I had a lovely normal-for-COVID-times New Year’s celebration last night: Tony and I had dinner with my family, then we went and joined two of our longtime friends at their home to ring in the new year with Miley Cyrus and Pete Davidson on NBC (sorry, Seacrest). Fun conversation, lots of laughs, good food, a little bit of wine, a lovely evening and very low key compared to pre-pandemic New Year’s Eve rituals. Tony and I returned home safely, and happy with the evening’s festivities.
And then I woke up the next morning.
No, I wasn’t hungover, I was mentally BUSY. My mind was racing around, replaying various conversations from the night before over and over in my mind. I was inspecting, dissecting, judging what I said, how I said it, what I should’ve said, and feeling all the stinging emotions that come along with the growing metaphorical mountain of evidence that I somehow botched the entire evening and now I have no idea where I stand with anyone I encountered. I’m sure you’re familiar with your own version of how this fun roller coaster of self-judgment and scrutiny goes.
And all of a sudden, I stopped.
I stopped my mind mid-thought because I realized what I was doing. I had woken up in full-on battle with myself before I even knew which cat was sleeping on my head and which was at my feet (one of the best perks of winter is fluffy pets cuddling in bed with you through the night). I realized that I was not in control of my thoughts, and the battle that I’d unconsciously swept my groggy, confused conscious mind into without its permission was simply a mental pattern. It had nothing to do with what was actually True or not.
When I could distinguish the difference between synaptic auto-firing (the mental spin that encapsulated the ancient question “Did I do/say/be enough last night to still belong to my in-group today?”) and actual Things That Are True (how the evening went, how I felt about what I did/said, my interactions with others, feedback from others, etc.), I was then able to use this clarity to regain control over my thoughts and step out of the mental spin.
In other words, I was able to choose to opt out of playing the “woulda-coulda-shoulda” game while in the midst of it.
Many people struggle with being stuck in a state of anxiousness when they conflate the mental automatic running of patterns like the “woulda-coulda-shoulda” game as reality, not as patterns the brain defaults to. We get so caught up in the game, treating the whizzing thoughts as legitimate questions of our overall okayness and our deserving to belong, to be loved, to be respected, instead of seeing them as simply pieces being moved about on a board without our direction. These thoughts are just pawns on a board that runs when we don’t give these pawns other instructions.
The first step to regaining power and control over your own mind if you find yourself getting lost in the “woulda-coulda-shoulda” is to develop the ability to take a step back from the mental spin and recognize the difference between an automatic pattern of synaptic firing versus legitimate concerns worthy of your consideration.
This takes time, diligent self-reflection, and a commitment to building the muscle of self-mastery OVER the desire to feel better in the moment. There are millions of quick-fixes that are touted to alleviate anxiousness around all kinds of automatic mental patterns, but it is this commitment to diligently establish a strong foundation of self-acceptance and self-knowledge that ultimately uproots these primitive mental pathways that torture us as we’re just rubbing the sleep out of our eyes.
Because this process of establishing a strong foundation within yourself takes all this time and energy and diligence, very few people commit to it. Most either subconsciously accept being the victim to their own automatic, survival-based thoughts or choose the path of the feel-better-now temporary relief, seeking out mental hacks and clichés to cling to (#goodvibesonly) to play to the urgent demands automatic thoughts instead of realizing that they don’t have to play this game at all.
Remember: the thoughts we have, especially the automatic ones and the ones that pop in first, are a reflection of our conditioning. The thoughts we choose after these ones are the ones we control. Focus your energy there.
Here’s to an empowered, fulfilling 2022 where we are opting out of these mental patterns together!