Ten Ways To Reduce Negative Mind Chatter

talkingSo many of my friends and colleagues mention negative mind chatter. Only the other day I had a woman tell me she doesn’t feel like a good enough mother (she is), and a man tell me he doesn’t know how he got to where he is in life (because he’s clever, kind, and hardworking). I could quote numerous other examples, and I think writers are particularly prone to this.

Negative mind chatter sits in between the social self-deprecation that is practised by some cultures, including mine, and full-on impostor syndrome. It is the little voices in your mind that tell you you ought to work harder, you’re too fat/thin, your writing is rubbish. And so on. Almost everyone has them, I think, to some degree or another. They’re a nuisance at best, hard to get rid of, and can be destructive, sabotaging our conscious wishes to move forward in our lives.

The good news is there are things we can do to help reduce our negative mind chatter. Here are ten ideas to consider. None of these will work for everyone, but each of them should work for some people.

  1. Aim for calm acceptance of each voice and its message. If it can’t upset or scare you, it will have much less power; maybe even no power. Imagine it has come to visit; welcome it in politely, as you might a tradesperson who has come to fix something in your house, then let it do its own thing while you focus on whatever you want to be doing.
  1. Visualise the character who is speaking. Feel free to make them as comic and grotesque as you like. Then visualise yourself batting that creature away in any way you choose. This is your visualisation so there are no holds barred: if you want to visualise yourself pushing it off a cliff, or punching it into oblivion, that’s your call. Mine is a little coal-black goblin who I belt out of sight with a frying pan. I have no idea why, but it is, and it works – at least for a while.
  1. Take a step back from the voice. Think about what it’s saying to you and why. Then imagine one of your friends is in the position you are in, and think about what you would say to them. I bet you anything you like it’s not the same. Then try saying to yourself, out loud, what you would say to your friend.
  1. Flip the voice. Whatever it is saying, find the opposite and say it out loud. So if you have a voice that says you don’t work hard enough, you might choose to say ‘I work effectively and well and I value my work-life balance’. You could also write your statement on a Post-It note and stick it somewhere you’ll see it regularly.
  1. Positive affirmations may sound airy-fairy but they can be helpful. They should be in the present tense, include the word ‘I’, and contradict some of your mind chatter. So if you have a voice muttering that you’re unattractive and nobody will ever love you, you might decide on the affirmation ‘I am beautiful/handsome and I am loved.’ Say it out loud, ten times, every day, with as much conviction as you can muster.
  1. Meditation helps to rest the mind from all thoughts, not only the negative ones. For seated meditation, find somewhere quiet that you can be comfortable and close your eyes. Focus on your breath at the tip of your nose: in and out, in and out. If thoughts intrude don’t worry, let them go and bring yourself back to your breath. Any single moment free of thought is a success. It takes years, maybe decades of practice to let thoughts go for a sustained period. But don’t let that worry you either because even sitting and focusing on your breath for five minutes, with a couple of moments within that where you’re truly thought-free, will leave you more rested than you expect.
  1. Walking meditation is also great, particularly if you’re restless or don’t have easy access to quiet space. Walk slowly and steadily, through a green space if you can. Focus on the movement and sensation of walking and the sights and sounds around you in the present moment. Feel your connection to the earth and the sky. Hear the traffic or the birdsong, notice the air on your face, any aromas – pay attention as fully as you can to all the sensations from your body walking and the place you’re in. If thoughts intrude don’t worry, let them go by or walk away from them and bring your focus back to your body and your surroundings. Some people find this easier or preferable to seated meditation; others like to use both depending on their mood, the weather, etc or as a complement to each other.
  1. Writing can be useful for particularly persistent voices. Divide a page into two columns, whether hard copy or electronic. In the left column write whatever the voice says. In the right column write a counter-argument. Repeat this, always writing the same thing in the left column and something different in the right column, until the arguments in the right column become convincing. Keep the document handy and refer back to it any time that voice starts up again.
  1. Smile at yourself in the mirror and give yourself three honest compliments, out loud. This can be a great way to start and finish the day. If you use this regularly, vary the compliments. They can be about small actions or qualities: ‘Well done for letting that woman with the crying baby go ahead of you in the queue.’ ‘Good job staying calm when your co-worker was being really annoying.’ Or of course they can be about bigger things when that’s appropriate.
  1. Remember that thoughts, and their associated feelings, move and change. They are not static and you are not stuck with them. Look back and remember times when you thought and felt differently from the way you think and feel today. Know that you can think and feel differently in the future.

If you suffer from negative mind chatter I hope you will find something here to help you and so help your writing. If none of these work for you, or your negative mind chatter feels overwhelming, please consider seeking professional help. I’ve used professional help in the past, and I still use some of the tactics above, to quiet my own negative mind chatter. It’s not completely gone but I can deal with it now. So can you. Good luck!

