Seeing ourselves do exactly what we do not want to do, and feeling helpless to stop it from happening, is incredibly defeating. We avoid speaking up, let emotions control us, and stop short of doing our absolute best because of the chatter running through our minds.
Knowing the difference between one’s helpful and unhelpful mind is key to lasting change and symptom relief.
Attempting to control or avoid upsetting thoughts, worry, and doubt might sound helpful, but it can make things worse. Research suggests that trying to get rid of unwanted negative thoughts makes them worse, not better.
The Helpful and Unhelpful Mind
To help people recognize the power and influence of their unhelpful mind, I often ask how their life was going before the anxiety, depression, or addiction started. I want them to notice how their unhelpful mind interfered with their everyday life long before a clearly defined mental health problem developed.
We do not go from being emotionally healthy one day to being overwhelmed with anxiety or depression the next. There is a progression, and it is not hard to see if you know what to look for.
A brief explanation of the helpful and unhelpful mind is always a good place to start this exercise.
Our helpful mind is objective, reflective, logical, flexible, non-dogmatic, and helpful at solving problems and making things better, not worse.
We also have an unhelpful mind that makes assumptions, distorts reality, is dogmatic and illogical, prevents us from reaching our goals, and leads to self-defeating behavior. Look for words like must, should, and ought as signs of your unhelpful mind is at work. Strong beliefs that you are a worthless person, or that life is completely horrible if something does not work out as you believe it must work out, are also good clues.
Recognizing the existence of our unhelpful mind is critical to understanding the difference between what we think and who we are: We are not our thoughts. The problem is not that we have an unhelpful mind. The problem is that we listen to our unhelpful mind and treat what it says as true, valid, and important.
Signs of the Unhelpful Mind
Long before the anxiety or depression shows up there are telling signs our unhelpful mind has already been interfering with our lives. The struggles we have right now are likely the result of years of unhelpful thinking that has gone unchecked.
Here are five early signs that our unhelpful mind is leading us in the direction of more serious mental health problems:
- We risk our health and safety. How we manage our distress, react to upsetting events, and avoid life pressures feels good at the moment but costs us time, energy, money, and our health. We ignore the risks associated with our behavior and put our health and well-being at risk by what we eat, drink, and do.
- We sabotage our progress toward our goals. We allow our insecurities, inhibitions, fears, or unrealistic expectations to sabotage our career and personal goals. We listen to our unhelpful minds and lose sight of what is important to us. As our goals and desires in life slip away, we create stories about why we would not have been able to make it anyway, believing that we are handicapped by our life circumstances or personal problems.
- We view what people say and do inaccurately. Perceiving life events and the actions of others inaccurately shows up in a variety of ways in how we think and speak, such as: embellishing, speculating, projecting, assuming, inferring, interpreting, and reading between the lines.
- We interact with others in ways that make things worse, not better. Because of our dogmatic, inflexible beliefs that we must do well and that others should treat us well, we communicate poorly. We push our opinions, ideas, desires, and demands on others. For example, we tell people exactly what we think and feel, end conversations before we understand what the other person is saying, strongly react to anything that even remotely appears to be criticism, and we tell others what they should or should not feel.
- We create more drama and distress for ourselves than we can handle. In pursuit of our goals, we experience anxiety, stress, anger, and health problems that we believe are caused by the greatness of our noble cause and the price of success. We do not realize that even though we are pursuing important goals, we are needlessly making ourselves miserable by blaming our circumstances for our emotional distress, rather than the poor choices we are making. Many successful people live balanced, happy lives and do not make themselves or others miserable.
Our perception of life, style of interacting with others, ways we manage our health and well-being, and how we handle the pressures and problems of life give us clues that our unhelpful mind is undermining our ability to build a good life. Look for these signs before they lead to more serious mental health problems.
Practice standing outside of the swirling noise of your mind and notice what it is doing. What we monitor, we can evaluate. What we evaluate, we can modify. You are not your thoughts.