Our thoughts shape our words and actions and thus our reality.
Karen McGregor identifies some of the ways your problem-seeking, storytelling, judging mind keeps you anxious, depressed, and distracted from the things that really matter.
What’s getting in the way of your peace and happiness? Stressing you out? Creating a roller coaster of emotions, drama, and chaos? You might think your inner turmoil is directly due to what’s happening in the world around you, but Karen McGregor says the truth is quite different. It’s not what happens to you, but what you perpetually think and do in response. And that is due to the nature of your mind.
The egoic mind is always engaging in problem-finding, judging, reacting, defending, and so forth—functions that are inherently at odds with happiness. (The non-egoic mind, however, does positive things like creating, analyzing, and synthesizing, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.) When we let the mind run the show, we stay anxious and depressed. Our negative thoughts keep us from being present. We may misunderstand situations, blow small problems out of proportion, make bad decisions, and damage important relationships.
The solution, says McGregor, is to accept and understand the nature of the personal mind. Only when we learn to distance ourselves from the thoughts it constantly produces can we begin to calm ourselves down; find peace and joy; and work toward becoming our best, most productive, influential, and successful self.
McGregor identifies seven aspects of the mind that get in the way of happiness:
The mind is forever seeking problems. Unchecked, this natural tendency becomes your filter, the lens through which you see the world. Do you see the beautiful day and the opportunities it brings, or do you immediately go to what needs fixing? It’s true that we get better by noticing and assessing problems, but too often we don’t act to fix them. We just dwell on them, and they stay in the forefront of our mind.
“It’s okay to observe a problem, but then you need to let it go,” says McGregor. “If not, the world just looks like a big pile of problems, and that impacts your well-being.”
The mind is a storyteller. One single thought can set off an entire narrative. For example, you get a comment on social media that upsets you. You start to replay all the interactions with that person, and before you know it, you’ve created a whole story that didn’t exist before.
“In many cases, you are overreacting to the person’s comment,” says McGregor. “Chances are the commenter never gave it another thought. Meanwhile, in your mind, the story is growing and controlling your day, your thoughts, and your actions.”
The mind is judgmental. Do you find yourself judging everything? For example, you might judge a coworker’s eating habits or a messy desk. You might judge a friend’s parenting skills. You might judge a family member’s financial decisions or relationships. In short, you get consumed with issues that should have no impact on you. (They are truly none of your business.)
“Of course you will notice things other people do that are outside your value system, but learn to laugh them off,” says McGregor. “Don’t get mired in your thoughts about them.”
The mind is reactionary. Do you have a quick trigger? Are you easily upset over things that aren’t really a big deal? Reacting in a disproportionate way eats up your day, controls your thoughts, and keeps you from accepting and receiving life as it comes.
“If someone takes your parking space, does it plunge you into a bad mood for the rest of the day?” says McGregor. “Do you assign bad intentions to the person? Better to just brush it off or say, ‘Oh well, maybe I just wasn’t meant to park there today!’”
The mind is easily distractible. Often we let small, insignificant things distract us from big, important things. Maybe you’re in a big work meeting and the muffins show up. Suddenly you can’t focus on what your boss or client is saying. Life is full of such “muffins,” says McGregor.
“It’s easy to let life’s trivialities distract you from writing a special note to a friend who’s moving or from cooking a meal for someone who isn’t feeling well,” says McGregor. “We need to get better at staying focused on what really matters. Once we do, we can begin to act in ways that better serve us and those around us.”
The mind is always looking to defend itself. We tend to protect our self-image and seek confirmation for what we think we know. This can make us wary of feedback. Yet people who give you feedback are often the ones who care about you the most. They want to help. How you receive what is happening or being said is everything—even if it’s hard to hear.
“We often don’t like feedback, because it impacts our feeling of ‘safety,’” says McGregor. “We are all so invested in protecting this little box of who we think we are. Feedback makes us better and more aware, and people will continue to give it when we receive it the right way. But if we get defensive, not only won’t we hear what they’re saying, they may give up and not try anymore.”
The mind clings to disturbances or initial impressions. The mind loves to fixate on initial thoughts, positive or negative. If someone says you look good in an outfit, you might start thinking you want to have a relationship with that person! If someone writes something in an email that hits you wrong, you may cling to the memory of it, despite what else is happening.
“In both cases, we let what was likely a passing comment rule our thinking and define our interaction with that person,” says McGregor. “How often do we go in the wrong direction or cut off contact with someone who could have been a major positive influence in our lives because of our clinging mind?”
Recognize yourself in any of these scenarios? Maybe even in all of them? That’s good because awareness of destructive thoughts is the first step toward distancing ourselves from them.
“What you’re doing is realizing that you are not your mind,” says McGregor. “It is a separate entity, and learning how to recognize and master it is the work of a lifetime. If you can name it, you can tame it. And once you tame it, you will start to see major, positive changes in your day-to-day reality.”