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Getting out of the Bog of Past and Current Thoughts

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

The theme of my life coaching is helping clients get unstuck. Most clients know they feel trapped or stuck, but they don't usually know why they feel this way.

You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you the only thing keeping you stuck are your thoughts.

Our past experiences help us form our current expectations and beliefs. Think about it. We started collecting evidence in our early childhoods as a way to keep us safe. It's like we've each got a giant scrap book and we can flip through and see the photos and memories to support our current actions and our future decisions.

If you don't trust men, you can flip back through and find several examples of why this is the case. If you don't believe in yourself enough to try and get a better job, you can flip back through the book and find evidence of adults or peers telling or showing you that you aren't good enough or that you're not smart or not capable. If you spend money like it's going to disappear you can find a story from your past explaining why this is the case.

Here's the tricky thing, though. Our minds remember things differently. My sister and I were talking recently about the exact same event from out childhood, but we remember it differently. I was in first grade and trying to sell fundraising stationary and gift wrap. What I recall is getting dragged all over town in the front seat of my grandma's big car as we went to every single person she knew and solicited them to buy crap they didn't need. I remember thinking, "I hate selling stuff, when is this going to end?"

My sister remembers being in the school auditorium and being shown the grand prize of this remote control bird that flew up and swooped over the crowd. She was determined to get that bird. So she recalls killing it with her dozens of sales. My sister was elated by the end of the afternoon, the total opposite of my mood.

We clearly saw the afternoon differently and saved it on our hard drive differently. After she told me her version, I did in fact remember being proud of how many lines of sales I had on my paper. I remember getting my prize which was a little tin of jelly beans. Not a flying bird, but a better memory than the one I'd been playing.

Another more painful example of how the past can haunt us showed up in a Facebook group. A lady wrote in anonymously about her husband calling her a bad word. She was understandably upset and was now consumed by this memory scenario. It had been weeks since the incident and she couldn't forget or forgive despite him apologizing and offering to go to therapy. The thing is, he called her this once. She, however, kept experiencing the pain of it over and over again. Every time she thought about it, she experienced hurt all over. So now who was hurting her? He wasn't still calling her a bad name, but her own thoughts on replay were creating ongoing suffering.

We obviously can't go back and question each memory, and besides, it isn't helpful to focus too much on the past, right? We'd be missing out on our current lives. The past is the past and can't be changed. The only thing you do have agency over is how you choose to interpret the past and much power you're willing to hand over to these past events.

Let's move to the present. How do we objectively see things as they currently happen? How do we live our best lives, let things roll off our backs, and not give away our power when things ruffle our feathers? How can we be more like Thich Nhat Hanh and just notice what is instead of getting so wrapped up in it?

That's the problem. We can't be objective because we're the ones it's happening to. If you've talked to someone who's had a near death experience, they might say they saw everything happening as if they weren't even in their body. Things slow down.

That's the goal with this thought work, to step outside ourselves for a moment and watch what's happening, to slow down our thinking and lessen the grip.

When painful things are happening in the moment, they can feel excruciating, and the sensations seem to last for an eternity. But guess what? You only have 90 seconds to feel the painful rush of emotion. Research had already shown this was the case, but for anyone who's listened to Jill Bolte-Taylor's TED talk, you know that's one of the things she preaches. She says it takes no longer than 90 seconds for stress hormones to flood and clear your system. When you feel rage as a reaction to a new patient with hair loss being 30 minutes late and demanding to be seen, adrenaline rushes through your body for up to 90 seconds, and then it’s gone. Or is it? Why do you still feel angry 10 or 20 patients later? I'll use this example below to explain.

Last summer when we went rafting in Oregon, our guide stopped after a few hours so we could jump off a cliff into the water. Everyone took the plunge. Everyone except me and a 6-year-old. The fall itself was over in a matter of seconds, but I stayed up there debating the jump and scaring myself silly for ten minutes. My brain convinced me I was going to die because it wanted to keep me safe. It's true about the 90 seconds, though. I'd feel freakishly scared, then I'd feel my body start to calm down and my brain would say "Are you kidding?! You're about to DIE!" and I could feel my cortisol start pumping again. This is because, while the physical reaction of cortisol and adrenaline pumping through my veins ceased after 90 seconds, my thoughts kept convincing my body to start over with the fight/flight sensations by urging it to pump out more juice.

If we know the feeling only lasts 90 seconds before it passes, why do we spend so much time and energy avoiding painful feelings and why do we spend years after an uncomfortable sensation reliving it over and over in our minds? It's like we have a prison in our minds and we're determined to keep ourselves trapped there for life.

But Hope, it WAS awful, this terrible thing that happened that crushed my soul. Maybe you lost a loved one, maybe you got your heart broken, maybe you were abused. Here's what we know. Hitting rewind and replay on the movie screen of your mind causes pain over and over. And yet we let it happen over and over. We're the ones holding the remote and hitting rewind. It's not actually still happening but our brains think it is, and in fact, studies show that our body's reaction during the subsequent times can be far more extreme than the original event/circumstance because our memories hype it up to epic proportions.

