Who’s in Charge? The Thinker or the Thought? by Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE of Mary Lee Gannon.com
We all overthink. It brings anxiety. It derails progress and introduces perfectionism as a safety net from taking risks. This almost always results in self sabotage. It makes us feel helpless and victim to racing thoughts and turbulent emotions that don’t serve us.
Perfectionism is about trying to avoid risk so as to earn approval. It is a self-destructive belief that fuels the thought…If I look and do everything perfectly I can avoid shame, judgment and blame. We trick ourselves into thinking it is action when it is actually inaction.
Perfectionism shows up when we feel unsafe in our vulnerability. This is a patterned response to anxiety as is judgment, fear of failure, blame and shame. We may even have good intention. Intention without action is denial.
Who is in charge? The thinker or the thought? When we overthink, the thought is definitely in charge. It swooshes us along like the tide and we become a boat without oars completely at the liberty of the elements.
There are those who say, “Just be positive” or “Be grateful” whereby, though these statements are our true north, there is little research to prove these strategies produce a sustainable shift. Then you just end up feeling worse because you can’t maintain them. Self-defeating thoughts such as, “Why can’t I stop thinking this way?” only make things worse. Much of what is recommended in the mainstream when it comes to shifting perspective doesn’t work for everyone. I hear this form my clients who have tried everything – self-help books, conferences, leadership trainings, mentors, therapists, more degrees and certifications,
When you say, “Just be positive” to someone who is struggling it is like salt on a wound. Of course, they want to be positive, but wishing it so isn’t likely enough for someone with a difficult boss, spouse, family or past to feel better.
Behind judgment of self and others can be regret which at its worst brings guilt – another debilitating feeling. One of the most misunderstood aspects of guilt is that guilt is not about you or another person being bad or doing something bad – it is basically about separation from love. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not accepting love.
Guilt and the resulting fear are not about feeling "bad about oneself." They are basically about being separated from love. If people know they are loved, they are not afraid of their perceived "badness." They feel accepted and safe. They do not have to feel "good" about themselves to be safe. Love does that. Love is everything.
The opposite of "bad" is not "good.” It is love. So, if people are feeling badly about themselves, the answer is never to get them to feel better about themselves. Forced positivity is a dead end. It is in authentic. It feels phony. The answer is to help people feel connected to love. If they feel connected and accepted, they do not have to feel good about themselves. They are good.
In fact, when people feel accepted they stop being so concerned about themselves altogether and get into love instead. Feelings of badness are not something to be overcome. They are another symptom of the basic problem of our disconnection from love. Don't fall into the trap of trying to make a person with "bad" feelings develop "positive" feelings. That is not the answer. Getting loved is.
It’s ok to not always be positive right away in the face of adversity.
It’s wise to admit when we feel vulnerable.
It’s savvy to have mindful daily practices that build your awareness of how the thinker is in charge, not the thought.
It’s important to name the feeling that persists, even if it hurts, so you can own and move past it.
It’s realistic to see advice such as “tomorrow is another day” and “you’re better off without that job” as nothing more than clichés, not edicts, judgments, truths or expectations.
It’s strategic to realize that to authentically feel that we deserve happiness we have to know what to release that is in its way.
Here’s how increased self-regulation plays at work. Jason was anxious about not fitting in on the project team. He couldn’t sleep, withdrew and was afraid to speak up at meetings. It was getting worse every day. He noticed that at the root of his fear was a recollection of being made fun of in junior high for bad skin. It made him play small so as not to be noticed which undermined his efficacy and executive presence.
Jason started to pay specific attention to what happened in his body when he felt like shutting down. He noticed his chest felt tight, his breathing was shallow and his heart was racing. He began meditating in the evenings after work to become more aware of how to control his breathing and build his mind power.
Now when he notices a tense situation arising he immediately takes a very deep breath and asks himself what’s really going on. He taught himself to get curious about what he was feeling. To welcome it in and not be avoidant. In this space he unravels assumptions from the truth and realizes that he does have something to offer. He tells himself, “That’s just me being anxious. I’ve got this.” He focuses the anxious energy on what he has to say.
He draws on his courage and contributes. It’s a little scary at first but he knows he is competent. People may not notice him at first. He will give them time. He is patient and gentle with himself. He remains true to his good character. He eventually is met with nods and smiles.
It feels really nice to be included for who he is and what he brings. There will always be challenges. He now has a practice and a mindset he can rely on. Life and work are fulfilling because her has something to contribute.
I’ve studied the topic of mindset intensively because limiting perceptions plagues most of my clients. Research points to the fact that resilience comes from staying in the moment and taking action - not fast forwarding to a perceived doomed outcome. This is mindfulness.
Resilience builds by realizing that flawed narratives point to assumptions we need to challenge. In that moment where we challenge the assumption with curiosity, not turn away from it in hurt and judgment, we allow the thought to flow through us, not get stuck there. Mindful practices such as deep breathing that we execute in the fire of a critical instant of doubt allow the assumption to move on, opening the door to wonder.
What are more of these mindful practices? They start with noticing your thoughts and observing the triggers that bring on negativity. This noticing prepares you to not take the bait of doubtful thought. You will learn many mindful practices here.