The life-saving work of challenging our thoughts
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
I remember the first time I heard the phrases -A thought is just a thought- and -Don't believe everything you think-. Those of you who have as adults sat in front of a piano for the very first time and tried playing it using both hands at the same time understand exactly how I felt. It was one of those rare moments in which you become painfully aware of the fact that your brain is made up of two hemispheres, and that connecting them takes effort. I thought, what do you mean "A thought is just a thought?" I know it is, surely that's the whole point! It's a thought, it's the most powerful thing in the world, it's what moves the whole planet into action. And what do you mean we shouldn't believe it? What else is there to believe in?!
I was a young graduate student at the time, just beginning to learn about cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness and mediation practices, and I remember one of my fellow students, a dear friend of mine, sitting with me in her room and discussing these concepts for hours, trying to make sense of them. And to be totally frank, smirking at them a little too. That's how ignorant we were. That's how poorly connected our two hemispheres were.
That was over a decade ago. If I am being honest though, it has really only been a few years now that I have been able to truly absorb these great truths and use them in my daily life. I still have a way to go, but I can confidently say that putting in the effort to understand and accept them has changed the way I relate to myself and others, in both my personal and professional lives. It has helped me to create space, that precious space between my initial emotion and/or thought and the response I have the option of choosing.
They emerged for me again recently, surfacing right up into my consciousness after I, along with the rest of the world, heard about the apparent suicide of chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain, a mere three days after the apparent suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade.
Suicidal thoughts and/or actions are far from foreign to me; given my profession it's no surprise, but the deep misfortune is that they have also touched some people in my personal life. As I was thinking about them and Mr. Bourdain and Mrs. Spade over the past week, picturing them in my mind, I realized that there was one particular aspect of their dark experience that deeply saddened me, and another that deeply scared me. The first was the idea that they must have felt so completely alone in their final moment, and the other that they were trapped in that aloneness with nothing else but their thoughts, thoughts that were so dangerous they convinced them it would be for the best if they took away their own life.
We know isolation is harmful to us humans both physically and mentally, and we also know that the brain 'feels' social rejection in the same way as it does physical pain. Anyone who has ever been excluded from a dodge-ball game as a child knows exactly what that feels like. As painful as it is when you are young, social rejection and isolation hurt more and more as we get older, and they become more and more impactful on our mental and physical health as well.
Combine that [literally] painful emotional state with thoughts such as -My son/daughter will be better off without me-, -No one is really going to miss me that much anyway-, -No one could possibly feel as horrible as I do- and -Well, it's never going to get any better anyway-, and you have a state in which a decision that may have seemed inconceivable before now seems to be the only viable one.
As I was thinking about what that might feel like (putting myself into another's brain, as psychologists do), a beautiful post by the deeply wise Dr. Jack Kornfield popped up on my social media feed, and I found a few of the lines in particular to mirror what was going on in my own head in that moment too:
In popular Western culture we are taught that the way to achieve happiness is to change our external environment to fit our wishes. But this strategy doesn’t work. In every life, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame keep showing up, no matter how hard we struggle to have only pleasure, gain, and praise.
And the struggle certainly IS real in today's world and many would certainly argue that we are only becoming increasingly focused on our external environment, as it relates to our psycho-emotional well-being (Exhibits A: likes and B: shares). Parallel to that though, there is an increase in the number of not only philosophical thinkers such as Dr. Kornfield but research-oriented psychological scientists such as Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky as well who are cautioning us against making that assumption that it is our circumstances that determine our well-being.
It is inherently human [animal, even] to connect the workings of our environment to the inner workings of our personal life- after all, there used to be a time when our environment could literally make or break us, as was the tragic case for the ancient Egyptians, for example. Even though we are now much better-equipped to withstand and survive the droughts of the Nile, we continue to make that same causal link between circumstance and subjective state, ultimately justifying our decision-making by the goings-on around us.
This deep human tendency has recently been spotlighted in the media by the appearance of the highly controversial show "13 Reasons Why." In a nutshell, the story is focused on a young girl who seemingly takes away her life because of the things that a number of individuals did [or didn't] do to her. The population most rattled by the release of this show has been that of professionals working with children and families, one reason being that the show appears to glamorize the act of committing suicide (or, rather, the story itself does), and the other being that it draws upon that linking of what the outside world does and what the individual does, how the outside 'causes' or 'makes' the individual do what they do.
Given that in the aftermath of the two recent very public suicides we are hearing more and more about what 'caused' them (there are reports of Mr. Spade having asked for a divorce not too long ago), I would encourage all parents whose children watch "13 Reasons Why" to initiate a conversation with them about this issue of causality. Netflix has been fore-thinking enough with Season 2 to provide a resource that can help, as can this recent Washington Post article.
We now need a question in order to get to the desired answer. We have experts cautioning us about holding our circumstances entirely responsible for our lives, and telling us not to try to force our square-shaped self into whatever round-shaped hole of an 'appearance life' we think it should fit in. And we ALSO have the knowledge of the role our thoughts play in our decision-making. The question then is, what is the best way to shift our focus away from those outside appearances and circumstances and turn it inward for one, and then do it in such a way that we don't end up rigidly stuck to our thoughts (because they may well be wrong!). There is such a thing as a 'bad' and rigid way of inward-looking- it is called "rumination," and it deserves a whole other blog post. What may provide us with a 'good way' however, is mindfulness.
There is no doubt that mindfulness has over the past several decades been represented by many as being a panacea for all ills, which I truly hope won't render it passé any time soon because it's benefits are far-reaching in both the macrocosm of our world and the microcosm of our minds. It has been defined most elegantly by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who helped introduce it to the Western world by developing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the late 1970s:
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
In the context of suicidal thoughts and actions in particular, some promising research has recently shown that using mindfulness techniques can reduce suicide risk by helping individuals learn how to accept what is, especially the highly unpleasant, uncomfortable and undesirable 'what is.' This "experiential avoidance" as it is known, has proven to be one of the greatest enabling factors of suicidal urges. So it seems that an increase in tolerance is one of the ways that mindfulness can help to keep suicide from becoming a viable option for the vulnerable. It has the potential to help a person 'stay' with their difficult circumstances long enough (and non-judgmentally enough) so that they can eventually affect and change them in some way.
Another path through which mindfulness seems to be of help is the reduction of "self-narrative focus." In simple terms, this means that mindfulness, by directing our attention towards what is happening experientially in this very moment (and with no judgement of it being good or bad), takes the focus away from the stories [a.k.a. thoughts] we tell ourselves about ourselves and about who and why we are. These stories are almost always colored by judgement of some sort. They serve to give us a sense of identity and autobiographical history, but with a lack of self-compassion and a healthy dose of questioning, our stories can work against us, and, in some cases, bring us to do even the most unthinkable. This is especially true for those with histories of trauma and/or problems with mood.
And these are the reasons why I believe the brain-twisting -Don't believe everything you think- can [potentially] become a life-saver.
There is no way of knowing whether practicing mindfulness, with all of its components, could have saved the lives of those we have lost to suicide. Perhaps some of them were practicing it. It is too simplistic, and what is more, disrespectful to the deceased and their families to talk about the should-haves and the could-haves and the may-haves in the aftermath.
What I wish to do with this post is encourage an open dialog on the one hand and on the other, provide those who may be feeling incredibly alone and hopeless in this moment with another possible option.
Consider, just for a second, the possibility that your thoughts are not entirely accurate. Consider creating some desperately needed distance from them. And if you can do that, then you have taken that first and most difficult step. Next, please reach out to someone, anyone, for help. *
* The number of the Suicide Prevention Hotline in the United States is 1-800-273-8255