'My mind is too full to be mindful!'
Do you struggle to manage your busy life? Do you feel you have to account for your time with your employer, your wife/husband, even your friends? Is it not enough to be good enough: you have to be a passionate, driven worker, going the extra mile, exceeding expectations; or a super-parent providing structured activities for your children, a sparkling home and food that will nourish and delight the family? With friends you may airbrush the reality of your life to present your best self: groomed, bright-eyed, happy, successful. It’s exhausting. Social media reassures you that everyone feels the same, but they seem to manage better than you. The current self-help trend encourages us to practice ‘mindfulness’.
Mindfulness. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Relaxing, calming, de-stressing - mindfulness might be just the thing.
Most of the people counsellors see experience some degree of anxiety that disrupts their daily lives. They crave a calm mind, and whilst mindfulness appears to offer just that, for some the very act of being still and focusing on what is happening in their minds can be overwhelming. It just makes things worse.
Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for mastering the symptoms of anxiety - rapid breathing, increased heart rate, body tension, sweating, light headedness, dry mouth, racing thoughts - but if attempts to achieve this quietened mind state only make things worse, what then?
It can feel like another pressure, something else ‘to do’. Something you are not doing well enough - another failure.
In such moments it can be helpful to take a step back to see what’s going on in the bigger picture. Be curious - what is actually going on in this frenzy of thoughts and feelings? I believe there is value in teasing out what our minds are trying to tell us. We are rational, capable beings, so why have these feelings if they serve no purpose? The answer can be that the feelings and thoughts were a vital part of our coping strategy at some point, but now they have become unhelpful. Maybe they helped us avoid conflict at a time in our lives when we felt unable to deal with it. Maybe they helped us manage sadness, anger or fearfulness when no one else was able to help us.
We often pick up cues from those around us that they don’t know how to react to our feelings. They may feel awkward, embarrassed or even angry. Confusion ensues. We receive the message it is not ok to feel this way, so we try to bottle up these feelings and put on a brave face. We end up living in perpetual conflict “I feel angry/sad - I am not allowed to feel angry/sad”. We can end up feeling isolated, confused, not good enough. The harder we try to ignore the feelings, the more urgent these feelings can become.
Experience has shown me that what can help is to find a safe space for all these thoughts and feelings to be heard; really heard. Whilst they go round and round in your head it can be impossible to make sense of them. Spoken out loud to someone who wants to understand you, wants to help you make sense of your feelings, can be transformative. Someone who has the time and desire to try and see the world through your eyes instead of wanting to stop you feeling sad or angry will say “tell me more...”.
In such a space, you can begin to make sense of the tangle of feelings and thoughts. The process of making sense of yourself helps you become more accepting, less critical. I believe mindfulness is not about a lack of feeling - mindfulness is about finding space for all our feelings without being overwhelmed by them.
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