Taming My Heart and Mind

A few weeks ago I started paying attention to the ever-present “fogginess” in my brain. After another week of observation, I’m starting to think that the source of the fog is actually not in my head, but in my heart.

This weekend, I identified two closely-related foggy-brained sensations. One seems to come from the mental exhaustion that occurs when negative emotions overwhelm my reserve of available energy. The other (closely related) is a result of my own thoughts creating a smokescreen of distraction through which I can not see clearly.

Mental Exhaustion and Micro Panics

The first kind of fogginess arises when I’m faced with a challenge that I’m not immediately able to handle. It may be that I don’t know the answer right away, or my memory isn’t up to the task. In either case, I feel unprepared, and I experience what might be called a “micro panic”. It lasts just an instant, during which I regress to my 6-yo self, wondering why everyone’s laughing at me. It happens so quick that only the foggy after-image of those childhood memories lingers, it’s enough to throw me off-balance due to the strong negative associations I have with “not knowing”. In that moment, I feel intensely vulnerable. The anxiety of “can I do it?” combines with dawning realization that “it will take a long time to find out.” These two thoughts strike immediately and hard, and are a powerful demotivating force.

I am sometimes able to catch myself in the moment and resist the negative thoughts. To deaden the anxiety, I remind myself that while I may not know the answer, I can probably figure something out. It just takes some time to think and research. The second feeling, which arises from my impatience with uncertainty and deferred rewards, is countered by my belief in the power of small steps made in the name of Creative Process.

When I’m tired and not able to actively counter negative thoughts, they repeat over and over and become a source of distraction. They distract not because I am depressed by them, but because they are interrupting my ability to think continuously about the challenge at hand. It’s sort of like talking on the phone while driving; your body is able to go through the motions of driving as a routine, but it’s prone to lapses of attention. Suddenly, without realizing quite how it happened, you find yourself in a deadly vortex of self-feeding negativity. The thoughts that go through my head look something like this:

Oh man I am not going to be able to start this right now. I don’t know where to start. I probably should have read a book. Maybe I should look online for something that will help me. But if I were any good, I would already know how to do this. I could start now, maybe pick up a book. It’s going to take a long time…I don’t even know if I’ll be able to do this. Maybe I should start with that first tutorial, but this tutorial sucks and I don’t think it’s the best available one. I should dig around and find someone who recommends one. Though I am not sure what I need to know…

All these thoughts are non-productive. I’m trying to train myself to catch more than three of these thoughts in a row, realizing that self=talk like the following is more helpful.

I don’t know where to start. I do know that my goal is this. I will start with this tutorial, which might suck, but I will learn from it and adapt in the next step. Booyah.

This takes confidence in your own ability to muddle through, and there are few reasons against your ability that aren’t ridiculous or self-punishing when you say them out-loud. By acknowledging my negative thoughts, I gain the power to put them aside. Likewise, I can accept my anxieties without feeding them with more reaction. Instead, I can choose to practice the creative process, dispelling the uncertainties one-by-one. It just takes time, and I am learning to be OK with that. The real trick, though, isn’t the affirmation of my belief. What’s important is eliminating the source of distracting thoughts, so they aren’t constantly interrupting my creative process like someone tapping my shoulder every 3-5 seconds. THAT is the discipline I am striving to learn.

The Nature of Hearts

There is a chapter in one of my favorite books, The Alchemist, where treasure-seeking boy protagonist Santiago meets with the book’s namesake in the desert. The Alchemist is teaching him about the nature of hearts, how they are fearful and noisy creatures, and that the essential skill that Santiago must learn is how to listen to his own heart, so he can gain its trust. It is only then, the Alchemist opines, that the conversation between the boy and his own heart can begin, which is the key to discovering his “personal treasure”.

Our hearts, I think, are fearful when it is never openly heard or acknowledged by its owner. For the past several years I’ve been doing a much better job (I think) at listening to it, and have organized my life around what I thought it was whispering to me. However, I also learned that my heart sometimes lies in order to protect itself from scary situations, such as the ones that might make me feel incompetent or valueless. The lies, which my heart nevertheless firmly believes during moments of vulnerability, are not told maliciously. It is just afraid of being laughed at, being made fun of, marginalized, and ultimately discarded. But as an adult, I have the ability to persevere through these moments of darkness and see them for what they are: shadows that spawn unproductive, distracting thoughts.

