Daniel Catalaa

Mental Hygiene

(Authored by Daniel Catalaa on December 19th, 2011)
global__icon_envelope2.gif Send article to a friend

Imagine that you woke up in your home after a week-long slumber only to find strangers living in it. You do not remember inviting them in, yet there they are. They have been pillaging your fridge and have made noise late at night, they persuaded you to do unhealthy things, stained the carpet, left dirty dishes in the sink, and ordered things on your credit card. You also witness several of them open the door and letting in more uninvited guests. After recovering from the shock, it is unlikely that you would tolerate this situation and fueled by indignation you would quickly reestablish your authority by clearing out your home, changing the locks, and clearly communicating your standards to any future guests.

Now let's suppose that in the preceding scenario your home is just a metaphor for your mind and that instead of entertaining guests you were entertaining thoughts. Ask yourself: do you go after abusive or useless thoughts with the same vigor and swiftness with which you would expel home invaders? Astonishingly, most people do not. This happens because we can be unaware of self-sabotaging thoughts that inhabit our minds or we may know about them and accept them as normal. In this article I will explain what you can do to establish and maintain mental hygiene so that you invest your life pursuing your goals and interests rather than somebody else's. If unwanted ideas have hijacked your mental resources, I want you to become aware of it and do something about it.

Where do thoughts come from?

Let's talk a moment about thoughts. Where do they come from? Their constant yet fleeting apparition into and out of our awareness may seem mysterious, however their origin can be easily summarized by this simple equation:

DATA + BELIEFS ⇒ THOUGHTS

The 'DATA' component of the equation just means that, when you think, you are always thinking about something a piece of information that either came from a source internal or external to you. The 'BELIEFS' component instead refers to the filters we use to interpret the data and to give it meaning. Here is a worked out example:

DATA: The plant looks wilted.
BELIEFS:  #1. Wilting is a sign of dehydration.
              #2. Water is the antidote to dehydration.
              #3. A hydrated plant will fare better than a wilted one.
              #4. Helping plants is good.
              #5. I want to be a good person.
THOUGHT: I should water the plant.

Note how many beliefs are behind a single thought and how quickly we process them! Shouldn't we then be looking at our beliefs rather than the downstream thoughts? The short answer is yes; however, it is easier to catch and evaluate a thought that is 'verbalized' as part of our internal dialogue, than it is to uncover a belief that is silently directing things from a deeper level of our psyche. In nautical terms, even though we cannot see the whole iceberg, if we can spot the tip of it we can avoid a collision and hence stay on course after some maneuvering. We still have not solved the iceberg problem, i.e. the existence of faulty beliefs in our mind, but we can start living better. In light of their paramount importance, in a follow up article I wrote about beliefs, but I suggest you read this article first.

Thinking about your thoughts

When we operate with a basal level of self-awareness, we just think. When we increase our level of self-awareness, not only do we think, but we think about the quality of our thinking. This is analogous to two spectators looking at a movie. The first is totally immersed in the experience and during the movie forgets who they are and what they are doing. The second viewer is not only immersed in the experience, but is also simultaneously reviewing the elements that underpin the movie such as the casting that the director chose, the plausibility of the plot, the changes in background music and lighting used to impart certain moods, commercial product placements, the build up and release of tension in the storyline, use of cliches, cultural references, camera angles, and narration. Most movie goers are not consciously aware of these underlining elements as they are occurring and therefore cannot explain with precision how they were made to feel certain emotions during the show. They may need to view the movie multiple times before comprehending the full complement of subliminal methods used by the director to elicit in them reactions on cue. Evaluating thoughts as they arise in your mind requires similar keen observation skills as the ones just described and these skills can be learned.

Part of you may resist and say, Daniel, this constant monitoring of thoughts sounds like extra work, why should I do it? I am busy already as it is. Well, the reason to learn and incorporate this new behavior is that the rewards are critically important. You will have a higher degree of confidence that you are pursuing your own goals versus somebody else's and that you have not become some type of automaton, an actor in a story you did not write, a mindless consumer, somebody who keeps on getting the same results and does not know why, or that makes everybody happy except themselves.

To understand the benefits, ponder this hypothetical: What if, as an adult, you still held on to child-like beliefs like Santa Claus, immortal and infallible parents, or that you are a relatively powerless member of society (i.e. just a kid)? How effective would these beliefs make you as an adult in the world today? Thankfully, at some point along the way you evaluated these beliefs, found them to be inaccurate, and updated or discarded them.

