Most people have become knowledgeable about the hot topics in our culture: weight, time, stress and money management. They've taken a course, read a book or spoken to others about these issues. Yet, many people never consider one type of management that has terrific long-term benefits. That topic is mind management. Have you ever taken a course on managing your mind? Or read a book on learning how to think?
If you haven't, you may very well be thinking in ways that are better geared to solving childhood problems than adult problems. Do you remember how you thought about the world when you were a kid? Like most youngsters, you probably thought in all-or-nothing terms. You were good or bad, did something right or wrong, were in the "in" group or the "out" group. Fairy tales optimize this black-and-white thinking and the "happily ever after" endings contribute to a simplistic type of thinking.
Mind management skills must be learned, updated and revised as you chart your life course and meet new challenges. Thinking is using your mind in a creative and effective manner. In contrast, obsessing is having your mind excessively preoccupied with a single thought that you can't let go of. Obsessing starts with point A, then double backs on point A over and over, spinning out of control, until you finally arrive at the exact same place you began. This is not merely an unproductive process-it's counter productive. Learning how to think about an issue rather than obsess about it is not easy. However, once you learn how to do it, it's not as difficult as you might imagine.
Another type of futile thinking is getting stuck in paralysis of analysis. Despite much researching, ruminating and planning, you may find that you're not really making decisions or taking forward-going action. Paradoxically, the more analysis you do, the more you muddy the waters. It's possible that you've mistaken more thinking for better thinking. Don't assume that extending the analysis of data on and on will necessarily produce a better outcome. All analyses reach a point of diminishing returns, and some good decisions take place relatively quickly, based as much on thoughtful intuition as on meticulous assessment of endless data.
Most of us grow up thinking that what we assume to be true is, in fact, true. We don't realize that people construct a reality that is not objective. Rather, it is based on our family, culture and religion, our predispositions, our learned biases, our experiences, and, last but not least, the people with whom we associate. We actively interpret the world in a way that we consider "natural." Anything different from the way we think is then considered "unnatural," "alien," "weird," "wrong" or just plain "stupid." The way you interpret an experience is called "framing." Actively changing your interpretation is called "reframing." Reframing is good for your mental health, your personal growth and a great way to counteract the tendency to become rigid in your thinking.
Until a generation ago, most people assumed that they couldn't control the outcome of many of life's events. People accepted that events simply occurred; you didn't make them happen. Today, because we really do have more control over our lives, we feel anguished when we can't control our fate. If you can free yourself from expecting that the outcome must always be in your favor, your fears will diminish. This doesn't mean that you should become indifferent to what happens. Rather, it means that you make decisions and take actions that you think will work out well, but also accept the fact that you can't force specific events to happen, nor can you always be in control.
It's easy to say, "Just relax," but for many people, that's a really tough thing to do. However, it's still a great goal to pursue. If you can attain a relaxed state of mind, you're less likely to fall into repetitive, obsessive thought patterns. With a mind that's tight and tense, it's hard to unwind or enjoy yourself. How can you relax your gray matter? One way is to shift the focus from what's threatening to what's exciting or promising about a situation. Of course, you may not be able to help it if a fearful thought pops into your mind, but you can learn to develop control over how long that thought stays there.
Learning how to manage your mind can be of tremendous assistance to you as you cope with life's dilemmas and choices. Franklin D. Roosevelt summed it up when he said, "People are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds."
Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is the author of "Master Your Fears: How to Triumph Over Your Worries and Get On With Your Life" (Wiley; 2004). She is a psychologist and motivational speaker who specializes in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns. Visit www.psychwisdom.com, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (516) 791-2780.