The Art of Spacing Out

When I was first introduced to the concept of mindfulness, I wanted nothing to do with it.

At the time, my understanding of mindfulness was that it meant “thinking about nothing.” I was at a treatment center in Alabama, and the other patients and I were frequently taken for “mindful walks,” during which we inched through the center’s woodsy grounds in silence. If I hadn’t already been insane when I got there, the walks threatened what little remained of my sanity. One of the few things I would admit that I liked about myself back then was that I was (and still am) a very creative person, that my mind could take me far and away from the dull walls of the center, away from the staff bickering with us over whether those yogurt cups were really empty, and away from all of my own shortcomings–both real and imagined. I felt like I was being forbidden to think at all, that every single thought was an infraction against the code of mindfulness.

Looking back, I can see that this is definitely not what mindfulness actually is, and that a lot of what I “learned,” at this center was more harmful than helpful. One thing I was taught there that took me a long time to unlearn was the idea that I should always be in complete control of my thoughts. Maybe for some mental superheroes that is possible, but my experience is closer to nudging my thoughts in a direction I might like them to follow, and sometimes coercing them back into order or whatever I want them to be. It was by a combination of mindfulness, positive affirmations, and reframing that I came to a point where I didn’t feel like I was constantly battling with all the noise in my head.

My first brush with positive affirmations was equally daunting. Under the guidance of my therapist at the time, my mom had me stand in front of the mirror and say these prescribed, vaguely religious affirmations that the therapist had provided. I think I was fourteen or fifteen at the time, and not only was I in the grips of depression and anorexia, but I was also a surly teenager who believed no one (especially not my mom) could possibly understand the depths of my tormented soul. Needless to say, I decided positive affirmations were not for me.

Years later, I found myself in treatment once more, this time an intensive outpatient program (IOP) at a center in Orlando. The therapist who facilitated the group helped me make more progress in the two months of sessions there than I had made in years, and she completely changed my perspective on affirmations. What I found most helpful was the concept that affirmations must be believable to work. When I delved into my personal values, I was able to come up with statements I believed or at least wanted to believe, which was far more effective than the generic affirmations my former therapist gave me all that time ago.

Another tactic that goes hand-in-hand with affirmations is reframing. I’ve written about reframing many times before, but it never ceases to amaze me with its usefulness. In the most basic terms, reframing is taking a thought you don’t want to have and turning it into a thought you would prefer. The new thought can frequently manifest as a positive affirmation. For example, I get really embarrassed when I speak up in class and deliver an incorrect answer, and it’s easy for me to start spiraling into panic. My thoughts might sound like, “I’m such an idiot, I can’t believe I just let all my classmates know how stupid I am, they’re probably all going to gossip about me later…” But if I were to take a moment and reframe the situation, I may replace those thoughts with, “Someone else probably had that question too. I may have helped my classmates by showing what not to do.”

I realize it’s extremely self-centered to imagine that my in-class follies may be the subject of my classmates’ gossip, and that in all likelihood, most of the class is thinking about what they might say when called upon or if there will be tater tots in the cafeteria later. For many years, I sort of trained myself to analyze every single thought, to sort them into categories of positive or negative, and to approach every single aspect of my life as a symptom of mental illness. The idea of recovering was so central to all of my efforts that I never pictured life once I was recovered. Now that I have (mostly) gotten comfortable with this long period of stability, I am still left with a lot of psychological jargon and skills in my mind. This is why I am an advocate of spacing out from time to time. Just as being too disconnected from myself can lead to negative outcomes, being too far into myself can be just as detrimental. When I am constantly trying to sort thoughts into categories and am judging my thoughts (and then judging that judgment and on and on) not only do I feel overwhelmed, but I am also completely defeating the purpose of mindfulness.

I realize I haven’t really provided a concrete definition of mindfulness. In essence, it is being aware of one’s thoughts, experiences, and placement in the physical world without judging these experiences. It is being present in the current moment, in other words, “being here now.”

This is really, really hard for me, as I would assume it is for most people. For me, the other most important component of even beginning to practice mindfulness is accepting that I am human, and will therefore make mistakes. I hope to never have to go on another mindful walk and feel forced to think about nothing, but I also hope that my new understanding of mindfulness can be implemented in ways that foster healthy self-image and creativity. When I was in Alabama, I felt that my creativity was being hindered and I got the message that I should conform to the standards that the clinicians there expected, rather than being myself. Granted, “being myself,” at that time in my life came with a set of very self-destructive habits, but it also came with a lot of good things that were not being highlighted in a place that was supposed to be about building people up. When I was able to truly delve into what my personal values were and who I truly wanted to be, I suddenly found myself not only able, but willing to use positive affirmations to underscore the things I liked about myself.

Ultimately, the combination of all of these skills has given me a pretty good sense of when to dial in and when to space out. These days, I am much better at keeping things in perspective and looking for the silver lining when I can. A final note on the limitations of affirmations: the point is not to gloss over things in life that are truly unacceptable or unbearable. Affirmations are not a cure-all, and shouldn’t function as rose-tinted glasses. What they can do, though, is help you to reinforce desirable beliefs about yourself and bring to the front of your mind things that may have gotten buried under all of the negative core beliefs you may hold. The difference between, “I’m too stupid to do this on my own and I’m going to have to bother someone else if I’m going to complete this task,” and “I will have to ask for help so that I will know how to do this task by myself in the future,” are worlds apart. Based only on my personal experience, I will end by encouraging you to take an objective look at the way you talk to yourself. The world is tough enough without your worst bully renting space in your head.

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