You’re Thinking About Me

I know exactly what you’re thinking about me – and it’s nothing good. Yep, you’re looking at me that definitely means you and your friends are talking about me – and it’s nothing good. 

This is what my brain continually tells me when I interact with or even just come near people. The mechanism behind this is a cognitive distortion called mindreading. First let me tell you about cognitive distortions

DISTORTED REALITY

Often described as irrational thought patterns, while they can be experienced by anyone, cognitive distortions are especially prevalent in individuals who have anxiety or depression. Crack the champagne, I check both of those boxes. Cognitive distortions can have really negative affects on our mood, and sometimes even lead to unhealthy behavior. 

There is an array of different distortions, but my brain is most guilty of mind-reading. Those who mind-read assume that they know what others are thinking of them. Now a certain degree of this is helpful to us as social creatures. It is a large part of emotional intelligence – which comes in handy when we need to take cues from a person’s facial expression or body language. 

SOME OF MY DISTORTIONS

Too much of this behavior can be miserable though. Let me give you a few examples of common mind-reading distortions that I have:

  • Say I’m tardy for work. I think that everyone is thinking about my tardiness for the whole entire day, and that they are thinking I lack commitment or am a bad employee.
  • From my other blogs, you know that I am working on body positivity. Related to that work, I am constantly thinking people are having negative thoughts about my body and how I look. I sometimes assume someone may not want to be in a relationship with me because of my body. 
  • I have a group of friends that I met because of an ex-boyfriend. After the break up I always thought people were thinking negatively about me. I also then would tell myself that they didn’t want me around anymore. 
  • If I have a mild disagreement with a friend, or have to cancel plans I think that the person doesn’t want to be my friend anymore. 

Now, when I write it all out, I can see how it is irrational. But in the moment, by brain can’t distinguish that. Now you might say, “everything isn’t about you.” Believe me, I know that. For me, this distortion is more about my deep loyalty to the people in my life. 

I think what compounds my distortion is the fact that I am highly emotionally intelligent, and am a total empath. I pick up on the emotions of others constantly. So sometimes it can be confusing as to whether what I am picking up on in a mind-reading situation is completely irrational or not. 

DISRUPTING THE DISRUPTIONS

Here are some techniques to combat this cognitive distortion. 

  • First, identify what you predict the person/people are thinking
  • Ask yourself what evidence you have to support that thought
  • Look for other possibilities, if your friend doesn’t text back after that disagreement they could just be preoccupied or cooling down before they continue the conversation. 
  • Imagine that the thought is true, then ask yourself would it mean more about you or more about the other person? 
  • Ask yourself if it is realistic to expect everyone to like you
  • Act counter to the thought 

That last one can be scary. For example, with that group of friends I mentioned, I initially would leave get-togethers early because of the mind-reading I was doing. I convinced myself that I wasn’t welcome there. After awhile, and some positive reinforcement from a friend, I started to fight that urge to leave. I would stay even if my urge was to grab my purse and go. 

What else can this look like? Say you’re in an unfamiliar social setting, and you’re thinking that the people there don’t like you or think you’re awkward. Instead of avoiding eye contact and babysitting the snacks, approach people and introduce yourself. Focus on the conversation and really listen to what that person is saying. It will distract you from the thoughts you were having, and also probably disprove them. 

What about thinking about your body? Recognize that the majority of people have insecurities about their own bodies. And because they are focused on theirs, they don’t have the time to pay attention to yours. Also remind yourself that people don’t like you for how you look, they like you for how you make them feel. List out qualities that make you, you. Remind yourself of your value. 

I will say this. Don’t just let these thoughts drift away. Distressing thoughts like these tend to recur, especially if you do live with a mental illness. By taking the time to think about them, or even write them out, you give yourself the opportunity to prove them wrong by finding the inconsistencies. Maybe you even work on a list of rational statements that you can use to reply to yourself in the future. By leaving these sorts of thoughts unresolved you are just leaving the door open for them to be disruptive again in the future. 

MINDFULNESS TECHNIQUE

PHOTO BY ME

You can also use mindfulness after you’ve taken the time to do this work. Having come out of a cognitive behavioral therapy program, I went through the above exercises to challenge my distortions. Since I’ve done that, I now use a visualization technique to keep them at bay. It’s going to sound really cheesy, but it works for me. 

