After struggling with work issues, you decide it’s time to start treating yourself better—a little self-care, as they say.
You go online for suggestions and find ideas, such as congratulating yourself, mantras to boost your confidence, and how to have more compassion for yourself.
But as you road-test these ideas, you find something missing. You don’t really find yourself feeling better about your work—or yourself.
That’s because these approaches often overlook the most important thing you need to do: supervise the manner in which you think and the resulting emotions your thoughts create.
Not only is this a reliable means of self-nurturing, it’s the foundation to maintaining your mental health, emotional well-being, and personal effectiveness. This isn’t something you just do once, during a self-nurturing session, but something you do throughout your entire lifetime.
Having compassion for yourself or doing nice things for yourself isn’t the same as thinking in a supervised manner, although you can do these while thinking in a supervised manner.
But if you don’t pay attention to your thoughts while trying to use mantras or other methods to feel better, you may find your thinking undermines whatever approach you use.
For example, let’s say you decide to nurture yourself but without supervising your thoughts. Here’s what inevitably happens.
As you begin a day of relaxation with some soft music and an intention to tell yourself good things, you start to hear yourself think: “These suggestions won’t work,” you think, with doubt creeping in. “Maybe I’m wasting my time,” you say, and fear bubbles up. “I thought doing these things was supposed to help me,” you complain, and anger emerges.
“I don’t think anything will help me,” you fleetingly believe, and suddenly, there is worry. “Why do I have to struggle through life when others don’t,” you consider as envy blooms.
Oh my, look at that stockpile of unhelpful emotions. This isn’t self-nurturing. It’s self-sabotage.
The emotions that your thoughts create have a biochemical expression that can affect your motivation and performance. Emotions and the chemistry that goes with them are like an internal power plant. Unsupervised thinking is like pulling the controller out of an electrical device. At that point, it will run erratically, not working on what you want it to, and depleting your energy as it runs amok.
You don’t intend for emotional turmoil to happen, but you’re still responsible for allowing it to happen. You allow yourself to think habitually in a negative manner, when ideally, you should always attempt to think intentionally in a non-negative manner.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of this responsibility. And don’t make excuses for not doing it. This is the defining line between a person who controls themselves, and a person who is controlled by thoughts that can come from anywhere—from advertisers to political actors hoping to drive a certain response, from misguided ideas from parents, to negative influences in popular culture.
This is the only means you have to self-regulate how well you feel and perform, particularly when faced with adversities.
To think non-negatively doesn’t mean you should think positively. That doesn’t work when you know there’s nothing positive about your situation. You may as well engage in wishful thinking, which can be irresponsible for an adult with adult responsibilities.
Try thinking positively about harassment, discrimination, bullying, harmful gossip, poor job fit, or mean and unfriendly people you sometimes have to work with. Good for you if you can, but in the heat of a negative situation, summoning positive thoughts may seem ridiculous, inappropriate, or even dangerous.
Thinking non-negatively relies on thoughts that are both realistic and optimistic. View your situation as it really is, not how you want it to be. Acknowledge that it could be worse and could get better. Be aware of any ideas you have that this situation should be a certain way. Take it as it is, not as you measure it against some imaginary ideal. Examine the beliefs you have about the situation.
This is not an effort to become a Pollyanna, the storybook character with gobs of optimism who looked for the good in everything. Instead, you want to avoid extreme thinking. Don’t just look for the good, which isn’t always there, or just the bad—chances are you’ll find it. Look for the agreeable middle ground between these two extremes. See the situation for what it is.
Sometimes, that means changing the context you view that thing within. If you’re having a terrible run at work, consider how it will temper you for the future. Place that difficulty within a five-year perspective and consider if it is something so terrible, or just a passing situation. Maybe you want to consider the difficulty that others are having within that situation, so you don’t get caught feeling sorry for yourself and can instead focus on others, an act of compassion that can immediately lift your spirit.
Look for the light at the end of the tunnel, not just the long, dark tunnel. And on the job, look at the opportunity for long-term career contentment, an emotion you control. Don’t just look for the short-term job satisfactions or dissatisfactions you don’t control.
It’s not surprising that stress in the workplace contributes to higher instances of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. What is surprising is that research still attributes these issues to the strain associated with your challenges and hardships.
Why this conclusion is surprising is that we’re in the midst of a worldwide awakening to the power of the mind to heal the body. Research in this area tells us our challenges and hardships don’t cause depression or anxiety. Rather, these often emerge because of the way we allow ourselves to think about these matters.
If you are experiencing emotional or mental difficulties, consider this for an extended period of time: What you think causes how you feel. Then examine the quality of those thoughts. This has enabled numerous patients to self-correct their issues without medication. For more insight, see “The Three Principles” and “The Enlightened Gardener” by Sydney Banks.
Maybe your boss really is a jerk. Your work hours may really be unreasonable. Your income really is unfair. There really can be frustrating injustices in your life, but by allowing these unsupervised thoughts to dominate your mind, you submit yourself to the emotional turmoil these thoughts create. This exacerbates and prolongs your suffering.
Then to ease your suffering, you search on Google for self-nurturing suggestions that you later discover don’t provide the relief you were hoping for. The relief you want is waiting for you when you take responsibility for supervising how you think.
Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training, provider. He holds a master’s degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is an originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment. Twitter@ccgarton.com.