How To Give Space To Your Thoughts And Why It's Actually Awesome
My eyes scrapped open, like they were sandpaper instead of skin . My right shoulder, the arm I predominantly carry my son with, throbs pain up into my neck as I try to roll over and look at the clock. I lift my head a little.
It’s 4:30am. Again.
For the third week in a row, he’s been waking up well before the birds. He had gotten into the habit of needing Andrew to rock him back to sleep in the wee hours.
Except, even the rocking stopped working. The minute he was put down, he’d cry and want to get up for the day. So Andrew would be stuck in the chair with him until he needed to get up for the day and get ready for work.
Something, obviously, needed to change.
What do we do? How do we change things? What’s our first step? OH. MY. GOD. MAKE THE FUSSING STOP AND LETS ALL GET SOME FREAKING SLEEP ALREADY.
It’s in these early, exhausting, painful hours that I face my absolute toughest critic. It’s a nightmare really. And it’s created by none other than, moi.
As the sleep debt got bigger and bigger, each early morning prompted even more internal criticism, more internal judgment. Her list got longer, harsher. It was down right mean. Now, not only was I exhausted, I was beat down.
Next to my bed, I have piles upon piles of books. They're mostly overflowing out of a big basket under my side table. It’s filled with a variety of authors Nora Roberts, Sylvia Boorstein, Cheryl Strayed, Dan Siegel, and Thich Nhat Hanh.
One day, during this very long slog of sleep deprivation and foggy mental capabilities, Little Mister started rooting through said basket. He pulls out Mindful Motherhood, by Cassandra Vieten.
He liked looking at the cover---an illustration of a sweet mama-baby pair, swaddled against each other, each with a little smile.
He handed me the book, open. On the page was the section titled: Cultivating Compassion For Yourself. Point taken. I brought it downstairs with me to look through. I hadn’t read it since my ninth month of pregnancy---a far, far cry from the realities of ACTUAL motherhood.
On the first nice day this spring, with the warm sun shining and melting the recent snow, we went outside to play. I brought the book with me. Grabbing a highlighter, I sat down on our next door neighbors lawn chair while Little Mister played in the mud.
After reading a few pages, I highlighted: “Have others in your life ever changed as a result of you being increasingly harsh or judgemental towards them?”
Sitting back, I was a little startled, then curious about why I chose to highlight this first.
Looking closer at the question however, it made perfect sense. The thought of being intentionally harsh, critical and judgmental to anyone else makes my stomach turn. Especially as a means to make someone or something change.
So why would I go ahead and do this to myself?
Silence. A bird was chirping near by. Little Mister was happily babbling and splashing in a puddle in the yard.
It was a good question. Very good.
Reading on, she clarifies:
“True [self] compassion sees the situation clearly, acknowledges the pain or grief that gives rise to the situation, and then takes realistic action to address that pain and grief. That might mean getting counseling. It might mean asking for help in other ways. It almost always means taking some action that prevents further pain and grief.”
As a recovering I-gotta-do-it-all-myself person, this was a good reminder. Vieten continues:
“Compassion is good for you…[it] acts as a buffer against emotional states such as anxiety and depression, rumination, and thought suppression, as well as promoting positive emotional mindsets, such as greater happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity and exploration, personal initiative, positive emotions, autonomy, competence, and relatedness.”
Gosh, yes, please. Let’s do this! I thought. SELF COMPASSION is where IT’S AT!
Sometimes there’s this wiser, older voice that will pipe up when I’m having serious doubts. It’ll say something along the lines of: who said you have to know how to do everything, anyway? Girl, that’s a lot of pressure! The point in life is to LEARN. You gotta start somewhere and so here you are! You’re not your thoughts anyway, honey, so let’s move on.
Good point, I usually reply back to myself. For some reason, the voice that says these wise things to myself sounds like a boisterous, go-get-em old southern woman.
Andrew’s great grandmother, Ma, I imagine sounded like my inner-compassionate voice. She was a tiny woman, with big, 70’s style glasses. There’s a picture of her and her sister in his parent’s hallway. Taken at a Sear’s photography studio years ago, I imagine she’s telling the photographer to get a move on with it, that the lights are hot and she has got A LOT to do today. It’s the spark (not a sparkle, not just a light, but a genuine spark. A deep, seen-it-all spark) in her eyes that tell me she was a woman to be reckoned with.
I look at that picture every time I visit Colorado. She tells me, in no uncertain terms, to get a move on with it. Life is short and you’ve got important things to do. No sense in moping around, girl. Worry? What good did that ever do? You’ve got a life, so live it! Come on honey, let’s go!
I have no idea if Ma was really like that or if she’d ever say something like that to anyone. But I’d like to imagine so. Spirit. Spunk. Self-compassion.
“Like mindfulness, self-compassion is not just a form of positive thinking---cheering yourself up or reframing everything with a rosy glow...Self-compassion refers to the ability to hold difficult negative emotions in nonjudgmental awareness without having to suppress or deny negative aspects of one’s experience...Because self-compassionate individuals do not berate themselves when they fail, they are more able to learn, grow, and take on new challenges. This makes self compassion, which overlaps with mindful awareness, a great ingredient for becoming a new mom.” ---Cassandra Vieten, Mindful Motherhood
The other day, while on the bike at the gym, I felt my super harsh inner critic gaining speed along with my strides. My throat constricted, my heart started racing even harder, the tears welled up in my eyes. I was spiraling, walking (or riding) directly into my inner critic’s judgments.
Suddenly, out of the blue, I remembered: you are not your thoughts. Notice, I am thinking. I am thinking these thoughts. But you are not your thoughts.
Over the next 50 minutes on that bike, I practiced this. The judgment would surface and I would just notice. The criticism would start winding around my gut, and I would pull back, to watch.
And it worked. It always does---which still surprises me. But it’s a practice. A constant, daily, hourly, minute by minute practice.
I’m given ample opportunities to practice, too. AMPLE. Our early mornings are getting easier. I no longer feel like the living dead most of the time. That’s huge. It’s also given me space to problem solve the issue more. See a different perspective. That and talking to my girlfriend Megan!
With all this practice, I’m getting quicker at noticing before I slide down that slippery slope. I watch. I breathe. Always breathing. And it’s getting easier (halle-freakin-luja!!).
Give it a try. If you’re struggling---like I have been---with being bogged down by inner criticism, you might be amazed, too.
Notice. Give space. Breathe.
And then remember: I am not my thoughts.