As the disruptive thought comes up, I imagine it spelled out in the sand. After recognizing it, I imagine a wave coming up onto the sand and erasing it. In that visualization, I acknowledge the thought, but then allow it to pass without judgement. You can generate your own visualization to do the same, but I urge you to first do the work to address and disprove your most common distortions. Take your power back, and then focus on how to maintain it. 

Mindfulness Practice

I recently posted on Instagram about my mindfulness practice, and have had a couple of followers ask that I talk more about it. What better way than a blog post?

I should start this off by saying that I am not a licensed health-care professional. I do identify as a mental health advocate, though, based on my own personal experiences with my own and loved ones’ mental health.

After hitting the lowest of lows of my major depressive episode a little over a year ago, I started intensive therapy that involved meeting three times a week in a group therapy setting. The curriculum of these sessions was based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). The goal of this form of therapy is to provide individuals with concrete skills to manage painful emotions and conflict in relationships. There are four overarching components of DBT: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.

But what really is DBT?

Four components of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy - mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness.

DBT is a cognitive-behavioral treatment that was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan in the 1980s to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder. It is now become an effective treatment for depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. As Psychology Today states, “DBT is influenced by the philosophical perspective of dialectics: balancing opposites. The therapist consistently works with the individual to find ways to hold two seemingly opposite perspectives at once, promoting balance and avoiding black and white—the all-or-nothing styles of thinking. In service of this balance, DBT promotes a both-and rather than an either-or outlook. The dialectic at the heart of DBT is acceptance and change.”

The way that I would explain this is that I can have an emotion driven, “irrational thought,” but also can identify it as such. Think about how sometimes you can give your friend advice that you can’t give yourself. Even though I know the thought is irrational, it still causes me emotional distress.

Today I’m going to talk about mindfulness, and in the coming weeks will explore the other components of DBT. So – here we go!

What is mindfulness?

Diana sitting looking over a cliff!

At its core, mindfulness is about being present and self-aware. To take it a step further, it is doing those things without being judgemental, without overthinking, and without invalidating your own experience in any way. Mindfulness is acceptance.

In the world we live in today, we really don’t spend a lot of time being mindfully present. We tend to disconnect from our actual experience to either live through someone vicariously on instagram, or just engage with our own thoughts rather than reality. Now, according to DBT theory, there are three states of mind that are in at varying times: emotional mind, logical mind, and lastly wise mind being the ideal state of mind. Wise mind is the combination of emotional and logical mind.

We use logical mind when we are doing concrete tasks, like math or putting together furniture from Ikea. Emotional mind, unsurprisingly, is the state of mind in which we feel our emotions and act from our emotional state. So things like acting out of anger or just plainly being impulsive.

Wise mind is somewhere in the middle. In wise mind, we are aware of our feelings in a non-judgemental way (mindfulness) and act in a way that is cognizant of our emotions and goals.

Chart of wise mind!

So what are the core skills of mindfulness?

Observe

Observe your thoughts, emotions and feelings without trying to change them. Recognize how you are responding to an event, and allow yourself to feel what you are feeling.

Describe

journal with pen

Whether just to yourself in your head, or using pen to paper – describe your experience. What physical manifestations did you experience? Rapid heart rate, crying, chest tightness? Where were you when this happened? What was the prompting thought? How did that thought make you feel? By describing in great detail your experience, you are able to show yourself a bit of empathy as well as later have a more firm grasp on your emotional response. Remind yourself here that feelings and thoughts are not facts (wise mind).

You might feel alone for example, but if you sit down and truly think about it there are people and support services that you can reach out to.

Participate

Be present. Experience things with all five of your senses. All the emotions to pass, and then engage with the present moment. This sounds easier than it really is, but that’s where a couple of techniques come into play.

Being more mindful

Being mindful involves being non-judgemental, practicing one-mindfulness, and being effective. Below are a couple of specific exercises to strengthen your practice of these things.

Body Scan

This is one of my personal favorites as it is very meditative, and engages your whole body. A typical body scan runs through each part of the body starting with the toes and working upwards. You pay attention to how each part of the body feels, focus your breathing to that area, and imagine the muscles of that area relaxing. Just search “body scan meditation” on YouTube and you will find many options. Below is one of my favorites. A body scan can be done at any time of day, but as it is really relaxing – it is most commonly practiced before sleep. This practice has really helped me with my insomnia.

