By Laura Staley, Founder of Cherish Your World
I have so much to do … Why have I been so lazy? This situation is the worst thing ever—no good can come of it. Why did I say that stupid thing to that new colleague? She looked so uncomfortable after I spoke to her! Why can’t I ever remember people’s names? Did the dog get fed? I wonder what my boss will need today. I hope it isn’t raining out because my hair will be a mess. I can be such an idiot. Did I pay the electric bill? Sometimes—and perhaps all day long—thoughts like these can stream nonstop through your mind. This loud internal dialogue can become a larger part of your experience than whom you’re with, what you’re doing, and what your senses are delivering to you.
For decades, my internal chatterbox showed up as a bully hurling insults. It’s a wonder I actually functioned out in the world. It took tremendous energy to present myself as a competent, confident person while I carried around this unrelenting internal bully, and I was exhausted. I feared that at any moment someone would discover just how messed up I was underneath the smiling and kind person I worked to be on the outside. I lived anxious and on guard, trying to place the bully in the basement storage locker of my psyche. Yet because I was so cautious and fearful, what I actually stuffed in there were my hopes, wishes, and deepest desires. Meanwhile, the bully ran wild inside me.
Maybe you also have an internal bully who makes you feel like you aren’t good enough, or maybe in your case it’s a chatterbox who nags you about every little thing. The bothersome inner voice might be an anxious worrier, who reminds you of every bad thing that could happen in even the happiest situation, or this voice may be self-pitying or martyr-like. For some of you, it’s an over-thinker who must explore everything from multiple angles, even if you’re trying to sleep or complete a task. For many people, the inner voice is a mix of many of these. Maybe you wish, as I did, that there was a way to take a vacation from the activity in your mind that makes it difficult to focus on things you need to do.
What if, instead, our inner voice could just be noticed, like we lightly notice the sound of popcorn popping? What if we could cultivate a “fly on the wall”? Usually we use this phrase in reference to the fly watching someone else’s life. For example, we might say, “I wish I could be a fly on the wall when the coach talks to the team at halftime.” Imagine if the fly on the wall could be that voyeur inside of you who gets to watch all that you are doing and thinking, such as the chattering voice inside your head bothering you about thank-you notes when you’re trying to listen to a friend, or shaming you even as you make people laugh and break tension in a room.
Your fly on the wall could began to watch you and your life like a movie, observing you silently and without judgment to see what unfolds and what might happen next. This fly on the wall could lay the groundwork for self-awareness. Sometimes the first realization the fly on the wall lends us is that our internal bully or chattering mind has a whole lot to say—and often we are responding more to those nasty or relentless thoughts than to what’s unfolding right in front of us.
In graduate school, my internal bully became powerful and mean. I began therapy and found that it helped immensely to repeat the words of my bully to the therapist, who helped me recognize that these were other people’s hurtful and cruel words, many of which I had heard in an abusive home while I was young, being recycled in my psyche. Separating these voices in my mind from my own voice became a long-term journey. I was young and just beginning the process of dealing with my internal bully; over the years, various life events and personal actions would cause it to get louder and more persistent.
You may be able to trace some of your toxic chatter back to interactions with people who weren’t kind to you, or who had their own problematic ways of thinking that they said out loud. You may have internalized their words and begun thinking them yourself. It can help you to listen to your thoughts and ask yourself whether these thoughts are actually yours and where the words or the underlying beliefs might have originated.
Being a parent of young children activated even deeper issues for me. I found myself caught in an anger-shame cycle that I needed to interrupt. I began bodywork therapy to help release the chattering bully and the traumas of my past. When I felt especially frustrated, I learned to place myself in a “time out” to let myself experience the pain in a safe way that did not harm my children. Eventually, over several months of therapeutic work and practices, the cruel bully went silent. The chatter in my mind continued on, mostly in the form of an anxious worrier.
When my son started kindergarten, I began taking yoga classes and dabbled with different types of meditation. Yoga helped me focus on my body sensations and my senses. I also loved listening to the sweet and soothing voice of our yoga teacher. I found that guided meditations also supported me because I could focus on the voice of the person speaking. After years of practicing both yoga and meditation, I can now find quiet in my mind and drop into a state of mental silence for a few moments.
During this time period, inner calmness began to be a place I could access relatively easily and stick with longer. I could be fully in the moment, actively listening to my children, feeling the water on my hands as I washed dishes, smelling the soap, and seeing the suds as fluffy beautiful clouds. When I slipped out of the moment, my children were wonderful at interrupting my stream of thoughts. I remember a car ride with my daughter when she was talking to me from the back seat. “Mom, are you actually listening to me or are you listening to the thoughts in your head?” That pulled me right into the moment because I had not, in fact, been listening to her. “No, I wasn’t listening to you. I’m sorry. Yes. I was listening to the blabbering chatter in my head. I can listen now.” It can be useful to find ways to interrupt our patterns of getting swept away by our internal voices, as well as to give others permission to be honest with us if they don’t think we are listening.