It is likely however that the beliefs acquired in childhood were shed only to be replaced by equally dysfunctional adult versions of them. So the adult mind harbors ideas like 'I will only be lovable if a lose weight', 'My personal sense of morality is insufficient and I must therefore rely on the moral guidance of a religion', or 'Purchasing this product will make me more acceptable', etc.

How do I start cleaning up my mind?

Listen. Listen to your thoughts and evaluate them, especially the ones with imperative verbs such as 'should' and 'must' or those that indicate capacity, such as 'can'. Other thoughts to keep an eye on are those that are related to judgments of worthiness and utilize adjectives such as good/bad, desirable/undesirable, appropriate/inappropriate, normal/weird, etc. Additionally, the absolute adverbs 'always' and 'never' deserve closer inspection because they are rarely associated with accurate statements (e.g. 'I always...' or 'He never...').

On the other hand, mundane thoughts such as planning the route that you will drive or what clothes to wear do not merit the same degree of scrutiny. Save your mental energy to inspect the more consequential thoughts that impact self-esteem, self-image, goal setting, and coherence with your values.

Screen your thoughts

Once you have built the habit of listening to your thoughts as they arise, create a screening question that thoughts must satisfy for you to allow them to continue to exist. Some of the test questions I use are 'Does this thought promote my well-being and that of others?', 'Is this a useful thought and is it a good use of my mental energy?'; 'Was I persuaded to have this thought by an external source or did it originate from my own convictions?'; or 'Does this private thought reflect the values I profess publicly?'. Feel free to come up with your own filtering questions and, if the thought fails the screening, reformulate or change the thought all together on the spot. Gone are the days when any thought could just waltz into your head unchallenged. Now there are standards to be met your standards.

When it comes time to purge a noxious thought, a noteworthy thing to know is that thoughts cannot be suppressed and attempts to suppress them just make them stronger. They are like herbicide-resistant weeds that you cannot spray and kill but you can relocate and replace. Hence, the most effective way to eliminate an unwanted thought is by thinking of a more edifying thought in its place. Doing so will require a trained mind that can focus, that can for example transform an 'I don't stand a chance' statement into 'I will do my best and learn from the experience'. Since mental focus is so useful, let's delve into it a bit further.

Unleash your mental focus

Some thoughts are not malicious, but they are eminently useless and will distract and drain your precious focus. Think of the last time you were in line at the supermarket. The mental chatter inside your head may have been 'Boy, the cashier has three piercings through his eyebrows!'; '[while checking out the person in front of you] I should get a pair of shoes like those'; 'Are those two women holding hands?'; 'Uhmm, what did she put in her shopping cart'; '[while looking at a magazine cover] Oh my god, so-and-so is back together with so-and-so'. Now, what did you get in return for your investment of mental energy? Nothing. You got nothing that is of any lasting value.

So... what else could you have been focusing on? What if you had been using that time to mentally sketch out your next career move, conjugate under your breath the auxiliary verb of a language you are learning, type a text message to somebody you care about, or memorize a piece of poetry to recite later?

Your focus is a precious gift that will tend to succumb to random distractions if you leave it unattended. This illustration will explain why you need to protect your focus. If you expose a piece of paper to sunlight for 30 years, all you will get is a slight yellow-brownish oxidation tinge all over its surface. But if you take the same piece of paper and focus sunlight on it with a magnifying glass, in under 30 seconds you will have flames bursting forward. That is how powerful your mind can be when you consciously direct it and give it the freedom to focus by vetting your thoughts.

Is there more to the story?

The rabbit hole goes deeper and there is a lot more to the story. Here is a glimpse of the more complete causal chain of events that is at work in everything we do and contemplate:

DATA + BELIEFS = THOUGHTS ⇒ EMOTIONS ⇒ ACTIONS ⇒ RESULTS

Not all thoughts result in emotions, but most do and if the elicited emotion is strong enough, we will take action to reinforce or abate that emotion. These emotion-triggered actions yield the results that determine the quality and type of life that we lead.

Now that you have a bigger picture, I hope that I was able to persuade you on the benefits of mental hygiene and that you will be alert and vigilant of your thoughts so that you can create a mental milieu that supports your goals, provides you with greater focus, and consistently grows and nurtures your positive thoughts. Here is another resource to learn more about beliefs.