you found the process to be useful. 🙂

  • Ash

    Hi Tiago,

    Really glad that you liked the post and found it to be practical. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    What emotion do you struggle with most?

  • Trisha Carter

    Great points Ash! I especially love that you mention journalling and the power it has to help us become more mindful.

  • Ash

    Thanks Trisha. I appreciate you stopping by. Yes there’s something quite cathartic about putting your thoughts down on paper (or in my case a computer screen)

    Seeing my thoughts manifest before me somehow gives me a different perspective on things. Maybe it engages my brain differently. But there is a definite benefit of getting the thoughts out of my head onto a medium where I can read them.

    I think the ‘validation’ element (albeit self validation) of having your words reflected back to you from a computer screen is also a very powerful thing.

    How long have you been journalling? Do you have a mindfulness practice?

  • qeurich

    “Our underlying assumptions—of which we are often completely unaware—are responsible for a lot of self blame and distress.”

    So very true! Thanks!

  • Great ideas Ash. I journal every day with morning pages, and it definitely helps create ‘mental spaciousness’ (what a great phrase!). And I know I need to focus on 5 more… And you’re so right that very few things that are worth it are easy – sometimes society really does sell us this ‘magical thinking’ where fame, fortune, love, success [insert goal here ;-)] will just appear, when in fact, you need to put the work in…

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Ash

    Hi Ellen,

    Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. Great to hear that you journal everyday. A fantastic endorsement for the practice … From a psychologist no less!

    🙂

    Mental spaciousness is a great term isn’t it. I first heard it mentioned by Gil Fronsdal who has an excellent podcast on zencast(dot)org which has over 400 fantastic podcasts on mindfulness.

    Society does sell us the magical instant gratification thinking. With the advent of smartphones and high speed internet, the problem is likely to exacerbate.

    Unless of course … We practise mindfulness and ‘watch’ the movement of the mind. It’s amazing what you can learn from paying careful and consistent attention to your mental ‘actions’.

    Do you have a mindfulness practice? If so, for how long have you been practising?

  • Ash

    Hi Qeurich,

    Thanks for taking the time to stop by. Our underlying assumptions really do wreak havoc in our lives without us realising it don’t they?

    Do you take time out every now and then to examine your underlying assumptions? I do and I’m amazed at what I find almost every time. The tapes that play in my subconscious say some absurd things.

    If I didn’t take the time to pay attention to them often, my life would be far less satisfying than it is. For one I would still be chasing society’s dream of corporate domination rather than my dream of doing something that’s meaningful and satisfying to me.

  • Ash

    Great to hear it Benja. There’s something magical about writing isn’t it? Seeing your thoughts appear on the page/screen before you. It gives you this detachment from your thoughts and somehow relieves your heart of the ‘burden’ of carrying that thought around. It’s almost like your watching yourself letting go of your thoughts.

  • Great work, I actually left college to become a yoga teacher and writer myself, It’s inspiring to read about people who went trough the same, and how they also found amazing results with meditation and mindfulness. I’d love if you stopped by my blog and gave me some feedback !! http://surflowyoga.com/

    Namaste !

  • I’ve been practising since a ‘Pain and Mindfulness’ course I went on a few years ago. It felt counter-intuitive – to manage chronic pain, we had to stay focused on the present moment – a moment I was usually trying to get away from!

    But the idea stayed with me, and I’ve been working on it since then. Now I attend a yoga ‘school’ and meditate reasonably frequently as well, which has really helped to ground me.

    There’s plenty of work to do though 🙂

  • andreastill

    Hi Ash, a very well written and thought out post!
    I too have recently left a secure job, and sure enough it didn’t take long for the negative mutter to surface. Thanks to people like you, I’m finding my way back to a more productive living in the now and believing there’s more than one way to skin a cat – so the saying goes… 🙂

  • Ash

    Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for your kind words. Much appreciated.

    Hang in there. It’s always hard when you start out after having left a secure job and started out on your own. One thing’s certain : You’ll learn a lot from this journey.

    At the very least you’ll become aware of your self destructive thought patterns. If you persist you will eventually prevail and have the job of your dreams that allows you to fulfil your passions.

    I’m delighted to know that you found my post to be helpful. Thanks for stopping by. Encouraging comments like yours inspire me to write more.

    Lori has nurtured a truly wonderful community here at Tiny Buddha and responding to (and reading) encouraging comments like yours make it a joy to write for her.

    🙂

  • Ash

    Hi David,

    Congratulations on your decision to become a writer and a yoga teacher. Glad to hear that meditation and mindfulness has produced amazing results for you.

    I did have a quick look at your blog and am happy to give you feedback but I’m not sure it would be appropriate to do so in this forum. Feel free to contact me via email on ash@worksmartlivebetter.com and we can take it from there.

    🙂

  • Janice

    This is a great article Ash, thanks so much for preparing it. Certainly some valuable lessons in there for me, thank you!

  • Ash

    Hi Janice.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and for your kind words. I’m really glad that you found some of the lessons to be valuable.

    I must say that Laurie has hilt a fantastic community here on Tiny Buddha and all the comments have been very encouraging indeed. I look forward to writing more for you.

    Stay well.

    🙂

  • Susan Suehr

    Ash,
    Thanks for adding quite a bit of juiciness to mindfulness. I have noticed myself, that I cannot let go of emotions until I’ve jumped in full force with them.
    The importance of our experiences having less impact than the meaning we give them is so key to finding the incentive to let go of emotions.
    Wonderful post!

  • Ash

    Hi Susan,

    That’s a great way to put it – adding juiciness to mindfulness. 🙂 I’m so glad you liked the post. And yes I was trying hard to communicate that mindfulness is something to be incorporated into daily life rather than practised on a meditation cushion.

    I really appreciate you stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Very kind of you.

    Comments like yours make the whole writing experience so worthwhile! It’s great to know that my work is adding genuine value to people’s lives.

    This was the reason I left a corporate career in finance behind and comments such as yours validate that difficult choice. Thanks again.

    🙂

  • matthewwtoler

    like Elaine answered I am shocked that people can get paid $4455 in four weeks on the computer . find out this here x.vu/TP1V8l

  • Catherine

    This is just what I’ve been looking for. My husband, my 20 month old son and I live with my husbands parents. I’ve found this really hard as a new mum. Every time my MIL does something that I see as my responsibility with my son I assume she is thinking I’m incompetent so I get very annoyed at almost everything she does. I feel constantly judged even though I’ve never had any proof of being judged.

  • very nice Ash!

    While reading this, it dawned on me that I have a few things to workout. Time to close the computer and open the Journal.

    Thank you sir.