I recently wrote a short introduction to one of my favorite philosophies, Stoicism, in Choosing A Stoic Approach to Delivery. There, I talked about the initial purpose of Stoicism and why I am choosing to approach the event of delivery with its influence. In this post, I’d like to talk more about what my mental process and practice of Stoicism looks like.
The Clutter: Emotional Tags and Assumptions
In times of chaos and transition, I am prone to getting lost in the emotionally-tagged side of things. Who isn’t? But, with practice, I have found that the most successful combination towards peace through curveballs involves the decision of adopting a stoic mindset prior to the issue and the practice of mindful awareness to maintain it throughout. Much of the confusion, insecurity, anxiety or frustration I experience during times of big decisions or transitions comes from the multiple channels of what will or does this mean? or how will I be judged? and could this decision make my life in the future harder? And often, the multiple streams of conclusions that I arrive to are in the general area of one or two likely outcomes, but rely upon a lot, I repeat, a lot, of assumption. In short, I get overloaded with all of the information I create for myself and become exhausted with pruning it all back in order to make a decision.
In an attempt to free myself from this, I try to avoid the realm of emotional tags and assumptions because they are not connected to reality, as it is, right now. Emotional tags are like bookmarks to a former incident or hearsay that caused an emotional wound. They are reminders of transgressions in the past that do not allow for me to forgive myself or another in order to move forward with the present. Assumption is a fabricated cloud-like imaginary world where there are too many maybes, what-ifs and could-bes that suck emotional energy and time from my life. And together, they can match up to hold my mental process hostage in a past interpretation of reality while attempting to manifest this same mental jail into the future. Why would I ever want that for myself?
Emotional tags and assumptions are not connected to reality, as it is, right now.
Really, I think, (1) if I value my time, and (2) if I have the time to sit and ruminate about every little thing that might happen or that has-happened-once-and-might-happen-again and (3) choose to use my time in this counterproductive way, I’m in possession of a wasted, luxurious tool. Not only am I wasting my time, but I am also creating fictitious obstacles for myself that are emotionally exhausting. I might as well be tossing my $100 bills of time into a campfire and roasting marshmallows over it. And, although I love s’mores, this is a totally inappropriate use of my resource.
(1) If I value my time, and (2) if I have the time to sit and ruminate about every little thing that might happen and (3) choose to use my time in this way, I’m in possession of a luxurious tool, but am not using it wisely. I’m doing quite the opposite.
Clearing the Mental Workspace of Clutter
I consider every bit of information coming into my mind like a piece of paper added onto my mental workspace. Every assumption and emotional tag that I add is a new piece of information that I create to add to the current situation and a new piece of paper I’ve added on top of my desk to have to sort through. When I start to create assumptions or add new information, I wind up with a cluttered workspace very quickly, which makes my workload all the more exhausting. Even if I can discern between emotionally “high priority” pieces of information and truly high priority factual pieces of information, I will have to wade back through all of the papers on my desk to figure out which ones are most important and which ones should be in the wastebasket. What an emotional and mental black hole. I’ve created a higher likelihood to choose a decision that I feel forced into from information that might not even be true. I’ve created a higher likelihood that the pieces of information that need my attention most will be lost or drowned out by other pieces of more emotionally-tagged information. And there I will spend far too much time in complete overwhelm, paralyzed by all of the details. This doesn’t sound like a good work environment at all.
Deciding to adopt a stoic mindset and actively practice mindfulness in this way prevents the cluttering of my mental workspace and saves me time in the long run. First, my thoughts and all incoming information are all placed on a neutral playing field, with assumptions filtered to an emotional neutral if they appear. The thoughts are simply thoughts. And just because one thought appears doesn’t mean that it is necessarily reflective of any particular meaning about me or should have a large decision based upon it.
Now, I have created a nice workspace between all of the information my mind is processing (thoughts, facts, feelings, emotional chaos attached to it all) and the next decision that I am going to choose to make. The stronger and “cleaner” my workspace, the better able I will be to make a decision with a clear head. The clearer my head, I’ve found, the likelier I will be to be happy and confident with my decision that I made because I had the space to clear out the emotional influencers. So now that I’ve cleaned off my workspace, all of the information coming in can begin to be processed and weighed at its appropriate weight. Once I am in a clean workspace, emotionally-tagged pieces of information weigh as heavily as I allow them to. In the same way that I control the volume of the radio in my car, I control the volume knob on the generalized emotional chatter in my mind as well as the emotional volume on specific thoughts.
The clearer my head, the likelier I will be to be happy and confident with my decision that I made because I had the space to clear out the emotional influencers.
Whenever I had read articles in the past, I found it very difficult to imagine mental strengthening exercises or therapeutic processes without an example. So, an easy example to offer is a scenario where I interpret or misinterpret something included in small talk that a doctor might say that I find offensive. Perhaps during our introductory chat, the doctor vocalizes that he or she find something silly that, unbeknownst to me, I find really important. For example: I’m getting an ultrasound and the doctor voices his or her opinion on a political stance that happens to be in direct opposition to mine. This preference doesn’t have any consequence on my current visit to the doctor and has a low, low likelihood of ever effecting my treatment. In this case, my mind wants to sound off and tell me hey, I’m spotting differences here. This person is unlike me.
There is a growing body of evidence in social neuroscience that suggests that our brains are hardwired to identify these in-group, out-group differences. These “red flags” or emotional reactions exist to alert us of potential danger. It is important to recognize our neurobiology’s function, however, it is also important to realize that we are in control of whether we allow our minds to become completely dictated by our brain chemistry as it is today or whether we aspire to adopt other habits to improve our quality of life tomorrow. The improvement of my self-awareness and mental strength is my responsibility, alone. And, in this same breath, perfection is not a requirement of a passing mark. My body cannot currently run a marathon without serious health risks, but if I train, consistently, my body can be there one day. In the same way, I recognize my mental potential and take responsibility for it.
It is important to recognize our neurobiology, however, it is also important to realize that we are in control of whether we allow our minds to become completely dictated by our brain chemistry as it is today or whether we aspire to adopt other habits to improve our quality of life tomorrow.
So now that my brain is bringing this nagging, gut-sinking thought that the very person I trust with my prenatal care is different from me (…and in what other ways? Can I trust them? Would they steer me incorrectly on other issues because they wouldn’t recognize what is important to me?), I have a choice to make. Do I allow this emotional reaction, which is growing into an anxious ball of what-ifs inside of me by the second, to pressure me to change doctors or become insecure from that point forward about his or her advice? Or will I put my thoughts in check and realize that this doctor is competent and I can trust his or her professional opinion aside from an unrelated difference of lifestyle? Essentially, will I choose to trust someone different from me?
Of course, this is a very simplified example and there are some cases where it might be appropriate to change doctors. However, it is important to highlight that in these micro-moments of chaos, a choice is still present. The less cluttered our mental workspaces are, the easier it will be to find the moments of choice and to make a choice. No one likes to feel backed into a corner and what we sometimes don’t realize is that we are the ones backing ourselves into that corner with our thoughts and emotions, providing only one course of direction.
The less cluttered our mental workspaces are, the easier it will be to find the moments of choice and to make a choice.
What are your thoughts? Do you practice mindfulness or mental “workspace cleaning”? Let me know in the comments below!
If you would like more on Stoicism or to get inspiring quotes from the philosophy, read on to My Top 10 List of Stoic Quotes for Mental Clarity.