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Self-Care And Privilege

France summer 2009 2 for Helen 137I wrote a post in December 2014 about the importance of self-care. I’m taking my own advice again and going on holiday for a fortnight. That means this blog will be quiet too, as the pre-holiday frenzy of client work and writing deadlines did not allow for preparing and scheduling posts.

There’s a lot of talk about self-care for researchers, the self-employed, and people who do scholarly work. Quite right, too; it’s important in these 24/7 professions. But it’s easy for us to forget that self-care is also a privilege.

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege, partly because I’m writing about ethics and partly because of world affairs. There’s a lot of talk about white privilege, for good reasons, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. For me, privilege is intersectional, just like disadvantage. So some of my privilege is about being white, but I have other forms of privilege too. I have enough time, money, health, and support from others – and I need all of those privileges to be able to take this holiday. There are white people with no privilege beyond their whiteness; they still have privilege, but it does not help them much.

I have a lot of privilege other than my whiteness. For example, I haven’t had to ask anyone for permission to take time off, and I’m not using up a portion of precious annual leave. In fact, I can take as many holidays as I like, in theory, though in practice I have to prioritise working for a living. But that’s going OK because I also have enough money, not only to pay for a holiday (albeit a cheap one), but also to spend a couple of weeks not earning. I thought about my health privilege this morning, as I spoke to a family member, younger than me, who hasn’t had a holiday in years for health reasons. And I have the privilege of a loving partner, family, and friends, who support me.

There are even more forms of privilege in play here. For example, I will be thinking about my freedom-of-movement privilege as I travel through Calais, where so many refugees are suffering. And of course white privilege counts too: I will not experience racism at any point on this trip, and nobody is likely to harass or try to kill me because of the colour of my skin.

I have been reading articles about people living very different lives, dealing with monstrous injustice around the world. I have been reading about people in my own country who can’t afford to eat. Part of me thinks that, with all these horrors going on, I shouldn’t even have a holiday. But a bigger part of me refuses to feel guilty for taking this opportunity. I will, though, be aware of how very lucky I am.

The importance of self-care

2014-12-08_1418066953Very unusually for me, I don’t feel like working. I have a list of my current projects, all of which are interesting, and usually I’d look at the list and decide what to focus on next: either the most urgent, or the most appealing. But right now – and this hardly EVER happens – none of them are urgent. And, oddly, I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to work on any of the non-urgent ones either. Even though they do need doing, and will become urgent if I don’t do them at some point.

I love my work and am usually highly motivated. Also, I don’t work well under deadline pressure, so prefer to finish tasks with time to spare. I’m not ill, and I don’t have any difficult personal stuff going on. So I’ve been asking myself: why this unusual lack of interest in, or motivation to do, my work?

I think the answer is simply that I need a few days’ break. I’ve had such a busy year, without much downtime: a ten-day holiday in France in June, a handful of long weekends, and a week in Wales in October when I was finishing the second draft of my book. Talking of which, the book has taken up a huge amount of time this year, and I’ve also been working on several papers and a couple of book chapters, with one of each accepted for publication. I spend quite a bit of time, most weeks, on Board work for the UK’s Social Research Association, and editorial board work for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology also takes up time. Then of course there’s my paid work: I’ve had two big and demanding national research projects to work on with clients, and several smaller projects. As a result of all this, I rarely work fewer than six days a week, though I do try hard to have one full rest day each week.

I find it hard to take more time off, partly because I love my work, and partly because I find the gear changes difficult to manage. It’s not easy to wind down, and equally problematic to rev up again. Sometimes it feels simpler just to keep going. But that’s not sensible, is it?

If anyone else was telling me this story, I’d be saying: for goodness’ sake, you fool, take a break! For once I’m telling myself that – and I’m listening. My plan is to have complete rest and recreation for the rest of this week, when I’m at home with no big commitments. I hope then I’ll be ready to rev up the following week, and get some of the tasks on my list done before they become urgent.

There seems to be a lot of it about this year. Hugely productive researchers and writers like Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega are advocating self-care in general and taking time off in particular. I know this can be particularly difficult for PhD students – several of the doctoral students I interviewed for my last book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, spoke about the difficulty of taking time off when your head is full of your thesis. Other forms of writing can also have this effect; it’s hard to pick up a piece of work if you put it down for too long, whereas writing ‘little and often’ can help you to maintain the essential flow of ideas. But even if you’re doing a PhD, or have publishers’ deadlines – try to have at least the occasional rest day here and there, and ideally a proper break. Really, this is I an ethical requirement: certainly for researchers, who won’t produce good quality research if they’re exhausted and stressed. And I believe it’s important for writers too. If you’re working seven days a week, try reducing it to six, and having a proper rest day on the seventh. I bet you’ll get as much work done and be less exhausted. But whatever you decide, I wish you a happy holiday, and I’ll be back in 2015.