Living in a highly competitive environment, continuously emotionally assailed by depressing news, subjected to negative interactions with other people, overloaded with work and information… these features of modern life often mean that we lose our innate positivity. We rarely smile. We seem to be constantly in a rush, or puzzled, confused, embarrassed or angry. Anxiety and simmering psychological tension are etched on our faces. It is ever more difficult to be truly at peace, and feel happy, in this world. However, there are a few simple techniques to keep your mind clear, sideline negativity, focus on the right things, and ignore distractions.
I want to start this article with a story from my personal experience. It happened to me more than ten years ago, when I’d just completed my BA in literature and psychology and started my professional career in journalism, marketing and PR. This episode of my life was probably more valuable than the experience of all four of my degrees from top international universities combined. I’m really glad to be able to share this moment, and hope it will help you too.
Embrace your ‘Whatever!’ moment
I remember the time when I was living in New York. I was in my 20’s, working far from home as a PR manager for a few companies in Russia and Ukraine. I was incessantly busy, picking up new skills and abilities ‘on the go’, making mistakes, and attempting to juggle my career, studying, sporting activities and private life. I wanted to seize literally every opportunity, and be everywhere at once. I had problematic relationship with my boyfriend, and indeed had many complex, drama-filled relationships at the time. I was separated from my clients by a huge time difference and I was permanently jetlagged as I shuttled back and forth between countries.
I was finally exhausted and emotionally drained after a grueling twelve months of living such a lifestyle. My relationships eventually broke down and suddenly I had nothing left in the US. I felt both depressed and utterly overwhelmed. Finally, it became unbearable and I I took a week off which I decided to spend in Florida, simply to relax a little bit before leaving the States for good.
It was fantastic, sunny morning. One of those brilliant days when your wake up at 6 am with no alarm just because your body is sufficiently rested. I put my trainers on and went out for a run. I was still feeling confused and upset about my relationships and work, and my mind was churning with negative thoughts and self-pity. I could not see anything around me and felt nothing but anger and regret. I ran faster and faster, and suddenly stopped. When I lifted my eyes I saw a beautiful, magisterial yacht in the marina in front of me. The boat was black and its name – “WHATEVER” – was written on the prow huge, silver letters. It was so unusual that it resembled nothing so much as a spaceship: The contrast with the neighbouring yachts was striking, and at that moment it was the answer to all my questions and worries – ‘Whatever’. It was an insight that I have carried in my soul ever since…
On returning to Moscow my life changed dramatically – for the better. The change was not a result of life suddenly becoming smoother. On the contrary, I still had plenty of ups and downs after that. But it changed because any time when I felt negativity, anger, regrets about past and worries about future bubbling up, the magic yacht popped into my mind and filled it with those shiny, silver words… “WHATEVER”.
Purify your mind
“WHATEVER” is an amazing technique, but it is very much a personal touchstone, based on an experience unique to me. The majority of cognitive behavioral therapy practitioners recommend a regular purification of the mind. David Allen, the famous productivity coach, recommends clearing it out whenever an intrusive and unpleasant thought arises. I couldn’t agree more. When your mind is in order, your life, relationships, business and lifestyle will be in order too. But all of us are human beings and prone to involuntary compulsive thinking that can turn life into a nightmare. The following is a brief description of a few applicable techniques to help declutter mind.
The Little book of anger
According to Eckhart Tolle the majority of intrusive thoughts have negative connotations. Why? The answer is simple. The human brain is never trapped by positive thoughts. They flow easily through our mind and vanish, leaving perhaps only a slight, pleasant afterglow. It is amazing how quickly our brain discards positive emotions, and yet how long it’s able to mull over negative feelings. Tolle believes that our egos and ‘pain bodies’ (psychological traumas we carry though life) love negativity, as they are fed by such emotions, growing in size and strength. Why do they need it? Easy. To dominate and control us, deceiving us into believing that we are actually only the sum of our negative thoughts. However, we are not. Egos and pain bodies are separate constructions dwelling inside our minds. Simply, they are a reflection of our self-perception based on negative experiences from the past; when something unpleasant happens which resonates with our past traumas, our brain latches onto it for as long as possible. That’s why negative thoughts and emotions are so overwhelming.
Remember that even when these thoughts appear to merge, and define, us, they are not who we really are.
It is actually surprisingly easy to deal with them. Once a negative emotion is recognised, caught, acknowledged as a negative emotion, and analysed and assessed coolly and objectively, it loses its influential power.