Maybe you're feeling a little bad because yeah, you intellectually accept your thoughts cause pain, but how do you stop the mental replay? How do you stop reliving the painful memory over and over?

Can you hit delete? Bad news, you can't delete painful memories or stories in your head. But you can do something simple to lessen the painful feelings you're allowing to take over your brain.

In Michael's Singer Untethered Soul, he uses the movie theater analogy I mentioned. He says to imagine you're watching a big movie screen. Pretend it's very modern, with a total immersive experience involving all your senses. You can also see and hear the characters' thoughts. Each of us is composed of two selves: the one who is observing the movie (our Inner Self), and the one who is in the movie (our thinking mind.)

Let me give you an embarrassing example from my own life about how this brain/movie theater thing can look. When I was about 10, I went to Wednesday night church. I disliked being there because it was serious, no cutting up. It was all about prayers, missionaries, and Popsicle stick crafts with a nursing home visit throw in every few weeks. While sitting around in a big prayer circle with the other little girls, something struck me as funny. I started snickering and couldn't stop. My giggling got so out of control, I farted. Not one time, but many times.

This led to hysterical laughter from everyone but the teachers.

I thought my life was over. For the next few weeks, I relived the prayer farting scene over and over. I would feel a wave of shame and embarrassment, of utter mortification wash over me as I saw the images on the movie screen of my mind. I begged my mom to let me change schools because I was convinced everyone was talking about it.

How can you switch from being in the movie to being the movie watcher and why should you want to do this? You want to do it because you're literally letting thoughts run your life, determine your mood and your feelings for years after the event. Your feelings determine your behavior and your behavior determines your action. And actions, my friend, are what make up your days and your entire life.

If you don't want to waste your life being stuck in sucky feelings, let me share a few tools with you.

  1. Use this tool developed in ACT therapy: Catch yourself having a thought, then say this out loud: "I'm having the thought that...." Then say it again three times but put this in front of the statement: "I notice I'm having the thought that...." This puts you in the observer seat, thus allowing you a little space between you and the unhelpful thought.

  2. Ask yourself how you react when you believe this thought? Does it cause suffering/unhappiness? Can you let it go or at least acknowledge it's possibly not true? How would life be different without this thought?

  3. Name and categorize that thought. Two of my biggest categories are "Imagined conversation" or "future catastrophic events", I try to catch myself, then imagine pulling open a file cabinet and filing away the thought in a manila folder with those words at the top. This method also lessens the impact of the thought and reminds you it might be part of a self-inflicted pattern of pain.

  4. If you're going to relive things, remember that you get to decide what plays on your movie screen. Can you relive moments of gratitude or joy? Moments when you were embracing someone you love? yes! When I was doing neurofeedback, the technician taught me to pick a memory of love. I remembered rocking my son 9 month old son. She told me to see the light in the room, to feel the heft of my son's weight on my chest, to imagine my arms wrapped around his onesie, to feel his head on my chest. To smell his baby smell. She said that immersing yourself in a pleasant memory would produce feel-good brain waves and put your body in a parasympathetic mode. And guess what? These good memories are always available to you in your library of memories, just like the bad ones. Which video will you choose to take off the shelf?

  5. Ask yourself what it's costing you to relive that memory or to hold onto the painful thoughts? How do you react when you remember or obsess, how does it feel in your body? Is it pleasant? My husband made a comment about our kids' love of carbs and how he wants to give them the tools necessary to make healthy choices. He threw out that my daughter eats frozen pancakes and my son eats a bagel every morning. I saw red. My mind immediately did a few things. One: It looked for evidence from the past that he was wrong and I was right. I felt my body get rigid and my breathing became very shallow. I felt a surge of stress hormones. I noticed the thought in the background saying, "He thinks I'm a bad mother" and I reacted with anger, hurt, sadness, defensiveness. I was still thinking about it two days later every time I saw the kids snacking or eating something carby. I would replay the memory. How do I react when I relive that memory? I'm def not relaxed, I'm not loving on my hubby, I'm not working as a team.

  6. Ask yourself what benefit you might be getting from keeping and holding onto those bad movie scenes? Are they allowing you to remain a victim? Do they give you an excuse to stay stuck? In the case of the husband carb comment, what benefit did I get by thinking about the scene over and over? I got to be mad at him and hurt instead of asking if there was any truth to his comment. Instead of being curious about what his ideas were, I was able to stay stuck and mad.

  7. Look at a clock, 90 seconds later the body will be done experiencing that rush of adrenaline. Will you create a thought loop and stimulate another surge? By simply looking at your watch, you might be able to hit pause on the movie.

  8. Breath work--no matter where we go, we always have this tool: Our breath. Three slow deep breaths yank your body out of fight/flight mode faster than anything else.

This week try these steps when you find yourself getting triggered by current thoughts or past replays. If you practice this movie-theater noticing, you'll start to realize your thoughts aren't real. It's the craziest thing that we allow ourselves to be ruled by our thoughts. But as I said in the beginning, thoughts- lead to feelings which lead to behaviors which lead to actions, which make up the essence of our lives.

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