The Monsters in Our Heads
When my oldest son was 3, there was a period of time where he woke in the middle of the night screaming in terror. My husband and I would rush in and find him pointing to "bad guys with antlers," crying, “Do you see them, Mommy? They are against the wall!” My initial instinct was to say what most parents would say, “Honey, there are no such thing as monsters.” My second instinct was to do what some psychologists would do, anxiously consult the DSM-5 for symptoms of early childhood psychosis.
The Dark Side of Control
At the time, I was also practicing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In contrast to traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where therapists teach clients to dispute or distract from their “maladaptive thinking,” ACT helps clients step back from their thoughts and hold them lightly. In fact, research suggests that actively trying to manage our mind often causes more harm than good. According to the 'ironic processes theory' (Wegner, 1994), the more we attempt to suppress our thoughts, the stronger our unwanted thoughts and behaviors rebound (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
My son's monsters were not that far off from what we live with in our heads every day. As Michael Singer writes in The Unteathered Soul, "In case you haven't noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops." All day long our minds chatter about ourselves and the world. You can notice this right now. There are two of you reading this blog. You, (1) the reader, and (2) your mind who has a running commentary about the blog, the email you need to respond to, what you are making for dinner, etc. In addition to never shutting up, our minds have a negativity bias (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). Our nervous systems have evolved to be, as Rick Hanson states, "like velcro for negative experiences but teflon for positive ones."
Buddha described the human mind as full of chattering monkeys, jumping around, pointing to all the things that are wrong, crying for our attention. When there is no space between ourselves and these monkey thoughts, we become what 3rd wave psychologists call "cognitively fused".
According to Russ Harris, in the state of cognitive fusion our thoughts:
1) seem to be the literal truth
2) are rules that must be obeyed
3) are important and require our full attention
4) are threatening events that we must eliminate
How can we approach our disobedient minds, AND the monsters in our children's rooms in a way that won't make things worse? With cognitive defusion we step back from our thoughts and recognize as, Tara Brach stated in her May 2015 workshop, thoughts are "real but not necessarily true." With space between ourselves and our thinking, we have the flexibility to choose the thoughts that are helpful and in line with our values. There are numerous effective cognitive defusion strategies.
My favorite are:
(1) Labeling Thoughts: Describe a thought as simply a thought: "I am having the thought that..."
(2) Choosing Thoughts: Ask, "Is this thought in the service of my values?" or "Is this thought watering the seeds I want to grow in my life?"
(3) Annoying Roommate: Imagine you have an unruly roommate in your mind that narrates your life. He comments and bickers with you because it gives him a false sense of control and predictibility. Attempting to evict this roommate may be as effective as evicting Micheal Keaton in Pacific Heights. Instead, you can pull up a couch for for your roommate, allow him to be there but not run the show. Find another chair for yourself, one that is centered in pure awareness, and from this space, become a skillful observer whose actions are determined by your values, not by what your roommate dictates.
After many nights of 3 am monsters with my son, we decided to take a paradoxical approach. What if we welcomed the monsters in? They don't seem to want to go away and fighting them is keeping us all up at night (not in line with my value of sleep!)
So, we suggested to my son, "Maybe you should ask the bad guys what they want from you."
He responded, "They are hungry!"
"What do you think monsters eat?"
"I think they eat cereal!"
We then proceeded to walk my preschooler to the kitchen and fill a bowl of cereal. We left the cereal outside of his door for the monsters (where they wouldn't bother him with loud chewing). For the next week or so, before bed, my son would place a bowl of cereal outside his door. The monsters kept coming, but after a while they didn't bother him anymore because they got what they needed--to be acknowledged for what they were--just hungry monsters. And, my son? He stopped waking up. Because he got what he needed--acknowledgment and loving presence when he was afraid. What if we treated our own selves with such compassion?