One Mindfully

Identify situations in your life where you are trying to do multiple things at one time. For me, my biggest problem area is mornings. I try to do my hair and makeup, pick out an outfit, maybe change the load of my laundry, make my lunch and make my breakfast all at the same time. Doing so is usually chaotic and just anxiety-provoking.

You may find that you also do this after work. Many times I come home and look at my apartment and realize all the things I need to do: make dinner, empty the dishwasher, fold my laundry, take the trash out… And I enter a fury of doing all things at once.

Another situation you may do this is when hanging out with loved ones. Now that most of us have smartphones, we feel the need to constantly to attend to the information that we have access to.

One mindfully means concentrating on one thing at a time, and completely experience it by engaging all of your senses. When you are eating, eat. When you are walking, walk. When you are worrying, worry. When you are remembering, remember. Observe and listen quietly, and then reflect on your experience afterwards. Below are a couple of things that you can do one mindfully. One of my favorites is making coffee. My therapist taught me to approach it like it’s a scientific experiment – which really helped me to think of how to approach one-mindfulness. I really honed in on my observation skills.

  • watch rain falling
  • watch a campfire
  • listen to music
  • fold your laundry
  • make your dinner
  • make your coffee 🙂
  • listen to a loud clock
  • listen to the sound of the wind
  • pick a place in your home, or a chair that will be your “worry space,” when ever you are worried about something, sit there and worry. Observe how you feel for 30 minutes, then allow yourself to go about the rest of your day.
  • go for a walk to a park. sit, close your eyes, and try to identify 3-4 sounds you can hear. Can you identify from what direction they came from? Try to make out 2-3 smells from the air. Do those smells remind you of anything? Reflect.

Mindful Creating

Remember play-doh? Well go get you some play-doh. It is one of my favorite mindfulness mediums. Sit and play, create. Focus on how it feels and what it reminds you of. You can also practice mindful creating doing any sort of activity or craft that you like. I find crocheting to also be a super mindful activity.

Play a mindfulness game

I have an excellent support system, and sometimes when I’m in a bad place I just really need to be around people. There are a couple of games that we used in play in my group session that are really fun. They are mindfulness games because they require a lot of attention. Here are some examples:

  • Categories – pick a category and list as many items from that category as possible.
  • The alphabet game – pick a category and go around circle (or back and forth) listing items from that category starting with A-Z. So for fruit it would go, Apple, Banana, Cantaloupe…etc.
  • Play catch! You can also integrate playing catch to either of the games above. Throw a ball back and forth while you name items.
  • Play 20 questions with a friend
  • Play Jenga or complete a puzzle

Half-Smile

This exercise can feel a bit weird, but it has been shown to improve mood. But basically, sit in a chair or somewhere comfortable. Take a couple of deep breaths. Close your eyes if you wish. As you continue to breathe, make a small smile with your lips. Then relax your face. Continue to alternate and notice whether your emotions begin to change as you communicate feelings of acceptance to your brain.

Go forth, and live mindfully!

Dog practicing mindfulness

I hope that this post has been moderately helpful. I would love to hear about your experiences with some of these exercises. Lookout for future posts on DBT techniques.

Grief is a Sticky Feeling

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief the past two weeks. Grief is a sticky feeling. You can try and try to shake it off, but it usually is still stuck in some crevice in your skin, or under your fingernails. In some place that is hard to reach – making it all the more frustrating. To me grief isn’t one feeling. Grief is many competing feelings that send a person into a whirlwind of cognitive dissonance.

I’ve always been a highly empathic person. I’m what a therapist would describe as an, “emotional sponge.” I can easily sense the feelings of those around me. But I take it one step further – absorbing them to such a degree that I feel them as my own. Sometimes I feel so connected to an individual’s emotive state that I am psychologically affected by it. It’s like yawning. I can’t help but feel the emotion that I am confronted with in another person.

Last week, two humans that are close to me experienced loss in various forms. One experienced the death of a loved one, the other lost all of their belongings and their pet cat in a house fire. I struggled a lot with finding the appropriate way to support them. Like I said, grief is complicated and nuanced in a way that is both easy and difficult to empathize with. We can metaphorically put ourselves in their “shoes,” but we also can’t claim to know exactly what they are feeling. There are many things that can elicit grief, and no one person grieves the same.

