Often, your own mind is the worst enemy you will face on a daily basis. Far too many of us let our minds doubt, criticize, bully, and limit us relentlessly. And if that’s not bad enough, over time, that fearful, negative self-talk can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions.
I know. I used to let my mind push me around and make me miserable for most of the first half of my life.
For decades, I lived an anxious, depressed, miserable existence that culminated in an attempt to end my life in 2007. Obviously, I did not succeed, but I did manage to put myself in a coma, give myself a serious brain injury, and lose custody of my two sons. While that experience and the years that followed were excruciatingly painful (I’d rather have my fingernails pulled out with pliers than go through it all again), it did usher in tremendous personal growth and valuable life lessons, as most painful experiences do.
As part of my physical and emotional healing from the life crisis and brain injury, I learned to change the way I thought, talked to myself, and lived. Practicing supportive, encouraging self-talk and mindfully choosing my reactions to the random thoughts that popped up and consciously reframing them allowed me to be in charge. It was a learning process that took consistent effort and years, but I eventually got to where my mind and emotions no longer jerked me around haphazardly making a mess of me and my life.
To my pleasant surprise, I saw that controlling my mind was synonymous with taking control of my life. Life is much calmer and kinder when your mind is calmer and kinder. I have come to believe that learning to direct your mind is one of life’s most valuable skills.
You can learn it too and achieve similar results. Here’s what you need to know.
Your Mind’s Default State Is the Product of Your Past
Your mind’s internal narrative and default resting state, resilient or bleak or somewhere in between, is the culmination of your subconscious memories, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Most of your mental chatter is made up of and based on memories and programming from your childhood — mainly your wounds, fears, and pain. As you grow up, you unconsciously integrate this negative material into your belief system about the world, others, and yourself. This subconscious filter becomes the lens through which you view life and interpret everything that happens around you.
Your brain remembers, holds onto, and directs your thoughts and actions according to this negative subconscious narrative in an attempt to protect you from having similar experiences in the future. It is really just doing its job trying to keep you safe — like when our ancestors remembered a deadly predator’s territory and avoided it. This subconscious stream influences how you make sense of and respond to the world and largely determines your relationship with yourself, impacts your behavior, guides your decisions, and ultimately shapes the direction of your life.
Think about that for a minute.
You Can Change Your Brain and Life
It means that you are living your life and making decisions guided by your fears and pain rather than your aspirations and goals. So, as an adult, you basically live your life viewing the world through the wounds of your childhood — that is until you take control of your mind and intentionally alter your mindset.
And you can do this at any time, and you can start today.
It will change your brain and life for the better.
So, how do you put a stop to the constant negative internal voice and find some peace and happiness when even your brain is working against you?
You have to intentionally become aware of and work with your mind. That’s how.
You can’t control the random thoughts that pop into your head. That’s impossible and trying to do that leads to its own kind of suffering and guilt because you will inevitably fail at it. However, you can control how you respond to those thoughts. That is where your power is. Instead of going wherever your mind goes, you can consciously take control of and guide your mind in a different direction that supports, encourages, and calms you by working with your thoughts.
Over time, when you consistently and consciously change your thinking patterns, you can alter default pathways and calm your brain through the process of neuroplasticity. Developing an awareness of your mind is at the heart of mindfulness, and neuroplasticity is the fundamental process through which mindfulness changes your brain. But if you don’t like the idea of practicing mindfulness, you can just think of it as a mental health practice.
How I Took Control of My Mind and Life
Before I tried to end my life, I had no control over my mind and did not even know not to believe everything I thought. I used to think I was a horrible person because my thoughts told me so. Years ago, my mind constantly told me that I wasn’t a good enough wife, mother, friend, daughter — you name it; that I couldn’t possibly make it on my own; that I needed a man to be valued; that I wasn’t smart enough or strong enough, blah, blah blah… This internal negative talk was a huge underlying factor in my attempting death by suicide.
Now, I know, that my thoughts do not reflect me. They most often reflect my fears and wounds. I can choose to believe, reframe, or reject them. I wish I had learned this earlier in life, but better late than never, eh?
With determination, hard work, and discipline every day, for years, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, counseling, doing things differently, and the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly emerged from the mess I’d made of my life. I made a habit of working with my inner voice and thoughts, learned to actually like myself, and extend myself some kindness and compassion.
The injury taught me how to be kind to and take care of myself.
However, please don’t think that I somehow “graduated” and never hear that mean voice in my head anymore.
Oh, I still hear it. It’s just that I know now that it’s not the “truth,” and I ignore it, tell it to shut up, or direct my mind in a way that encourages, supports, and calms me — and maybe even all of the above. The point is that I choose what I want to believe and how I want to think and act — every day. It is a continual choice I make over and over again daily. Some days I do really well, almost enlightened, I think, and then I’ll have day where I can assure you I’m not.
It is possible to become aware of your mind and inner critic and work with it, through tools such as mindfulness, thought reframing, and affirmations, so that it becomes your ally rather than an enemy.
You Can Calm Your Brain and Life Too
Over time, with consistent practice, becoming aware of your thoughts and inner voice, naming your emotions, challenging your thoughts, and consciously choosing more encouraging, supportive self-talk can help build a more positive brain and turn down your stress response which will, in turn, create a calmer life.
