How to stop racing thoughts
Why is it that thoughts affect us so deeply? Pleasant thoughts of holidays, celebrations, and achievements are welcomed, and it is hoped that they will last forever. We don’t judge or criticise happy thoughts. However, we do judge and criticise ourselves for unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts that we label as negative lead to us feeling bad about ourselves and judging ourselves as being bad people, hopeless, of no worth, useless, and more. Our negative 'inner critic' or 'judge' shouts "you idiot!", or whispers "you never get anything right, do you!".
When we find ourselves having negative thoughts, our emotions feel negative too. Our brain scans for previous memories around feeling stupid, foolish, or naive. Our memories confirm the 'evidence' found against us, and this adds to our feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and self-condemnation.
So, how do you stop the negative thoughts and feelings that seem so real and plausible? Telling yourself to stop the thoughts or to be more positive may throw fuel onto the fire of 'beating yourself up'.
Notice and name
The 'how to stop' is in learning to 'notice'; learning to become aware when the negative messages or unwanted feelings start. Learning to notice needs to become a way of being - an ongoing practice. The difficulty is not only that the negative thoughts have become a habit, but the difficulty is in remembering to notice. Learning to remember to notice that you are experiencing negative thoughts is the necessary skill to learn.
When I became a counsellor and started writing articles, I noticed my inner critic would start to say "what do you think you have to say? Who do you think you are? You’re not Brene Brown!". My stomach would churn and I felt embarrassed by my attempts. Learning to notice the thoughts (internal ideas), to name the sensations (bodily), and name my feelings (emotions) brought my process, my habit, or pattern into awareness.
The first step in noticing is to confirm your awareness of the unwanted thoughts (inner critic judgements) and say to yourself "oh, I’m doing it again. I recognise this. I’ve thought this way before". Rather than putting energy into trying to fight off the thoughts, it may be useful to greet them, saying something like "hi again, I recognise these putdowns. I’ve heard from you before".
Acknowledging the pattern, you might comment "I’m recognising I often think and feel this way about myself when I’m tired, have just had an appraisal, or have just been vulnerable in a conversation with someone".
The process for gaining personal insight requires you to;
1. Notice and name the thoughts of the inner critic without making value judgements about them, nor criticising them or yourself. They are just thoughts.
2. Similarly, notice and name the corresponding sensations (bodily reactions) - these could be your stomach churning, having a lump in the throat, your heart racing, etc.
3. Notice and name the attached emotions (feelings), which may include a sense of embarrassment (shame), humiliation (shame), fear, anger, frustration, etc.
My inner critic was calling me foolish. This criticism was accompanied by sensing that my stomach was churning. Emotionally I felt embarrassed, cautious, defeated, down, empty, unloved, and withdrawn. Notice the voice of your inner critic, sense the bodily reactions, and name the emotions - mind, body, and emotions.
Noticing and naming the thoughts, sensing the bodily reactions, and feeling the emotions is the practice of becoming genuine with yourself. There is no cover-up or denial in this practice. You are taking yourself seriously enough to feel and reflect upon your experience without making judgements.
In the here and now, rather than beating yourself up for not coping, when the inner critic is telling you "you are an anxious person and will never cope", you will be able to say;
"Right now, I am having anxious thoughts. My inner critic is beating me up, my heart rate is increasing, and I feel like a burden to others, and whilst allowing this experience to happen, and feeling it, I am also aware it is only a part of me. It is only my inner critic part, and it will pass".
But why does my 'inner critic' do this to me; leaving me feeling so bad about myself?
On the surface, it may look as if the inner critic's job is to beat us up. However, if we look a little deeper, we will find that it is there to protect us. How does the inner critic intend to keep us safe when it is criticising us?
The voice of the inner critic is triggered when a relationship or situation threatens us in some way. This fear may not be felt consciously, but in our subconscious, the event holds some fear.
Ask yourself "what is my inner critic fearful of?". This questioning may lead to a variety of responses, such as "I am fearful of you being rejected", or "I am fearful of you being criticised as defective".
My inner critic was fearful of my submitting articles and the possibility of rejection and criticism. It didn’t want me to be hurt, to feel sad, and to shut-down. It wanted me to feel secure, content, and confident.
Once I recognised it was there to protect me, I could allow myself to accept its presence and even thank it for attempting to forewarn me.
Changing the way we view our automatic inner critic, from being a part of ourselves that is angry and punitive to a part that wishes to keep us safe, opens up the possibility of gaining more self-compassion and self-empathy. Recognising that the motives of the inner critic are from a position of fearing criticism, abandonment, or rejection provides us with the empathy necessary to hear it out, find an inner meaning in its voice, and recognise with compassion that its needs and wants are solely to care for us, and to keep us safe and connected with others.