If you struggle with overwhelming emotions, your own thoughts can sometimes be your worst enemy. How many times have you had experiences like these?
- Getting caught up in criticisms about yourself or others that just made your situation more painful
- Completely missing what someone was saying to you because you were thinking about something else, and then the person got mad at you for not listening
- Not recognizing that a situation or relationship was making you upset, so you stayed in it much too long, until you were finally so frustrated that you exploded in anger
- Failing to notice that you were in a dangerous situation because you weren't paying attention to what was happening until it was too late
These types of painful experiences are caused by a lack of attention to what you're thinking, feeling, and doing.
Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. You don’t have to be swept away by your feeling. You can respond with wisdom and kindness rather than habit and reactivity.~Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
In comparison, imagine if you could develop a skill that would help you pay better attention to what you were thinking, feeling, or doing at any given moment so that you could make healthier decisions and better choices that would improve your life. This skill does exist; it's called mindfulness. Mindfulness is "the ability to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and actions—in the present moment—without judging or criticizing yourself or your experience." This might sound difficult, but mindfulness is one of the most important core skills of dialectical behavior therapy, so it deserves lots of time and practice.
In any one moment of time there might be a dozen things to be mindful of: how you're sitting or standing, the sounds you're hearing, what you're thinking about, what someone else is saying, the way you're breathing, what you're doing, what someone else is doing, physical pain that you're experiencing, the texture of something you're holding, how you're feeling emotionally, and so on. And then in the next second, all of these things might change. Mindfulness means that you're aware of what's happening to you and around you ("Now I'm listening") and you're also aware of how those things are affecting you ("Now he's saying something that's making me upset").
It might sound impossible that you could be aware of all of these stimuli at one time. However, with a little practice, you can learn how to shift your attention so that you become more aware of each of them. For example, a moment of mindfulness might sound like this: "Now I'm aware that I'm slumping in my chair, I'd better sit up… Now I'm aware that I'm breathing in a funny way, I should relax and breathe more mindfully… I just noticed the music outside my window and the sound of trucks driving past… I'm such an idiot for what I said last night. Okay, now I'm criticizing myself and being unmindful, I need to pay attention to what I'm doing."
Remember, the goal is to do the best you can. No one is mindful all the time. In a typical day you might catch yourself being unmindful a hundred times. When you do, just gently refocus your attention on whatever you're thinking, feeling, or doing, and let go of any criticisms or judgments that might distract you.
Here are four important skills that will help you develop your overall mindfulness:
- Practice mindful breathing
- Use wise mind
- Practice beginner's mind
- Complete a task mindfully
Practice Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing is the core skill of all meditation practices. It has three main purposes:
- Helping you relax - As you notice the physical sensation of your breath moving in and out.
- Helping you focus - By counting your breaths or thinking "inhale…exhale…"
- Helping you let go of distracting thoughts - First by noticing them and then returning your focus to your breathing.
Use Wise Mind
Wise mind is the ability to make healthy decisions based on both your emotions and your rational thoughts. Many people who struggle with overwhelming emotions base their decisions solely on how they feel—without considering the facts of a situation.
Practice Beginner’s Mind
When you use beginner's mind, you engage in relationships and situations as if you were seeing them for the first time, without any preconceived judgments about how they should be.
Many people who struggle with overwhelming emotions categorize other people and situations into two groups: good and bad. This type of judgment is called black-and-white thinking because it excludes all the shades of gray that exist in between. Whenever you make this type of judgment about someone or something, you limit what you expect and set yourself up for feeling angry.
Complete a Task Mindfully
As you continue to practice your mindfulness skills, you should also begin to use them in your everyday life. For example, throughout the day check the way you're breathing and do a few minutes of mindful breathing. Then note how you're feeling and what you're thinking. Similarly, do your best to be mindful of your actions and complete as many tasks as mindfully as you can.
For example, if you're driving to work, notice what you're thinking about—maybe what you have to do once you get there. Then notice what you're hearing, perhaps the radio or the other cars. Next, check on how you're sitting and the way you're holding your body. Then notice how you're feeling emotionally and physically, maybe anxious and tired. If you're eating or drinking something, notice what that tastes like. There's no exact order; just do your best to focus and shift your attention between your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and actions in order to be mindful of your present-moment experience.
If you notice something that's bothering you, do your best to let it go. For example, if you notice that you're breathing in a short, shallow way, use mindful breathing. If you notice that your shoulders are tight and hunched, let go of the tension and allow your shoulders to drop. If you recognize that you're not paying attention to the road, shift your focus to your driving. If you're having a judgmental thought, let it go. If you're eating or drinking something that doesn't taste good, stop. A helpful way to practice completing tasks mindfully is to start with smaller tasks and work your way up to more difficult ones. Here's an example of a stepwise progression:
- Walk mindfully – Notice how your body balances and how each foot rolls from heel to toe with each step.
- Eat something mindfully – Start by noticing the texture of the food, then notice what it tastes like and how it feels to chew it slowly and swallow it.
- Wash the dishes mindfully – Feel the soap and water on your hands and notice the way you scrub and the sound of the water.
- Complete a work task or school assignment mindfully – Observe what you're thinking, feeling, and doing while you complete the task. Pay attention to your breathing.
- Have a mindful communication with someone – Breathe mindfully while listening, use beginner's mind to let go of judgments, and use wise mind to make any decisions.