This website is dedicated to communicating ways that you can create a calmer happier life and brain. Please check out some of the articles below for further reading outlining concrete ways to start working with your thoughts and directing your mind to achieve a calmer, happier life and brain.
How To Make Friends With Your Mind
The thoughts in your head can give you the grit needed to go after and be successful in the profession of your dreams, maintain loving, healthy relationships, and be hopeful and optimistic on most days. Or not.
On the other hand, your mind can mercilessly criticize and ridicule your every move, hold you back from going after whatever you really want in life, and sabotage and second-guess every part of your relationships. You choose.
Your brain affects everything you do. How you feel, think, and move, what you see and hear, literally every single thing originates in or is processed by it. At the most basic level, your reality is literally constructed by your brain. read more
Life Gets Easier By Managing Expectations
Through eighteen years of marriage and for several years of single motherhood after, I tried to live up to the picture I held of a with-it woman who could keep her man happy, use a power drill, edge the yard, and whip up a mouth-watering dinner in a sparkling kitchen resembling an ad on the pages of a magazine while she looked effortlessly fabulous the whole time. Needless to say, I nor my life ever fit this description — not even close. After a messy divorce and disastrous post-marriage relationship, I found myself feeling like a miserable failure as a woman and mother. I was the furthest I’d ever been from my ideal image.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!” I huffed. Eventually, after one insult piled on top of another, my answer to straying so far off of the “should” path was to try to end my life.
In the years since then, I’ve come to understand that I was causing my own suffering by torturing myself with expectations of what I thought “should be.” I’ve come to realize that there is no “should be” except in my mind. There is only what is. I can alleviate almost all pain and suffering by ditching the “shoulds” and consciously accepting what unfolds. Many philosophies teach and I’ve found that emotional torment and suffering come from our attachment to thoughts about what happens, not what actually happens. Pain originates in the space between our thoughts and reality. read more
How to Argue With Your Thoughts to Create More Happiness
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but arguing can actually bring you more peace and happiness — arguing with yourself that is.
You know that incessant chatter inside your head that keeps a running commentary on all that happens, critiquing and second-guessing your every move? For most of us, that inner voice is pretty harsh — even downright nasty. It drones on and on with never-ending criticisms, judgments, and comparisons.
You don’t have to believe your self-critical thoughts or that mean voice in your head. You can shut it up and even make friends with it. read more
Four Steps To Take Control Of Your Mind And Change Your Brain
The Four Step method of thought reframing is scientifically proven to alter your brain and can be used by anyone to take control of your mind and improve your mental health and life.
I used The Four Steps to change a lifetime of unhealthy thinking patterns and behaviors. While I wouldn’t say I had OCD, I definitely had tendencies, including through-the-roof anxiety and obsessive thoughts. After reading about the practice, I had reminders of the four steps posted all around — on the refrigerator, in my meditation corner, on the bathroom mirror, and even on the dashboard of my car.
Every time one of those nasty thoughts that led to depression and the suicide attempt popped into my head, I’d march through the four steps. I was determined that I wasn’t going to be a slave to my thoughts anymore and let my mind run and ruin my life. Eventually, it worked. read more
Seeing The World Through Rose-Colored Glasses
As we grow up, we all learn certain beliefs and attitudes about ourselves, others, the world, and how to conduct ourselves through the influences of family, religion, school, culture, and life experiences. For a while, we believe these to be right or true without ever even being aware that we have them much less questioning their authenticity and appropriateness for us in our life at that time.
In her book, Shatki Gawain tells a story to illustrate how beliefs can control our lives. In India, when training baby elephants, trainers begin by sturdily chaining one hind leg of the animal to a tree. The elephant becomes accustomed to the chain and pretty soon, doesn’t even try to get free. The trainer then reduces the size of the chain until, finally, all that is required to constrain the strong animal is a thin string. It’s not the string that restrains him. It’s his belief.
The voice in your head is a lot like the string. When you become aware of and work with your inner critic, it can become your ally in life, rather than your enemy, like the string holding you back. read moreShare this article!
These sound like powerful practices, Debbie. That fact you have used them and changed your experience of life so dramatically attests to their effectiveness. Thanks for sharing them with us.
Dear Debbie, Thank you for this article. You reminded me of my personal experience. Monitoring my brain health is one of my daily routines. I have been struggling all my life (I am 62 now but have teenage kids) trying to tame my brain through meditation, reading, reflection, learning, and adjusting. Eventually, I managed to reach a stage where I am to some extent in control of my thoughts, emotions, and behavior before it was too late. I wanted to reach this level a long time ago to save myself and my relationships, but as you said it takes life experience to unlearn bad experiences, learn from them and look at things from a different perspective. The main thing I wanted to achieve is realizing my potential, in terms of education, career, physical exercise, and relationships. Eventually, somehow I managed to achieve all of that to some extent and today my main objective is to maintain my brain’s well-being because everything follows.
Thank you for sharing your journey, Youssef. I’m so happy for you! I hope that others will read my and your experiences and know that changing and improving your mental health is entirely possible. As you and I both know, it takes time and work, but it’s worth it!
You are most welcome, Sandra. 🙂