How to Break Free from Mental Captivity – Part One
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
Do you ever feel like your mind has more control of you than you do of it? Many of us have experienced times when we feel like the captain of our own ships, confidently charting our course through life. However, at other times life can feel chaotic, confusing, or completely out of control. No matter what life brings, we always have the choice of how to respond in the moment.
When the mind is flooded with negative thoughts about the self, others, or external events, it can feel practically impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It might even feel like your mind is holding you prisoner by placing you in a foggy maze of ambiguous choices and messages. During these moments, the idea of giving yourself the validation you crave can feel elusive.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Cognitive Defusion
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles reinforce the basic concept that you are not your thoughts. If you pause to notice the thoughts going through your mind right now, you may observe yourself reading and taking in the words on this page. You might also notice some background “noise” in your mind… perhaps a fleeting thought about something you need to do today, an ache in your back, or a nagging self-critical thought. The mind is neither friend, nor foe… it simply behaves as minds do, bouncing around from thought to thought. Taming the wild horse of the mind can be an intimidating feat, but recognition of yourself as the true master of your mind is the first step toward breaking free from mental captivity. Cognitive defusion exercises serve as an excellent mindfulness practice to began the process of untangling yourself from your thoughts.
Strategies to Become the Master of Your Mind
Try reading through the first three of six strategies geared toward increasing your sense of psychological self-mastery. Notice what particular strategies resonate with you personally as areas for growth and self-improvement. Make a personal commitment to practicing one new habit listed below this week.
(1) Listen & Acknowledge
Imagine for a moment how you feel when you’re trying to get a message across to someone who just doesn’t seem willing to listen. Perhaps you’ve experienced a recent encounter with a friend, family member, or coworker wherein you’ve tried adamantly to communicate a message to them, only to find it falling on deaf ears time and time again. What is it like for you to feel this lack of acknowledgement and validation from another person?
Your own mind is not so different… when you notice repetitive or nagging thoughts enter your mind, they are demanding your attention. When you brush them off, ignore them, or invalidate their presence, those thoughts are likely to become even more persistent and irritating until you listen and acknowledge them. This is the natural outcome of experiential avoidance.
Choosing to acknowledge your thoughts does not mean that you necessarily approve of them or intend to take action. It is simply engaging in mindful awareness… noticing your thoughts with an attitude that is curious, open, accepting, and nonjudgmental. When you really acknowledge the presence of your thoughts – even the ones you dislike – they will calm down and stop clamoring for your attention.
(2) Make Peace with Your Mind
Sometimes your mind can seem like your worst enemy. You may experience times in life when you’re sick and tired of negative thoughts, unrealistic fears, or nagging worry. Paradoxically, the more you tell yourself that you “can’t stand” certain thoughts or the way you react in particular situations, the more you are actually reinforcing the likelihood of those unpleasant experiences.
Instead of continually expending energy toward fighting back against unwanted thoughts or pushing down unpleasant internal experiences, allow them to simply be. Again, this does not mean that you approve of them or take enjoyment from them… what it does mean is that you are choosing to make peace with your mind by consciously disengaging from a futile power struggle.
Face it, you are stuck with you… while you can grow, change, and develop many qualities, you’re still the same basic person with the same mind. When you truly make peace with this reality through radical acceptance, there is room for peace and tranquility inside yourself. Once you direct loving acceptance toward yourself in this way, your attention and energy become freed up to focus on making progress toward the value-based goals that will bring happiness.
(3) Realize Thoughts are “Just Thoughts”
This is the basic idea behind the ACT principle of cognitive fusion. When you are “fused” to your thoughts, it feels as if you are your thoughts… there is no distinction between a thought that enters your mind and your core concept of self. For instance, imagine that you just gave a presentation to a group of your peers or coworkers that you’ve been feeling anxious about for some time. Let’s say that you accidentally left out some parts of the presentation or flubbed up a few key points. Maybe a thought such as, “I’m such a screw-up!” flashed through your mind.
When you’re deeply entrenched in a state of cognitive fusion, there is no space between the thought that you’re a screw-up and any alternate reality. In this instance, simply having the thought, “I’m such a screw-up!” becomes the gospel truth. This type of mental enslavement to every thought that comes to mind is no way to live. If you notice an ongoing struggle to disengage and defuse from these kinds of automatic thoughts, consider the importance of developing a more mindful relationship with your thoughts.
Are you ready to gain a greater sense of mastery over the whirlwind of thoughts circulating through your mind? Consider which one of the six steps to becoming the master of your mind you’re willing to practice this week, starting today. The choice to take one small action toward greater mindfulness and self-control is better than no action at all. Remember to notice any positive changes – no matter how small – as you begin to practice new ways of relating with your mind. Notice what works for you and make the commitment to develop new habits in the way you view your thoughts.
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I look forward to exploring 3 more steps toward increasing psychological self-mastery with you in my next post, “How to Break Free from Mental Captivity – Part Two.”
Greenberg, M. A. (2013, April 2). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201304/become-the-ceo-your-own-brain-in-six-easy-steps
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