Living through a series of rapid-fire crises recently has swept away much of my remaining unkind chatter, partly because in a crisis you have to respond with clear action and the chatter doesn’t have an opening. These crises also ushered in a wider perspective that helps me respond to more minor issues. I don’t sweat the small stuff after several instances of looking death and profound loss in the face.
Some access points to begin discovering and cultivating your fly on the wall include noticing and slowing your breathing, tuning in to your five senses, becoming aware of your surroundings and belongings, observing the comfort or discomfort of your body, tasting your food and drink while eating, moving your body and noticing how that feels, watching your thoughts rise up and fall away, and feeling the sensations in your heart and relaxing and softening into them.
Depending on the persistence, negativity, and intensity of your chatter, it may be a challenge to cultivate your observer within. Most thoughts that arise in your mind aren’t true; they just seem to be because they’re part of stories and patterns that are familiar to you. You could begin by not believing every single thought that enters your mind and by holding your thoughts loosely.
Your pathway to a quieter mind may involve perseverance and creative approaches, but the benefits of a sense of peace, a good night’s sleep, and greater self-awareness are well worth this ongoing journey. As you begin to focus your attention on what’s happening in this moment and be less absorbed by the thoughts in your mind, you can open a door and find joy in the ordinary. This subtle shift can over time transform what you see —the things, the thoughts, the people, and the places. A quieter mind can respond and breathe in this moment of being alive.
Here are some ideas to support you in discovering and cultivating your own fly on the wall:
• Notice how often your thoughts are about the past or the future, neither of which is within your control now. Gently shift to the present and what you can do now.
• Spend time in nature. The outdoors can nourish all of your senses and keep you in the moment, among other unique benefits. Look for places in nature that you can enjoy any time of year—walking paths, parks, gardens, and maybe even your own backyard or neighborhood. Notice how time in nature affects your mood and your efforts to quiet your mind.
• Seek therapy to resolve the trauma, if you’ve experienced abuse or shocking events that are fueling your repeated thoughts. Traditional talk therapy can start the process of moving forward for many people. Alternative therapies can help many people as well. Trauma lodges in the nervous system, and bodywork that addresses that can be helpful.
• Know that there are many types of meditation and available resources, if you want to try it. Guided meditation (which is widely available online at no charge) can be a great way to test these waters, especially if your mind needs to focus on something and tracking your breath isn’t working for you.
• Try brief times (hours or minutes, depending on what works for you) of silence from noise and other sources of mental clutter. Unplug from phones, computers, and other devices; turn off the television, the radio, and other sounds that may distract you from deep quiet. During these quiet times, you might even want to steer clear of reading newspapers and other things that activate your chattering mind. If it would help you to be somewhere else, visit an art museum, a library, or another place designed for quiet reflection. See how you feel after a period of relative silence.
• Notice the people who most trigger your internal chatter and work to see what that might reveal about you. You may choose to limit contact or set boundaries with these individuals. As you feel safer, you can begin to find peace from the inside out.
• If you would find it helpful, imagine the different types of chatter as children or other people on a bus and you as the driver gently or firmly interacting with each of them. You can assure the anxious worrier that you’ve got this, for instance, or encourage the impatient one to breathe and relax. Envisioning your voices this way can reinforce the understanding that you are not your thoughts and you don’t have to act upon them or get swept up in them. Asking questions such as “Is that absolutely true?” can also help quiet the mental clutter.
• Think about which pathways to a quieter mind you might want to try; it’s okay to try several and see what works for you. In a sense, a chattering mind is like a cluttered home, and any steps to cut down on the clutter can lend tremendous clarity.
The founder of Cherish Your World, Laura helps people thrive in the physical spaces where they live and work. She educates people about the optimal arrangement of belongings for comfort, safety, and flow; de-cluttering for freedom; and staging for an efficient and rewarding home sale. Laura knows that the conditions of our homes and workplaces shape the quality of our lives.
Trained and certified with the Western School of Feng Shui and seasoned by more than a decade working with a variety of clients, Laura uses her intuition and expertise to help her clients produce remarkable results in their lives. Her own awakening to the power of feng shui came on the heels of a flood and the realization that she could live with beloved belongings rather than unloved hand-me-down stuff. Feng shui invites us to live with what we love and enjoy our lives. Her trifecta of helping people includes public speaking, writing, and consulting. Laura is a published author of the book Let Go Courageously and Live with Love: Transform Your Life with Feng Shui.
Prior to becoming the founder of Cherish Your World, Laura was a full-time parent and an assistant professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from The Ohio State University. Each summer she competes in a triathlon named after her dad. Her joys in life include parenting, loving her dog, spending time laughing with great friends, running, biking, swimming, dancing, reading, meditating, practicing yoga, and listening to music she loves.
Connect with Laura on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (@laura_cherish)
Love your space, love your life!