Grief for Grief

Any sort of loss can cause one to enter what we call grief. This can include divorce, the end of a relationship, declining health, a loved one’s illness, or the loss of belongings or safety. Loss is personal to the individual, and there is no comparing apples to oranges. I have heard the opinion that grief is only something that you experience after someone you love dies. But, the same neuro-chemical pathways are activated across a multitude of situations. Though, bereavement of a loved one usually elicits the most severe grief response.

That brings me to my friend’s loss of her mother to cancer. Even just that sentence sends a blow to the gut that can leave you with the need to gasp for a little more air. To grab onto yourself or something around you to steady yourself. Hours before she told myself and our friends, she had posted an image of herself as a child with her mother to Instagram. It’s eerie, and gut-wrenching to say but when I saw that picture I felt a profound sense of loss.

I had this flashing montage of my life with my own mother pass before my eyes, and could feel what it felt like to have my small little hand within hers. I had a sudden fear of not feeling that hand anymore. And I had a deep urge to run somewhere, and not stop running because of this burning rage within my chest.

What do you say when someone tells you that they’ve lost someone so monumental in their life? Another human whose life led up to the creation of their own. A life that you love and are grateful for.

We all have this pre-written script of what you “should” say. And we say it, we say it because we know no words can suffice – but we cannot bear saying nothing. Similarly, living practically paycheck to paycheck there was no money I could offer to my friend who lost his belongings, but I offered the clothes off my back and blankets and essentials from my own things to him. I didn’t know what else to do, what else to say. I was so grateful that he and his partner were unharmed, but I couldn’t imagine the feeling of losing all the artifacts of one’s life. The things that we use to make meaning and keep record of our memories. Or the faithful companion that offered us unconditional love when everything in life is terribly conditional.

I thought for a moment about what I would grab from my apartment if I found myself in the situation of a house-fire. What I would try to save. Just the thought of having to prioritize the things that bring me joy or that mean something was difficult. It felt like either way I would lose some part of myself that I would never get back.

And though now in reflection I am thinking about what these kinds of losses would mean to me, what I am really affected by is a feeling of paralysis. Of not knowing how I can ease the pain of people that I care about. This feeling of helplessness is only exacerbated by my natural tendency to be a more “emotional” person. And all of this only serves to make me wonder if it is appropriate for me to feel this sad at all? But nevertheless, I know that I need to be supportive in any way that I can.

Emotional Acceptance

That is why some part of me is always nervous when it comes to funerals. Not out of fear or discomfort, but out of that absorption of the emotions of those around me. It can be overwhelming, and even if I did not know the deceased very well – I have a hard time containing my emotions. I cry. And sometimes I feel inappropriate doing so, as if I don’t have a right to. So I try to swallow the emotion that bubbles up the back of my throat, and instead just let my body shake ever so slightly.

And it’s not in that moment that I am thinking, what if it were my own mother. It is instead feeling that place of home that I feel when I am with my friend. We all find that piece of a person that is just what home means to us, and we place a stake there. We invest in that part of a person, and we love them for it and everything else.  That feeling of connection that is so powerful that in that moment, I feel her feelings for her because I wish that I could alleviate the pain if even just a little. Even though I know that there isn’t many a tangible thing that I can do to help.

And so I’ve realized that in those moments, the best thing that I can do is remind the person that the stake I placed to claim them as my person has never left. That I will protect and care for all my pieces of home, as they are pieces of myself.

That may sound terribly abstract, but what I’m saying is just be. Be and feel. Follow your loved one’s lead, and continue to be exactly who you are – because that is what they need. And remember that you don’t need to ask for permission to feel any sort of way. Feelings are natural, and for the most part out of our control. And through allowing yourself to feel what you need to, when you need to, you are displaying a healthy form of processing. And just by doing that, you are being strong for the ones that you love.

What I learned in my own mental health journey is that you can’t selectively numb emotions. Emotions will come and go like waves in the ocean (cheesy? yes), and if you try to avoid one you end up avoiding more than that. You need to experience the less positive emotions to truly appreciate the feelings of happiness and joy.

Sanibel Island Florida beach at dusk

Don’t be judgemental of your feelings. Our emotions provide us with signals. They give us the heads up that something is important and that we need to pay attention to it. Be an observer of your emotions. Notice them, sit with them, and then let them leave when they’re ready.

Finally, speak to yourself as you would speak to a loved one or friend who is struggling. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling sad or anxious. Be kind to yourself – processing emotion is just another part of having a full and healthy life.