I picked up the ringing phone the other day to hear these words from my friend’s mouth. “I’ve got to do something about my brain,” she said plainly.
“Um, you could donate it to science,” I suggested, trying to be helpful.
“Well, yes,” she responded, “after I die.”
“Why wait that long?” I joked. “Do it now. After all, how much do you really use it?”
We were laughing, but I knew exactly what she was talking about because I often feel the same way. I, too, need to do something about my brain, my brain that ruminates far too often, for far too long and leaves me stuck in long ago places I don’t want to be. I swear if scientists removed the top of my head right now and took a look at my brain, there would be a deep groove worn in it from having thought the same self-defeating thoughts over and over (and over) again. Self-doubt and recrimination seem to be my default settings despite how much I focus on thinking positively. I read all the right books, follow all the right gurus and “like” every inspiring post on Facebook, and yet, some days, sometimes, I still revert to default and can think only of every mistake and misstep in my life.
Those who only know my outgoing, high-spirited side would probably be shocked to know how much energy I spend trying not to slide down the slippery slope of despair, grieving for all my real and imaginary crimes. Mild transgressions and errors in judgment that I wouldn’t dream of holding against someone else I see as unpardonable sins in myself. It seems to defy logic that I can so easily get myself up there on the hook, but find it completely impossible to let myself off it! When I’m in default mode I need someone else who can reach up with strong arms and gently unhook me from whatever rusty bit of regret or guilt from the past has snagged me and left me hanging. I need someone unafraid to wrest the distorted mirror out of my clenched hands and replace it with a clear one that reflects back a true image of who I am—an imperfect creature, full of flaws, yet eminently worthy and valuable.
That’s what my “brain friend” often does for me and I for her. (Note: At such times, it may appear to the untrained eye that we are just eating high quality chocolate and/or frozen yogurt, but I assure you those two elements are key to establishing the proper therapeutic environment.) If you are among the rare few, those who never ever look back in longing, who never second guess so much as their choice of hot dog condiments, consider yourself generously blessed. From what I’ve seen, however, most of us do struggle with “shoulda-woulda-coulda” regrets from time to time. Most of us do need someone—a friend, a spouse, a counselor—to help pull our thoughts out of default. We need someone to help us broker a peace agreement with our perceived past failings and put our focus on using the present to build the kind of future we can someday look back on without regret.
If you are like me, someone with a natural inclination to self-blame and believe the best about everyone but yourself, you must fight extra hard to stay on-course with your thinking. Your brain friend can be there for you in your worst moments, but you have to take responsibility for yourself and your thoughts every day. Be honest with yourself. If you know that you find it hard to control negative thought patterns, then control your environment to eliminate as many triggers as possible. If a particular song or television show starts to pull you down, change the station. If a painful or troubling memory starts to replay in your mind, immediately short circuit it by doing something physical to distract yourself. Take a short walk, get a drink of water, file your nails. (If you’re a man, I guess you could clip them!) Then commit to consciously replacing each negative thought with a positive one about yourself, about the hope the future holds. You have the power to redirect your thoughts, but you must be firm with yourself and follow through.
It may seem unnatural and forced at first, but little by little, good thought by good thought, you can lay down a new track, create an entirely new default setting for your brain. With each positive thought, that new track will deepen and widen, and the old one, the one born of self-doubt and fear, will begin to fill in from neglect and lack of use. And that, I believe, is what’s called really being in the groove!