Monday, January 14, 2013

Naming Your Thoughts

I used to have an eating disorder. For a good few years growing up I believed that it was a part of me and something I would always have to live with.

As I have gotten past my disorder -- through a mix of mindfulness and psychologist sessions -- I've realized that I identified so strongly with the disease because of the ever-present nature of my analytical and critical thoughts. They were always with me, ergo, I am a hopeless and eating-disordered person.

Not one day would pass without thinking about food or myself in such a negative way that I would purge, exercise obsessively or deny myself food. I would be upset, unhappy and then after I made myself sick I would feel light, free and happy for as long as it took to eat something else. Then the cycle would repeat and I would be unhappy and incredibly negative to myself. I was cruel to the point that I would make myself be sick to punish myself for being so weak as to eat food.

The negative thoughts had so much power because I believed in them. I didn't have the ability to discern the helpful thoughts from the unhelpful thoughts. I didn't even know about mindfulness and I was pretty much powerless against my urges to restrict food and was being submitted to bullying - from myself - every day. So I was trapped.

After I began seeing a psychologist the disorder lessened, and then once I started mindfulness I was able to name the thought patterns that still visited me every once in a while. That's one of the key techniques in mindfulness: Naming stories, emotions and thoughts.

Let's take a further look at what naming thoughts is.

Say you're out shopping and you stop and buy a big cream bun - oh hell, why not two - and you sit down and eat it, it's so tasty, you really enjoy it. But immediately after the last smudge of cream has been licked from the paper wrapping with your finger, your mind kicks in. The happiness at eating that tasty treat is gone, replaced with "Oh well done fat fuck. Nice going. Why don't you reach down and try and grab your ass with less than four hands. I hate you. Go and throw that up RIGHT NOW."

After your mind goes into this mode you have a couple of options. You might assume the hopeless and meek response - listening to and believing your mind, so you go into the bathroom, drink heaps of water and then puke all the tasty up. Or you might go home, run 8km and then not eat at all for the rest of the day. That's the non-mindful approach and the one that made me into a self-esteem-less babe for about 10 years.

You don't wanna do that.

You wanna eat this without difficult thoughts? Me too!

The mindful approach takes a different tack. Instead of instantly 'fusing' with the negative thoughts and believing them, you become aware of thoughts occurring in the mind. You listen to them, make room for them to be just as they are, without trying to change them or control them (because you can't) and then you name them. (Sometimes this is really fucking hard. Sometimes your mind wants to win so bad. But practice your mindful meditation and you'll get there.)

Your mindful approach say, "Oh hey, there's that 'Laura is fat and hopeless story' that my mind sometimes comes up with." The mindful approach recommends that sometimes you can thank your mind after becoming aware of the story (yeah, I struggled with this one at first - it seems so silly, but give it a shot, you might get to like it) for being able to come up with such crazy shit. Then you just gotta chill with the thoughts, breathe, and let them be.

And that's naming stories. It can work with emotions (such as, 'oh there's anger, or frustration or anxiety') as well as thoughts (such as 'I'm having the thought that I should throw up my food - that's interesting but unhelpful, so I'm not going to believe it or pay attention to it').

It must be noted that the object of mindfulness isn't to try and get rid of your thoughts, even though a side effect of mindfulness is sometimes that the intensity or occurrence of unpleasant thoughts becomes less. The object is to just let thoughts be.

I've included a short track from the people at Living Well here which explains thoughts really well. (Living Well is a resource for men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse or assault and has some really thoughtful information. I chose this track because it's relevant and clear.)

Anyway. Try this track out, check out the meditations and practice some when you can.

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