This is the moment to invoke Mythbuster Adam Savage’s gleeful declaration, I reject your reality, and substitute my own.

There is a clarity that comes from taking that stand, stemming from a belief in yourself. You choose to believe that you are better than the negative emotions that are swarming inside you, trying to tear you down while you’re not paying attention. When I’m feeling particularly strong, I can sometimes say something like the following and I gain the peace to work:

“Go away, negative thoughts. I want to to focus my full attention on facing this challenge that has me stuck, and I will chip away at it faster. I will get back to you and your concerns afterwards.”

Of course, this presupposes that the negative thoughts are not actually an emergency involving immediate physical or financial danger. In the workplace, the thoughts may arise from external pressures placed upon you by others, but that’s a thought for another day…

My Heart, My Companion

My heart is a major source of distraction even on the best of days. It is a lively, sensitive, prattling creature that loves shiny things. It is curious about what other people find shiny too, to the point that it will travel 100 miles to personally share the experience if it seems like there might be something magical involved. My heart likes to kick off its shoes and bask in anything resembling a sun beam, be it the warm afternoon light streaming through my patio door windows or the happy smiles of people determinedly-lost in their personal journeys.

I like hanging out with my heart, as it is fun to talk to, constantly observing, comparing, and cataloging, emitting a stream of conversational talking points interspersed with a spirited mix of “oooohs” and “aaaahs”. There are times, though, when it masquerades as rational thought. As an introvert, I have that extra brain loop that processes EVERYTHING before acting, and this tends to magnify small consequences so they appear much larger than they really are. My heart, used to having my ear, will react viscerally. It might tell me a fearsome tale about a friend that knew a guy who’s cousin saw an accident that involved a situation that involved witnesses to something bad that happened, sometime in the past year or ten, that is PROBABLY related to what I’m contemplating right this moment. Or it might tell me that, whatever the hell is going on, there is the possibility that THIS MIGHT BE THE BEST THING EVER, and it would be criminal not to check it out. And I often fall for it, and am transported to the realm of distracted thought.

I fall for this these tenuous chains of reason BECAUSE it was ME who THOUGHT THEM UP. Most people, I would hazard, are comfortable trusting that their thoughts. I will sometimes second-guess or vet my own thoughts to make sure they are self-consistent, but largely I accept quite a lot of my everyday thoughts without question. The problem is that there are some thoughts that are diagnostic but not constructive. For example, thinking about how I am sucking at something is not very helpful. It is a distracting thought at best, telling me something I already know and keeping me from devoting my entire attention to the challenge at hand. At worst, it is emotionally crippling, causing my energy and self-esteem to dip to the point where my hyper-sensitive heart whacks the panic button to shut down the works, which is often followed by an extended Internet vacation to Amazon.com. Not good.

Mental Quietude

I am starting to get better at catching myself in these moments of vulnerability.

The biggest breakthrough I’ve had this week is learning to tell my heart and brain to “be quiet”. I catch myself in the moment of fogginess and/or distraction. I listen to my heart chirp happily or mope for a few seconds, to get a grip on what’s really working it up. Am I bored? Am I daunted by the amount of work in front of me? Am I afraid of sucking or failing? I catalog what I’m feeling, which takes maybe 10 seconds to give a name to the emotion, and then I try to drop those thoughts after distilling its essence. And I can do it because I believe the following:

  • We persevere by naming our fears for what they are, and acknowledging what they have to say.
  • Uncertainty is just part of the process that EVERYONE has to face. I am not alone in this.
  • Small steps lead to greater knowledge and clarity. Always, if you are looking for it.
  • Action, making, and learning cast out the darkness.

When the negative thoughts are gone, I’m able to devote my full attention for at least 15 minutes to the challenge at hand. When the challenge is to learn or overcome an uncertainty, the thought process unencumbered by distracting negativity is more effective. It is holding your shit together so you can get through. I don’t LIKE it, but it’s more accessible than I thought. So long as I believe that the principles above, and remember them, I think I will be OK.

In the case when the positive, shiny thoughts are distracting me, I have been applying a different set of principles:

  • I need some space, heart!
  • I love you, even though/because you are NUTS.

And that seems to work, at least right now. My heart, affirmed, goes to take a nap (or something…where does it go?) And I get a little bubble of time where I can work unencumbered by the constant meta-cataloging, observing my observations, processing, and CONNECTING THE ENTIRETY OF MY EXPERIENCE that is my nominal state. I just never realized I could shut it off.