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How to Manage Difficult Thoughts with Mindfulness

Thoughts and emotions are interconnected and often interact with each other. But they’re also different. Thoughts are like sounds or images in your mind. Emotions are experiences felt within your mind and body. In mindfulness, you take a slightly different approach to thoughts than you do to emotions, as you’ll discover.

Some difficult, negative thoughts may arise when you practice mindfulness as it’s often when you’re more mindful that you actually notice them. Mindfulness can be a bit like turning on a light in the dark, untidy room of your mind. Suddenly you start to notice all the things that are wrong rather than the beauty of the room itself.

Mindfulness doesn’t create negative or positive thoughts. Mindfulness is about awareness. You simply notice your thoughts. If you have negative thoughts that have been running in the background of your awareness, you may notice them a bit more now, but they have less impact on you if you’re mindful of them.

Here’s how to manage difficult thoughts in a mindful way:

  1. Take a step back from your thoughts. You have many ways of doing this such as:

    • Notice the type of thought (maybe you’re worrying, planning, judging, self-criticizing).

    • Say to yourself: ‘I notice I’m having the thought that I’ll mess up the presentation tomorrow’ or ‘This is just a thought, not necessarily a fact’.

    • Ask yourself: ‘Am I confusing a thought with a fact?’

    • Imagine your thoughts are projected on to a cinema screen and you’re sitting back in your seat, away from the screen, watching the film.

    • Watch or visualize clouds passing. Then place your thoughts on those imaginary clouds, so that you can see them come and go from a distance.

    Experiment to see what works for you. Be curious. You’re not trying to avoid or get rid of the thoughts – just to take a step back from them.

  2. Turn your attention back to your focus.

    If you’re meditating, your focus may be your breathing or bodily sensations. If you’re not meditating, you can focus on something external. This focus could be your work, the breeze as you walk or the sound of the music in the coffee shop, for example.

Learning mindfulness (like life in general) will always present difficulties and obstacles. Perhaps you’re pretty nasty to yourself through excessive self-criticism when things don’t work out how you want them to. The way to deal with this harsh inner voice is to listen to it, give it space to unfurl and bring to it a sense of curiosity in a gentle, warm way.

Difficulties can be terrifying when you’re running away from them, but the more you turn and face them, the more they lose their power. It’s like camping and being terrified of the dark and the noises in the woods. But when you shine a torch around you realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.

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