People typically believe that they are in full control of their minds, and by extension, of their thoughts and choices. This is usually a useful outlook; it allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and exercise a sense of agency.
Nevertheless, there are those times when it benefits us to acknowledge our minds’ influence on us. Our thoughts are subtly coerced, largely by our emotions, leading us to take action that may not be in our best interest. Conscious choices may be rarer than we expect.
We may prefer to deny this, but denial is yet another of the emotionally-driven responses we are attempting to deny.
If we want to have a better shot at controlling our actions and thoughts, we are better off acknowledging this deceptive playing field; we can escape it no more than we can escape our own minds.
With this heightened awareness, we may come to recognize our self-destructive impulses before we act on them. We will have the sense to decide which actions are really in our best interest.
A REASON TO BE MINDFUL
THE HIDDEN MIND
We are often inclined to follow our emotions; our urges and emotions push us towards short-term gratification of our essential needs.
Under this influence, we may be emotionally biased towards certain decisions, behaviours, and justifications, even before we are aware of them. Our perceptions, preferences, and behaviours are subject to distortion.
This shows us the potential to lose control of our own minds; our short-term instincts can emotionally influence our subconscious thought, leading us to make choices without our own awareness.
This concept is far from abstract; it is directly applicable to daily life. We often take short-sighted action that is detrimental in the long-term.
Everyone knows how it feels to be irritable, and how that irritability may lead us to say things we don’t mean. We also know how it feels to communicate with someone else who is irritable, and how that irritability can strain relationships and leave us feeling alienated.
We have all procrastinated to some extent. We know that we need to do the work, and that our lives will be better for it. We might even know that the work won’t be so difficult once we’ve started. Yet, we allow it to pile up, despite feeling dissatisfied with our own lack of productivity.
Perhaps we’ve even taken revenge, even in some small way. We might shoot someone a nasty look, or start an argument. We expend our time and energy getting caught up in things that do nothing to help us.
To make matters more challenging, we tend to retroactively justify our impulsive behaviour, convincing us that our actions were righteous and deliberate; nobody wants to admit they made a poor decision, much less one we had no control of.
It’s harder yet to acknowledge the emotions that really drove our actions, especially when those emotions are tied up in insecurity, frustration, or vulnerability. The tricky acrobatics of our mind may lead us towards blame; we project our pain outwards instead of admitting our mistakes.
RIGIDITY VS FLEXIBILITY
We generally do not uproot old habits unless we are acutely convinced that they are harming us. But we can become convinced of the harms; with mindfulness, the influence of emotion and habit can be overridden. Emotion can even be used to our advantage if we become emotionally invested in our efforts to develop new habits.
When we resist our baser impulses, however, we put ourselves in a state of conflict: as different parts of our mind compete with one another, our energy is expended.
This is why it can feel exhausting to try and control our thoughts. But just as we become less fatigued by physical exercise over time, our minds will adapt to new habits if they are made to. Mindfulness becomes less of a struggle and more of a reflex.
MAKING CONSCIOUS CHOICES
RECONSTRUCTING OUR THOUGHTS
The question that naturally follows is this: what does it mean to be mindful in this way?
Simply, it involves recognizing self-destructive urges. Ideally, we can recognize them before we put them into action if we can suspend our emotions long enough to think of what benefits us in the long-term.
If we do recognize them, we will make the final call as to whether to act upon them, enabling us to make truly conscious choices; a simple awareness of our emotions and biases is often sufficient to control them.
Even in retrospect, we will have the opportunity to reflect on what emotions compelled us to behave in a self-destructive way. If we have courage in this process, we might uncover our own insecurities, vulnerabilities, and frustrations.
These emotions can only control us if we consciously consider them legitimate. When we recognize the connection between our self-destructive urges and our negative emotions, we might come to consider those urges illegitimate, and we will elect not to act upon them.
This is a necessary step: the battle can’t go on forever. At some point, we need to resolve these emotions instead of perpetually resisting their interference; otherwise, we will exhaust ourselves.
This can only be accomplished when our emotions are treated and addressed as what they are: emotions. These emotions are not a basis for action; instead, they can be the subject of our contemplation, discussion, and eventually, resolution.
In sum, if we know our emotions, not only will our actions be liberated from them; our consciousness of those emotions will give us the opportunity to resolve them in a constructive way. All this can be accomplished through simple reflection.
If we discover healthy strategies for dealing with our emotions, we will discover a new clarity of thought and feeling along with it. The haze will be lifted; we will find that our mental wellbeing improves in a general way, including our mood and productivity.
Our new way of thinking will guide us towards conscious choices which are sustainable in the long-term; such choices will improve our relationships and circumstances.
Our emotional health will grow along with these positive changes. When we understand our emotions, we can understand ourselves, and only then can we really control ourselves. In the end, our self-esteem will flourish.