Many years ago I worked in a nursing home. One of the residents I worked with had a condition that caused her to only say four phrases repeatedly throughout the day. I had never seen anything like it and when I first started working there no one warned me.
Our first direct interaction went something like this.
- Her: What’s your name?
- Me: Oh, I’m Marlene. Are you ready to head to bed?
- Her: How’re we gonna do it?
- Me: Well, I’ll push you in your wheelchair to your room and get you cleaned up for bed.
- Her: I need a job.
- Me: Well, you’ve probably worked your whole life. It’s your time to relax.
- Her: Shut up.
I was a little offended, but figured maybe she really wanted to get a job.
As my days at the nursing home continued, I noticed that no matter what conversation was taking place, and even when this sweet woman was sitting by herself, she ONLY repeated the same phrases. “What’s your name?” “How’re we gonna do it?” “I need a job.” “Shut up.” It was purely coincidence that our first conversation made sense.
This morning, before I rolled out of bed, I decided to stay a while and do a little stretching and some strength exercises. I got excited at the thought of making this a daily routine. Then an inner monologue began. It sounded something like this. “That’s not gonna work.” “That’s a waste of time.” “You’re not gonna be consistent.” “You’re doing it wrong.”
For the last week or more I’ve been paying attention to these thoughts. Today, I realized that these same discouraging phrases repeat in my thoughts no matter what I attempt. This is when I remembered that sweet elderly lady who only said the same four phrases all day.
When I worked with her, at first I took each thing she said seriously and responded to it. However, after a few days, I recognized her communication was purely on loop. The only communication from her that had value was her body language. She literally ONLY said those four things. Never a “yes” or “no,” or even an “I’m hungry.”
In a similar way, our negative and discouraging thoughts tend to just habitually repeat. They don’t offer any true value. Once we recognize the loop, we can begin to ignore it. We get to train ourselves to stop listening to thoughts that don’t serve us. They are simply on loop habitually. Instead we can focus our attention on the communication of value, which is how we feel.
When we pay attention to our emotions, we can take notice of the thoughts that caused us to feel that way. It may seem that it is an experience that caused our emotions, but typically it’s our thoughts about the experience. Just like when we see someone respond in gratitude to a situation that would devastate us. That occurs because their thoughts about what they experienced are different than the thoughts we would have. Somebody loses a job and thinks, “Oh, gawd, my life is over. How will I be able to pay my bills?” Somebody else loses a job and thinks, “Well, now I have time to spend with my family while I look for something that feels better for me.” Same situation, different perspective. And our perspective is simply how we choose to view a situation—how we choose to THINK about it.
Our thoughts are fueled by questions that we often don’t even notice have been asked. Usually when we feel upset, our thoughts ask us “What happened to make you feel this way?” Then, we reenact the whole scene in our minds, and feel the experience all over again. And if our thoughts are free to go on uninterrupted, our minds may hit us with a follow-up question, “What/who else has made you feel this way in the past?” Suddenly we’re on a trip down effed up memory lane, sinking deeper into an emotion we didn’t consciously choose. However, we do have a choice.
What I am training myself to do is to ask myself more empowering questions. When the automatic thought, “How do you feel?” arises, I follow it with, “What was I just thinking about?” I bypass the reenactment of whatever got me upset and trace it back to the THOUGHT that shifted my mood. Then, I choose an empowering follow-up question, “Is it possible that there’s another way I can view this situation?” (Yes. I really do this. No. It’s not automatic. Yes. It takes practice. Yes. It’s sooo worth it.) What I’ve noticed is that the second I think of a more empowering way to view the situation, I instantaneously feel better. Our thoughts guide our emotions.
No matter what is going on around us, there are multiple ways to view the situation. I’ve done this with everything from the loss of a loved one, to the loss of an intimate relationship. I am not saying it isn’t valid to experience the gamut of emotions. However we choose to experience life is valid for us. The less pleasant emotions are not bad or wrong. They are an essential part of being human. I choose, however, to allow my emotions to be more like traffic signals on my journey, rather than destinations. They communicate messages about where I am and where I’m going. If I’m feeling happy, that communicates that I am doing (or thinking) in a way that is aligned with my values. I should probably continue down that path and do more of that. If I’m feeling angry, I likely have just experienced, or thought about, a situation where my values/boundaries were compromised. I should probably take note of the situation that rubbed me the wrong way. I likely need to establish a stronger boundary in this regard and possibly address the issue if that’s best. I don’t need to sit in anger. I can use it.
We can do more with emotions than just feel them. We can use them….
I am grateful that I recognized the phrases that loop in my mind. Now, I know not to take them seriously.
If you tend to procrastinate, or act in ways that don’t line up with your true desires, likely there is an automatic loop of thought(s) playing in your mind. The next time you set out to do that thing, notice what thoughts come up that deter you from it. Write them down somewhere safe. Notice if they come up again later, maybe in a different situation.
When you start to feel unhappy, especially if just minutes ago you were fine, notice what you are thinking about. Start to pay attention to the thoughts that cross your mind. You may be surprised that what’s keeping you stuck isn’t your actions, but your thoughts.