How to free yourself from being a prisoner of your own mind
In our DBT skills group in San Francisco, we teach group members many different distress tolerance skills to ride out an emotional storm or crisis.
A crisis in DBT is a moment where you are in danger of doing something you’ll later regret. Like engaging a compulsive behavior that you’ve been trying hard to stop. Or impulsively ending a relationship out of anger, hurt or frustration. Or blurting out something mean that you later wish you could take back.
Everyone has moments like these – moments when you are so upset you can’t think straight. If you’re emotionally sensitive or dysregulated, then you’ll benefit from the whole toolbox of DBT skills to help you in a crisis, such as the STOP skill, Pros and Cons, and Distracting.
Another DBT distress tolerance skill, called Mindfulness of Current Emotions helps free you from the prison of your own mind.
What is Mindfulness of Current Emotion?
It’s a set of mindfulness skills to help you not believe your distressing thoughts.
Because you don’t have to believe everything you think. And you definitely do not have to act on everything you think.
If you tend to be emotionally sensitive or reactive, this idea is revolutionary. Not only can you learn to not believe and act on every thought, you can learn to just watch them go by. Because all thoughts, no matter how upsetting, have a beginning and an end.
Even obsessive thoughts. Even thoughts that feel like the truth of who you are – that you are a no-good loser who has messed up your life. Or that you are unlovable. Or that if people knew who you really were, they would reject you.
If you can witness those painful thoughts coming and going, without believing they are true or acting on them, you can get some real relief. You can learn that you are not your thoughts.
Each of us has a steady internal core, or wise mind that can witness our mind doing its thing – creating thought after thought.
Thoughts that create a lot of emotional suffering generally fall into these categories:
You judge yourself harshly, thinking things like:
• There is something wrong with me.
• I’m ugly, stupid, lazy (insert your favorite self-judgement here).
Self-judgement coupled with worry about the future
Your judgements about yourself lead you to predict a miserable future for yourself:
• I’m so flawed that no one will ever love me.
• I’ll never amount to anything because I’m such a loser.
Judgement of Others or the World
You judge others or the world in a negative light such as:
• My co-workers are all idiots.
• People who don’t share my political views are selfish and stupid.
Worry about the Future
You worry something awful will happen to you or to those you care about such as:
• What if I get fired, sick or I’m in an accident?
• What if there’s an earthquake?
It’s not that terrible things can’t happen. They can, and they do, all the time.
But worrying about terrible things before they happen doesn’t help you cope if a terrible thing does happen. It does nothing to make you more emotionally prepared but does everything to make your current moment miserable. And if effectively makes you a prisoner of your mind.
Here’s how to practice Mindfulness of Current Thoughts (and help free yourself from the prison of your own mind)
If you recognize yourself in the above example (and who doesn’t from time to time), then you’ll benefit from practicing these skills:
Think of your mind as a conveyor belt
For each thought that goes by, imagine putting it in a box – a ‘worry about the future’ box, or a ‘judgement about others’ box. Sort each thought that arises into the correct box.
Sing your thoughts
Seriously. Try taking your thoughts and singing them out loud to a tune that fits the mood of the thoughts – a slow tune for sad thoughts and a fast tune for worry thoughts. Have your own private opera. It sounds silly but it works.
Think about what you would do if you didn’t believe everything you thought
Would you take more risks? Like yourself more? Feel safer in the world? Let yourself imagine your life if you didn’t mistake every thought for a fact.
In a DBT skills group, you’ll learn many more ways to practice this skill, so this is just a taste.
If you’re curious about how Dialectical Behavior Therapy in San Francisco can help you, call us at (415) 310-5142.
* Exercises adapted from DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Marsha M. Linehan, The Guildford Press 2015