When working on systems and habits improvement, one area that can be damaging is the little voice inside our heads. This voice seems to always be talking and, for me, it wasn’t always the most positive self-talk.
I came across this frequently when I wanted to get healthy. Despite the desire to exercise, I would always slip up or miss a work out. The voice would always jump in and would nag me and pour on the guilt.
For years I wrestled with this. After a while I noticed something interesting. Despite the guilt and attempt to push me back to working out and never miss another day, the voice wasn’t effective.
The negative voice didn’t make it easier to get back to it. It didn’t help me stay focused. It didn’t motivate me. All it did was suck my energy and motivation. It actually made it more difficult to get back on track.
The key to overcoming this voice is to become more lenient. When you get off track, gently remind yourself that you can get back to it. With habits it only becomes a problem if it is extreme or if it is a repeating mistake. Taking a day off from exercising isn’t going to do anything if it is only 1 day. Do it every day and suddenly you are creating the wrong habit.
Remember that systems and habits are patterned responses to situations. The key word in that sentence is patterned. If we can quickly get back on track we don’t develop the negative pattern that can hurt our chances of success.
One specific area of improvement that I have found to be challenging is in learning to let go of stress and tension. Years ago I stumbled upon a relaxation CD that guided the listener through various steps to relax.
The CD would go through each section of the body and tell the listener to tighten or flex those muscles. Then after a moment it would say to relax. It was starting to teach the listener how to “feel” the relaxing of the muscles. Soon you could do the relax portion without the tension.
For me this was incredible. I started to learn how to relax my muscles and calm my body instantly. I started to learn how to feel a sort of light, floating feeling while simultaneously feeling very heavy. It was a strange feeling that often felt slightly numbing.
This really helped me to relax and stay in the present. But I still struggled with the little voice inside my head. I learned to be lenient but it still never seemed to shut up!
An author who I really enjoy is Dr. Wayne Dyer. Dr. Dyer does a great job of creating awareness in our own thoughts. One suggestion he has is to meditate regularly. Despite my initial hesitation I tried to do some basic meditation.
The problem I had was that I still couldn’t silence the voice in my head. I would always be thinking and would get agitated because I couldn’t stop it.
One technique seemed to help a little. The suggestion was to focus exclusively on breathing. Think about your breath as it flows in and out. I would start to think about my breathing and would start to relax. But then every time the little voice would chime in and interrupt.
I started to combine the relaxation techniques with breathing techniques. I decided that I wasn’t able to just shut off this voice so I instead decided to accept it. I quit guilting myself to death. Instead I would simply notice that the voice was taking over and gently get back to my breathing.
Over time this actually started to help. I started to be able to slow the thoughts in my head and focus on breathing. Whenever the voice would start up I would gently guide my thoughts back to my breathing.
I started to notice that this seemed to extend beyond the moments when I was relaxing and I started to feel more control over my emotions. I wouldn’t get as upset when something didn’t go right at work. I wouldn’t get so stressed when a big deadline was approaching.
This morning I was reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris. He talks about his spiritual journey and how he was able to become happier despite a high-pressure career. He describes his own efforts at mediation and controlled breathing.
He says, “Pretty quickly, my efforts began to bear fruit ‘off the cushion,’ to use a Buddhist term of art. I started to be able to use the breath to jolt myself back to the present moment – in airport security lines, waiting for elevators, you name it. I found it to be a surprisingly satisfying exercise.”
He goes on to give insight into how he developed the leniency that is required to reach this level. He says, “I was much better at forgiving myself out in the real world than while actually meditating. Every moment was an opportunity for a do-over. A million mulligans.”
I love the idea of giving ourselves a million do-overs. This takes the pressure off and lowers the guilt that too often accompanies a slip up. It focuses on getting back to it quickly without the little voice in our heads to sabotage us. This is the key to successfully changing our systems and habits. Getting back to it quickly to continue to develop the patterned responses to situations. This is the key to gradual improvement.