Do you struggle with self-judgment? You’re not alone. It’s a fallacy to believe that you have to judge yourself in order to change. Here’s a more gentle and transformative way.
Every one of us has habits that we’d like to change. On the path of personal growth and awakening, this is especially true of our mental habits. It takes a firm resolve to transform negative thought patterns into positive ones. But we cause unnecessary upset by judging ourselves whenever we catch our minds in the act of the less-than-desirable behavior.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can learn to catch ourselves when we’re caught up in old habits with kind attention and determination rather than judgment and shame.
Those Pesky Thoughts
The most difficult habit to change, in my experience, is the way we think. Our habitual thought-patterns usually have been around for a very long time. As a result, it takes a bit more effort to create those internal shifts of awareness and attention.
When we become aware of our thought patterns, we may notice how much they dominate our day. They bounce around in our heads like a volleyball, taking leaps from here to there in our awareness. It’s often hard to catch up to where those pesky thoughts are headed, or to stop them in action.
The Unhealthy Thought Patterns
We can all identify ways of thinking that cause us trouble. Some of these might be familiar to you:
- I’m not good enough
- Life isn’t fair
- I’ll never be able to ___________
- Why me?
What thoughts would you add to this list? What ones cause you the most trouble?
The thoughts themselves aren’t the big issue – it’s when we 1) believe the thoughts and 2) perpetuate the thoughts that problems arise in our lives.
Notice What You’re Thinking
The first step in creating change in our thoughts is awareness. You can’t change something that you’re not aware of. We may be having all kinds of thoughts that operate as a subconscious, or even unconscious, level of awareness.
To become aware of our mental processes, we need to set aside time to do that. But it doesn’t have to impinge much on our day. If you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, check in with your thoughts. While at a traffic light, notice what’s in your mental awareness. You can find bits of time here and there to become more aware.
When you have more time, it’s very helpful to journal. Try a Stream of Consciousness exercise: simply write down, for 3-5 minutes, every single thought you’re having. No censoring, no punctuation or grammar check, just write it all down however it comes out. It can be surprising to discover everything that goes on in that mind of yours – especially thoughts that take you out of the present moment or cause you to suffer!
Question Your Thinking – Gently
Most of the time, our thoughts slip by our awareness undetected – and unquestioned. We tend to believe, consciously or unconsciously, what we think. And if we don’t question our thoughts, they’ll determine our experiences, perceptions, and often our behaviors.
If you want to change something, the thoughts need to change that reinforce that behavior or belief. The truth is, you have thoughts, but they don’t own you. They aren’t who you are. You can observe and witness them. And because of that, you can question them.
Are the thoughts you’re having what you truly want to have? Do they support, assist, and serve you or others? Are they helpful and encouraging? Do they create what you want in your life? Are they worth believing in?
If you answered no, then question them. Reconsider if they’re worth having around. You don’t have to attack them, or judge yourself for having them. They’ve been around for a long time, remember? You probably created them at at time when they seemed like the best alternative. They were probably a reaction to what was going on around you.
But you don’t have to keep them! At any time, you can question what you are thinking – with kind, gentle awareness and attention – and decide that you don’t need or want a thought. You’re in charge, not your thoughts (even if you have a thought that no, really, those thoughts are in control!).
A Sense of Humor
Really, you don’t have to take all those annoying, unhelpful thoughts seriously. I mean, if we could hear everyone’s thoughts, it would be nuts, right?
Think of some of the most ridiculous thoughts you may have had. We all have them. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us. We don’t need to judge ourselves for having silly or annoying thoughts. We also don’t have to judge ourselves for having upsetting, scary, or hurtful thoughts. You aren’t your thoughts, and when you start to get more distance from them and look at them as something you’re experiencing, not who you are, you might become a bit amused about how incessant and outrageous they are.
Toss Those Thoughts Back – and Change the Game
After you’ve become aware of your thoughts, questioned them a bit, and even looked at them with some sense of humor, you may have developed enough neutral distance between you and your thoughts to change the game. If those thoughts are bouncing around in your mind like a volleyball, catch the ball and toss it back to the sideline. You don’t have to play!
Change the game. You don’t have to be at the whim of the ball. You – your True Self within, that watches the thoughts but isn’t them – can decide what to do next.
What direction do you want to turn your attention to? If you’re having thoughts of not being good enough, it’s not so easy to just decide that you’re good enough. Turn your attention to something specific about you that is good enough in this moment. You may be breathing deeply enough, sincere about your growth, or know that you have a kind heart, even if it isn’t perfect.
Letting Go of Thinking Altogether
What might be more effective is letting go of thinking at all. Here in this moment, sitting at your computer, perhaps in a chair, is OK. That is what is real right now. Take a look around and see what is real around you right now. Maybe a dog at your feet, or the sound of crickets or rain outside the window. Everything else in your mind is a story that you don’t have to keep writing.
Don’t expect to completely silence all your thoughts – they will probably still bounce around here and there in your awareness. Redirect the game to being as fully present as possible with what is really here, right now. The more inner quiet you experience, the more you’ll be able to change your thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions when they arise.
It is possible to change. And you can change yourself kindly and light-heartedly, without judging yourself.