Driving home one day, I was lost in thought when I spotted a bumper sticker that read: "Don't believe everything you think."
I had to laugh because at that very moment my mind was creating a tragic mental drama that was so powerful I actually did believe it—and I was making myself miserable because of it. The bumper sticker knocked me out of my reverie and jolted me into awareness of my own crazy story-making. Sudden enlightenment!
I thought about that moment recently when a reader commented that her New Year's resolution was to change a negative thinking habit that was distressing her. Emotional pain from self-criticism, anxiety, depression, worry, and other negative mental habits is common to all of us. Not that these emotions aren't useful; like all emotions, they have their place as possible signals that something is wrong (or right). But in excess, these emotions are simply overwhelming and do us no good.
When you are in a situation when your negative thinking habits are making you suffer, consider trying the "RAIN" technique to soften and re-channel these harmful patterns. Buddhist teachers and therapists such as Tara Brach often teach this technique to bring mindful awareness to emotional distress and provide soothing balm for emotional pain.
The RAIN technique can help you be your own best friend instead of your own worst critic. Here are the basic steps you can take to RAIN on your parade of negative thoughts, soothe yourself, and move on:
- R = Recognize. Recognize the emotions or thoughts that are troubling you. Notice them without judgment. Naming them can also help shrink them to manageable size: "Story of how my friends will all desert me." "Worry about my son again." "Despising self for how I acted." Just noticing and naming the passing parade of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations can even provide some immediate relief. "Oh, so THAT'S what's on my mind." You may even notice that your painful feelings disappear after a while. "This too shall pass" can become words to live by.
- A = Acknowledge, Accept, Allow. The next step is to acknowledge your distress and accept it as your present reality. Accepting the pattern does not mean you like it; it only means that you are able to put these unpleasant mental contents front and center, rather than allowing them to strum unconsciously under the surface of your mind. You might say to yourself, for example, "Yes, I'm worried about money again."
- I = Inquire, Investigate. At this stage of the process, you can use your natural curiosity to delve more deeply into your distress. You can ask yourself: What triggered this current bout of distress? When have I felt this way before? What thoughts, feelings, and sensations are connected to these feelings? How realistic is my thinking? Are there actions I could take to help myself or another person? What do I need?
- N = Non-identification. Your painful thoughts, feelings, and sensations are not YOU. Instead of identifying with them, you can mentally "step to the side" and watch them scroll by like a newsfeed with a lot of bad news.
Sometimes I find that it's not enough just to be mindful of the whirlwind of my hurtful negative thoughts. When this happens, I add an S to the formula, modifying RAIN into RAINS. The S step is:
- S = Self-compassion. Self-compassion means offering yourself some friendliness, generosity, and sympathy. It is not self-pity; rather, it is a recognition and acceptance of your humanness, your imperfection, and your suffering. It is empathizing with yourself the way you might for your best friend or love partner. You might say to yourself, "It's hard for you when you feel so self-critical," for example. In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach puts it this way: "Instead of resisting our feelings of fear or grief, we embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child."
The RAINS technique is not a panacea and doesn't work for everyone or in every situation. But I find it amazingly effective. As I say in my book, Changepower, "The more you can surround your negative thinking with compassion, the easier it will be to dissolve it and move on."
(c) Meg Selig. All rights reserved.
I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For updates on willpower, habit change, and motivation, like me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, or both!
"The more you can surround..."Selig, M. Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009), p. 103.
"Instead of resisting..." Brach, Tara. Radical Acceptance, (Bantam Books, 2003), p. 28.
There are a number of excellent descriptions of the RAIN method on the Internet. Here are a few: Elisha Goldstein, lhttp://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2009/05/dealing-with-difficult-emotions/ Tara Brach: http://tarabrach.com/articles/RAIN-WorkingWithDifficulties.html