By Arabella Oz
What’s happening with the world? What’s happening with our country? What’s happening with my health? My job, school, apartment, family? This year has pushed our capacity for managing not knowing. We are hard-wired to detest uncertainty. We move through linear time and we like to know what we’re moving towards. We feel comfortable with a plan, preparing for possible outcomes, maintaining a sense of control in our lives. But then there are periods of life where our constant grasping for certainty reveals itself as ridiculous and futile. We can’t see what’s ahead, what will be asked of us, or fully make sense of what has just happened. It is here, in the thrashing waters and thick fog of now, that our minds reveal themselves to us.
When the future is chaotic and slippery, we fall back onto old thought patterns. Negative beliefs can actually be comforting because they are familiar, even if they hurt. What are you telling yourself about who you are these days? I never do enough. I am not a good person. I am incapable. If I mess up, I’m a failure. Nobody likes me. I always come out on the bottom. What is the thought that plays in your head like a relentless ear-worm? Write it down. Note the language you use. Is it extreme or dualistic? Notice when these thoughts were the loudest this week. What triggered them? What was the impact of believing them? Do these repeating narratives make you tired, tense, sick, or distracted?
If you are reverting to negative beliefs about yourself, that’s okay. You’re trying to keep your head above water. We’re all doing our best to make sense of a grossly complex time, and sometimes all we have to lean on are stale, reductive images and ideals. We can’t blame 2020 for instilling our deepest negative beliefs, just for turning up the volume. The stories you tell yourself have been playing on repeat in some back corner of your mind for a long time—they’ve become a hum in the background of your normal life. Well, as normal life falls away to something new, the hum grows less avoidable. In the most annoyingly optimistic way, this is the opportunity available to all of us right now, to ask ourselves: how is this moment of global instability unearthing our existing patterns?
A few things to think about: first, ask yourself why these thought patterns might have been adaptive at one point. Did being internally self-critical help to prepare and protect you from real ridicule? Did comparing yourself to others serve as an important framework for success at a time when you didn’t have more reliable guidance? Understanding the rationale and intent of your thoughts is an important step towards being able to negotiate with them. Second, catch yourself when you use sweeping language like “always” and “never.” Statements like this are absolute and crowd out the nuance, spaciousness, and contradiction that makes you human. And lastly, try to let go of trying to let go of your negative narratives. Good luck with that one. Sometimes resisting or avoiding negative thoughts creates more tension than the thoughts themselves. Focusing on building awareness and curiosity expands the field of vision, so that when we catch familiar but painful tapes playing in our minds we can engage in a new way, fit for a new era.