How to Break Free from Mental Captivity – Part Two

“Our ideas, like orange-plants, spread out in proportion to the size of the box which imprisons the roots.” – Edward Bulwer Lytton

In my last post, “How to Break Free from Mental Captivity – Part One,” we began to explore strategies for developing a more mindful and effective relationship with your internal mental experience. It’s not uncommon to struggle with unpleasant thoughts about oneself, other people, and external events. When it begins to feel like your mind has more control over your day-to-day emotional well-being than you do, it’s time to pause and evaluate what needs to change.

As we learned from the first three strategies to becoming the master of your mind, fighting against your thoughts is a futile endeavor that may result in you feeling emotionally drained or confused. Instead of pushing against the current of your thoughts, consider the positive shift in energy that is possible when you choose to mindfully go with the flow.

Use the “Carrot” Instead of the “Stick”

You probably already know that simply telling yourself to “snap out of it” or “get it together” doesn’t always lead to success. In fact, these kinds of thoughts can even intensify preexisting feelings of self-doubt, guilt, or shame. The goal behind mastering your mind is not to become a slave driver through exerting self-inflicted punishment. Setting out to master your mind through force can produce unwanted outcomes, such as feeling demoralized, exhausted, or worthless.

Instead, be the kind of “boss” that you would like to work for, or the kind of “parent” you would like to have… one who encourages you and recognizes your strengths, while still holding you accountable and setting realistic expectations. Take back control of your internal experience and increase purposeful action toward your goals through positive reinforcement and self-motivation (the “carrot”), rather than through sinking into self-criticism and punishment (“the stick”).

More Strategies to Become the Master of Your Mind

Take a few minutes to read through the final three strategies to increase psychological self-mastery and improve the relationship you have with your thoughts. Notice any strategies that feel new or exciting. Pause to jot down ideas that come up about specific behavioral steps you can take to apply these mindfulness-based techniques in your daily life.

(4) Observe Your Own Mind

Observing your own mind involves actively engaging in mindfulness of your mental activities. This means consciously choosing to take a step outside of yourself for a moment and become the observer of your experience, instead of the actor. It might feel uncomfortable or foreign in the beginning, but with practice, directing mindful observation toward your cognitions can do wonders for your overall well-being.

Consider the practice of developing greater mindfulness with the same importance that you may give to taking care of your physical well-being. The American Psychological Association (APA) has reported many evidence-based benefits of mindfulness, such as boosting working memory, improving relationship satisfaction, and reducing stress… just to name a few.

(5) Retrain Your Mind & Rewire Your Brain

You’re probably familiar with the expression, “You are what you eat.” Consider applying this concept toward your mind with the statement, “You are what you repeatedly think.” What general types of thoughts do you find yourself continually engaging in? If you’re unsure, try keeping a journal with you for the next week where you can write down repetitive thoughts. Notice the valence of those thoughts… in other words, are they generally positive or negative?

Research has demonstrated a significant relationship between negatively valenced repetitive thoughts and poor outcomes for both physical and mental health (e.g., Watkins, 2008). On the other hand, regularly engaging in positively valenced repetitive thoughts is associated with higher overall psychological well-being, reduced stress levels, positive emotions, and higher subjective ratings of physical and mental health. Like any new habit, retraining your mind takes practice! Be patient and direct kindness toward yourself as you develop this (or any) new habit… and remember the importance of holding yourself accountable throughout the change process.

(6) Practice Self-Compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff has described self-compassion as “a healthier way of relating to yourself.” Take a moment to reflect on the quality of the relationship that you have with yourself. If this sounds like an odd concept to you, it’s worth taking a look at how you perceive, relate to, and care for yourself. Imagine how you typically feel and respond when a loved one is hurt, vulnerable, or unsure. Do you reach out to them, provide support, or offer reassurance?

Now imagine that you are the one feeling painful emotions, vulnerability, or insecurity… are you just as willing to reach out to yourself and offer that same kind of emotional validation, care, and compassion? By actively practicing mindfulness-based self-compassion exercises, you can learn to direct the same attitude of kindness, understanding, and love that you give to others toward yourself. When your physical, mental, and emotional “gas tanks” are full, you have more energy, love, and compassion to give to others.

As with the development of any new habit, once these new ways of thinking become a regular part of your routine, you won’t need to consciously practice in the same way. By applying mindfulness of your habitual thought processes, you can break free from outdated ways of viewing yourself, others, and the world. This new mindful relationship with your thoughts can naturally lead to the realization that you were acting as your own “prison warden” all along… you are “free” as soon as you choose to free yourself from mental captivity. Only you will know when the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.

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If you’re interested in assessing your current level of self-compassion, try this free online quiz from Dr. Kristen Neff.

Greenberg, M. A. (2013, April 2). Retrieved from

Watkins, E. R. (2008). Constructive and unconstructive repetitive thought. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 163-206.

Featured image: Thinking… by Klearchos Kapoutsis / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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