Maya Angelou wrote an essay about the day she lost her first job at sixteen years old. She describes the way she dressed up and landed a job at a fast food restaurant. Unfortunately, her tenure was short-lived; after a brief stint, she was fired. Her mother returned home that day to find Maya on her bed, crying hysterically. Once she'd understood what had happened, her mother countered Maya's tears with her own tough love encouragement: "Fired? Fired? What the hell is that? Nothing. Tomorrow you'll go looking for another job. That's all."
Maya's mother handled the situation brilliantly by offering Maya a different point of view. She pointed out that "fired" is just a word. Words are merely words, and they have no power but that which we give to them. Maya couldn't see past the word "fired" until her mother taught her to step back and look beyond it-and then to go back out and look for another job.
A word is bundled within a thick layering of assumptions. By noticing what words we focus on-and guiding ourselves to see this with compassionate, nonjudgmental awareness-we can step back and study our assumptions. We can strip them away to reveal the essence of a situation. That is the most effective way of dealing with stress. This is called mindfulness.
Research shows that those who deal best with stress are characterized by a trait that can be universally cultivated: resilience. These people do not marinate in negative words and harsh judgment. Philippe Goldin, director of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience Project in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, works with people who suffer from a constant onslaught of negative thoughts and emotions.
Goldin's research reveals that mindfulness meditation greatly affects the way in which the brain responds to negative thoughts. After merely eight weeks of mindfulness training, the participants show significantly increased activity in the brain network associated with processing information when they reflect on negative self-inflicted statements. By paying more attention to the words they say to themselves-and effectively dealing with their reactions to them-they report far less worry and anxiety.
"If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?" - Maya Angelou
According to Goldin, mindfulness teaches people how to handle distressing thoughts. By labeling thoughts without judgment, we are able to detach from distressing emotions and see the bigger picture with a clearer mind. Brain scans indicate that the ability to witness thoughts without self-judgment leads to long-term positive changes in the brain-even as little as ten minutes a day of mindful meditation has shown immense benefits!
Just like Maya Angelou, we can learn to use the NOW methodology to give ourselves the breathing space we need in order to assess a situation and make our next move:
With her mother's encouragement, Maya was able to stop beating herself up and instead think about the harsh connotations she personally applied to words like "fired" and "failure", and the ensuing self-judgment and criticism that erupted from these.
She then realized that she had the opportunity to rewrite the way she spoke to herself. If we stop to think about it, most of us would immediately realize that our self-talk is extremely negative and critical-we tend to speak to ourselves in a manner that we'd never use with a friend! With a friend we are empathetic, compassionate, considerate, and soothing. But how can we truly extend this compassionate help if we fail to nurture our own selves with these emotions?
By noticing her inner dialogue, Maya seized the chance to change her thinking and, subsequently, her choices. And this works because our outward behavior always projects, to some level, our inner thought. If we want to create any sort of change, we must begin from within.
Neuroscientist Wayne Drevets observes that, in the brain, practice makes permanent. Thus, the more often you practice non-judgmental analysis of and detachment from your own thoughts, the stronger the ensuing connections in your brain. Noting and removing judgmental labels enables you to take positive action.
- Pay attention to your present thoughts. Allow your thoughts to float around in your mind. Understand that your thoughts and emotions are ephemeral. They will come and go and will always pass through; they need not define you.
- Take a moment to frame a negative thought. Visualize it however you want, but place it inside something: a bubble (like in the cartoons), a boat, or a box.
- Label the thought for what it is: an overgeneralization, an overreaction, a very harsh critique, a fear that stems from a past failure, etc.
- Now that you've labeled it, you can detach yourself from it. You see that the thought is not YOU. Let go of the box, the boat, or the bubble. Mentally watch that thought float away from you. Let it go.
Like Maya, we need to look out for and label the moments when we overgeneralize. She initially thought of being fired as a permanent label instead of a temporary situation and a learning experience. It is important to observe negative thoughts, as this helps us begin to question the validity of these "all or nothing" labels. Instead of dramatically criticizing yourself and overgeneralizing a situation-"I'm a failure" or "I'm stupid"-learn to step back and see the situation for what it really is: "I failed at this, but I'll try harder next time to succeed; just the mere fact that I'm not giving up makes me anything but a failure" or "I may have acted stupidly in this situation, but this doesn't make me a stupid person; I have learned how to improve my response next time this happens".
Remember, regardless of the scenario, there are only two possible outcomes: sometimes you'll win; sometimes you'll learn. Coach yourself in this mentality; first be mindful of what you think, and you will then be able to master your actions and reactions.
"Your beliefs become your thoughts; your thoughts become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your values; your values become your destiny." -Mahatma Gandhi