Rather than living in our head, immersing oneself in bad news or sinking into obsessive analysis or beating our self up with self-criticism, we can “step out of thought” to give our self a break. That is taking a mental step back from unhelpful thoughts where we mentally create a space between our self and our thoughts, becoming a fly on the wall, watching our self having the experience like in a movie, seeing our self as the experiencer. In this way, we reduce the sting of the thoughts, ease the emotions and gain perspectives.
In stepping out of thoughts we are able to access our compassionate observer, that is observing our thoughts with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. When we step out of thoughts we invite awareness and open to a more spacious space where our emotions are not so raw. We become aware in a conscious intentional way. We let go of the painful thinking processes, we slow down, we become quiet inside, we gently open to an inner space that is wise, seeing anew, gaining clarity. Here, we remind ourselves that thoughts are just thoughts! They are not facts. They may feel true but they are not real! We don’t need to be at war with ourselves. We are more than our thoughts, we can step back and become the observer.
Stepping out of thought begin with the intention to be present and aware. We pause, we stop to breathe intentionally, observing, creating a space between us “the observer” and the “critical mind”, recognising thoughts as mental events, mental processes, pulling away again and again in different ways until it becomes easier.
Often, we automatically engage with unpleasant, unhelpful critical thoughts and fuse with them as they induce strong emotions of fear, anger, sadness and shame. We feel stuck, helpless, it is as if there is nothing we can do and because we feel so bad we can conclude that we are bad! Not helpful! This leads us into states of depression and anxiety. We can make the conscious decision not to take this train of thoughts. Stepping out of thoughts is when we wake up to the present moment, again and again, being the observer, defusing from the stories that we keep repeating to ourselves that keeps on provoking difficult emotions.
At times our thoughts can be very sticky and intrusive. Our rumination demands all of our attention, hence, takes control of our mind. We feel compelled to embark on a train of our thoughts that triggers strong emotions! Totally normal… totally not your fault! This is what it is like to have a human brain totally fused with your thoughts. As you realise this you can say: “I don’t like this thought”, “I want this thought to go away”, “I should not have this thought”, “There is something wrong with me because I have this thought”. You can try to resist further by saying “I can’t stand this”, “I hate feeling this way”, “It is my fault”, “I am defective”, “I am so bad”, “I am wrong” and so on. Resisting, debating, fighting with the thoughts is not helpful either! There is another way!
How to develop the muscles of “stepping out of thoughts”:
• Stepping out of thoughts is in the practice of mindfulness: being present, in the here and now, being aware of your body, the breath, the sole of your feet, using your senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste to ground yourself back into the present moment. It is like a muscle, it needs practice and when you stop practising the muscle go flabby!
• You learn to step out of thoughts in any exercises or activities where you intentionally pay attention, where you intentionally direct your mind become mindful such as mindful awareness of the breath, body scan, mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful movement, mindful shower, mindful driving and so one
• Each time you are observing your mind wandering and then come back to your intentional point of focus you are practising stepping out of thoughts…
• Every time you pause or stop to become aware, coming out of automatic or auto-pilot, you are practising stepping out of thoughts, pulling away from your default mode network, giving yourself a chance to choose again… to problem solve in an intentional way…consciously…Becoming the observer of yourself the experiencer!
Other ways to step out of thoughts:
*Explore body sensations associated with the thoughts
You can step back and see your thought for what they are “just thoughts”, “just mental events”, “not real” peeling away the thoughts, ungluing yourselves from automatic habitual unproductive critical thinking. In the moment when you decide to step out of thoughts, you become present. You can stop overthinking by becoming aware of the body, of your senses, you begin to watch your thoughts by being discerning between what is helpful and what is not so helpful. In this way, you can consciously direct your thinking in ways that are true, helpful, kind and pointing to solutions.
As you become aware in the moment of specific unhelpful thoughts, you can pause calmly, stopping yourselves from thinking this way by gently turning the spotlight of your attention away, paying attention to your body becoming curious with kindness, feeling the sole of your feet, noticing your breath, breathing out a long exhale, then exploring how these thoughts express themselves in your body, finding areas of the tightness, heaviness, in the body. As you notice this, you can say to yourselves: “isn’t interesting!” becoming more grounded in our body, in the present. Then you can start practising some self-compassion by validating your difficulties, turning to yourself with kindness. Asking “what would I say to a friend who was experiencing something like that?” What can I say to myself that is reassuring, comforting and encouraging about this?”
Stepping away from those intense, demanding thoughts and feelings by exploring what is happening in your mind, body and surrounding. Becoming the observer, investigating asking yourselves in an accepting way: What I am thinking now? What is the story? What is the emotion here? Then labelling it gently to yourselves like we would acknowledge it for a friend. Saying something like: “overthinking” or “this is fear”, “this is anger”, “this is shame”, “this is grief”, naming whatever is there for you. Stepping away, becoming the observer, labelling it… maybe adding … “this is what it is like to feel this emotion”. And in doing so realise that you are more than those thoughts, you are more than those feelings. This is only one part of you that is feeling and thinking this. There is another part of you that is observing, that is the witness who is free of those thoughts and emotions.