Tell yourself, as I do:
“This is not me, but a little bundle of intrusive negativity”
Make your negative feelings small
Let’s look at this concept in more detail. For instance, a person suffered from a lack of parental approval when he or she was young. This probably happened not because this person had a lack of talent, but because his or her parents were not vocal enough in expressing their feelings. In consequence, the individual feels pain when they don’t receive approval or recognition from others around them. An example from the workplace might be a neutral or ambivalent feedback on a project, or after performing a work-related task.
The individual experiences negative feelings, including self-pity, and finally feels that they are not good enough. Such feelings could become dominant and result in a profound lack of motivation, even triggering depression. However, let’s extract the negative thought at the root of the problem from this person’s head, and put it down on paper.
“My colleagues do not appreciate me enough. They do not like what I do”.
Does this brief little statement written on a tiny piece of paper look dangerous, offensive or overwhelming? It looks like two short sentences, but hardly resembles a terrifying monster. Two sentences have no power to turn life into a nightmare. Two sentences have no power to kill motivation, self-respect and inspiration either. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, to even attempt to prove some deeper truth from a few, inconsequential words. Neither is there any point in trying to engage in a discussion with the words: First of all, a statement does not hear you. Secondly, you definitely do not owe anything to the statement, which was written by your own hand….
Should you try to prove yourself to your colleagues, then? Believe it or not, people are always preoccupied by their own fears and anxieties, and in the majority of cases don’t really care how good or bad your presentation was. So, there is no point in trying to persuade them that your presentation was brilliant. Moreover, it really doesn’t matter as it’s done. Past. History. Finito. All you can really do is try to make the next one better!
This is just an example of how you can learn to deal with overwhelming thoughts. To recap: kick them out of your head as soon as they appear. Put them down on paper, and read them. Ridiculous, aren’t they?
I always carry a little notebook where I can write various thoughts that pop into my head. These could be creative ideas, plans, little tasks I should not forget to do or annoying emotions I want to dispose of.
David Allen also recommends putting thought on paper in order to keep the mind fresh and pure: “Writing thoughts down gets them out of your head, clearing your brain of those things that are interfering with your ability to focus on what’s really important”. Such tactics can help to eliminate negativity at its inception, giving you the mental space, and peace, you need to concentrate on what needs to be done at that particular moment.
Classify and break down thoughts
Once all thoughts are written down – sort them out. Personally, I firstly split them into two main categories: emotions and actions. Once classified in this way, the discord and ‘noise’ in your mind caused by the basic problem of effectively organizing your daily life will die down, and you’ll be able to view the day ahead more calmly and objectively.
Usually emotions account for the larger part of a woman’s ‘head noise’, whereas ‘actions’ are often, but by no means always, associated with men.
Emotions, as I mentioned earlier, are predominantly negative as positive feelings never linger in the mind for long. Maybe some highly trained individuals are able to cultivate positive thinking, but this is relatively rare. I will touch on this issue in the upcoming article How to cultivate positive thinking. Negative emotions can be divided into anger, fears, and doubts. You’ll be surprised at how simple and repetitive our emotions are. Once sorted, they lose their intrusive qualities and stop looking quite so scary. Now you can target and eliminate them one at a time.
Actions is the second category. It in turn can be split into sub-categories. Allen categorises them as follows: do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it. As I mention in another article, I don’t usually use “defer” as I believe that all postponed action has little bearing on the present moment, and can thus be easily dropped, delegated or done.
Read How to cope with information overload to find out how to manage your “do” list effectively.
David Rock states that
“The brain classifies everything as threat or reward — we’re always staying away from threat or moving towards reward”.
I agree. Try to stay in a ‘toward state’. Generally, Rock contends, people perform better by “minimizing stress and threat responses”. And he’s right.
Another technique to stay in “toward mode” is to reinterpret threatening events. If you have to deal with a hard task don’t perceive it as a potential threat: Rather, see it as an opportunity to learn new things, meet new and interesting people, or get new experiences. Doing this can change your brain’s response towards the task, and dramatically stimulate creativity. In Rock’s words: “As you change your interpretation, you change your whole mental state,” says Rock.
Give a hand
Another way to get rid of negativity and declutter your mind is to switch into collaborative mode. I’m personally not very competitive, but collaborative by nature. It’s always been easy for me to say to someone: “hey, let’s do it together”. However, for some people teamwork can be extremely difficult. But keep in mind that through accepting the ability of other people to work as well as you, or perhaps even better, you gain a great opportunity to delegate, split and share.
We often underestimate our peers or feel subconsciously threatened.
Competitiveness always makes success hard to achieve.
We spend more energy competing and worrying about our perceived rivals, than cultivating creativity and positivity to achieve better results. To eliminate such feelings, just start working together from the outset.
By empowering others you empower yourself
and create a positive, transparent, and friendly atmosphere with no threats, no anxieties and as a result, stimulate a clear and creative mind.