*It will pass!
Noticing the intensity of the thoughts and feelings, like waves peaking and receding, coming and going. Emotions have a limited lifespan. They are chemical reactions creating chemical storms in your brain and body. If you become the gentle, patient, kind observer, the emotion and thoughts will ease on their own after 5, 10, 20 minutes. They are like the weather, they come and go. And if you don’t feed them with resistance and judgments or add layers of other emotional reactions they will pass.
You can step back allowing, comforting, reassuring, not resisting or actively pushing/fighting those feelings or thoughts or sensations away. You hold them gently, you sit with them, breathing calmly slowly, until they go away on their own, having confidence that they will not overwhelm or engulf you. You remain aware that you can step out of it, they do not define you holding them with kindness, asking what is this thought or this feeling wanting or needing?
Noticing the intensity while accepting, exploring, allowing the thoughts, sensations, feelings, knowing that it will pass in time, skilfully gently directing your attention elsewhere. Grounding yourselves in the breath or sensation of feet on the ground, finding something in your surroundings to focus on until the storm passes. You may also tell yourselves some reassuring words such as: “May I make peace with this”, “May I be strong”, “May I accept myself as I am”, “May I see the good in me”, “ May I be happy”, “May I have ease of being”, “May I thrive and flourish”.
*Defusing from thoughts: shifting your thoughts
You may have some thoughts like: “I am stupid”. This thought can become: “I think I am stupid”, then defusing, stepping out further: “I am observing that I am thinking that I am stupid”. In shifting your thinking in this way, each time you create more space between yourself and your thoughts allowing for more perspective such as: “there are times when I do stupid things, but also I have done some clever things in the past”, “I have had successes and failures”, “Everybody experiences setbacks”, “I can learn from my mistakes”, “I can improve on my actions”, “What can I do next time to do better?”
*Creating an image of stepping back, stepping away. Imagining a safe place, at the beach, in a garden, a room in your house, a favorite chair, or on top of a mountain. Or finding a still quiet place in your body, in your breath where you can find refuge. You can also imagine yourself as a giant, huge, immense, or your mind become vast like the blue sky and then reconsider the thought, emotion and situation. In this way you allow what is there to be as it is, you make room for it.
*Shift from general negative view of self to specific behaviours. The intrusive thoughts that are difficult to peel away are often thoughts of harsh inner criticisms, attacking you as a person to the core, making you feel worthless, inadequate and defective associated with deep feelings of helplessness. For instance, you feel guilty about being late for an appointment, which escalates to feeling shameful, thinking you are such a bad person for being late and maybe even deserve to be punished for it. The simple mistake of being late escalates into thinking that you are a total failure which engenders feelings of deep shame. This is very painful!
As you step out of thought, becoming the compassionate and wise observer, you can start to realise that the inner criticism started specifically about being late, so you go back in your mind to specifically ask why you were late and try to figure out some resolve on how next time you can be more on time. You become aware of how your mind catastrophizes, exaggerates and generalises so you can effectively problem-solve. So instead of thinking “I am a mistake” you switch to “this is a mistake” and “how can I do better next time?”
*Self-distancing and compassionate letter writing exercise
This is an exercise where you observe yourself as another person. Here mentally, you take a step back to visualize yourself having the experience as another person saying something like: “this is happening to …..(name yourself). And then as a friend, you can inquire as to what is happening to this person and their reaction. Not so much asking “why” because then there is a need for justification but more describing what is going on for this person(which is you). You can also ask what would comfort/reassure/encourage this person, what does he or she need right now and what would this person like to achieve and what is the plan to achieve this. In doing this you step out of your usual ways of dealing with thoughts and emotions by creating some distance which helps you to ease the emotions while giving you greater perspective. You can also write to yourself a letter from the perspective of a compassionate friend who is wise, understanding and supportive.
*“Watching thoughts” practice
I would invite you to try an exercise on watching your thoughts. Close your eyes for a moment, have a sense of your posture, your feet touching the ground, become aware of your breath…and then after a few breaths, having stabilised your mind ask yourself… being curious… “what will my next thought be?... And then watch your thoughts as they arise… notice the content of your mind… where your attention goes… the thoughts that arise…quick, fleeting, varying in duration and intensity. When you have done this for a few minutes come back to the awareness of your breath and your body. This is a good practice where you intentionally observe your thoughts without engaging with them and simply practice noticing.
Overthinking, analysing, ruminating, obsessing is a strong habitual way of thinking maintain by the strong painful emotions that they cause. Key is becoming aware, to pause, cultivating a warm and compassionate presence to ourselves that is simply observing with kindness. To step out of thoughts is to end the war within, to become the gentle caring witness of our lives. Here we identify with being an observer that is aware, wise and kind to gain more balance and well-being.
Copyright © 2015 Bloomfield Psychology | Responsive Web Design & Development by PCD