What does a highway have to do with mental health? To me, it signifies growth. Read on, and you will understand why. I often learn something new and decide to make a change in my life only to self-sabotage in the coming days/weeks/months; usually, it only takes days. Then once I’ve sabotaged my progress, I berate myself, feel guilty, unworthy and like the positive change I was trying to implement hasn’t worked because I’m not good enough.
For me, these self-limiting beliefs usually revolve around my body image, alcohol consumption, and my communication style/relationships. They involve me not being good enough and not being liked by people because of it.
I’ve been learning about the brain and the mind and how they have both separate yet inseparable roles. You can think of the brain as the whole body control system which controls your breathing, circulates your blood and ensures your safety in the world and your mind as the conscious operator which runs your thinking, feeling and wanting.
Our minds craft our thinking based on the sum total of our life experiences, which is why everyone thinks so wildly different. No two people have had the same life experiences; therefore, no two minds are the same. Your childhood, your relationships, your friendships, the way you were parented, your trauma experiences, your education, your career choices and your external influences are among some of the things that will craft your thinking patterns, and your thinking drives your behaviour.
We all experience healthy and unhealthy thinking patterns – whether we have identified them or not is another story. Even when we have identified them, it doesn’t mean we can flip a switch on those we deem “bad” and forever think differently. The reality is there is no “bad” thinking. Unhealthy thinking causes us stress and triggers behaviours we don’t like to play out. When this unhealthy thinking & behaviour loop repeats and doesn’t positively serve us, it can be incredibly distressing. This is the thinking we want to rewire.
Oprah & Dr Perry – you can check it out here. Dr Perry describes improving thinking like this: If problematic thinking is like a dirt road, the point of therapy is to build a 4 lane highway next to your dirt road. You can’t delete or get rid of the dirt road entirely, it’s a part of you that will exist forever, but you need to learn to spend less time on it.
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I like to think of it that way because it allows space not to try and shake a part of you off, feel embarrassed about it or dissociate from it; rather, you can see it and know it’s there and choose not to use it. If you do end up on it by accident, you shift into the 4WD mode with a pinch of self-compassion and a dash of self-care and zip back onto your shiny new highway and carry on as quick as you can.
From what I can tell, the inner growth work we do is to reduce the amount of time and suffering it takes us to realise we are on the dirt road and get off of it and back on the highway. That’s the whole point of being mindful, staying present and realising in real-time what you’re experiencing, implementing the tools you’ve learned and got back to baseline.
For a while now, I’ve had a merry-go-round in my mind concerning alcohol. Have a glass, don’t have a glass, do dry July, don’t do it etc.… I make a decision on a Monday to only have alcohol on weekends, but then on Wednesday, I’m triggered by something stressful, and wine is the go-to numbing tool. Then when I wake up the next morning, the cycle of berating myself, feeling guilt and hang-xiety is ever-present. I’m still only talking about 2 glasses of wine; it’s not the amount that triggers the self-loathing; it’s the perceived weakness because I gave in to the monkey mind.
It’s the same when people are trying to exercise x amount of times per week but end up not meeting the target or when you’re not eating processed sugar but have a sneaky biscuit from the staff room at that 3 pm smoko break or don’t meet work deadlines because you’ve chosen to binge a Netflix series instead. Knowing you’ve made a decision or a commitment and then breaking it. This is where the unhealthy self-talk and the self-limiting beliefs come in. I didn’t achieve my goal because I’m: lazy, useless, not good enough, a quitter … insert a billion other reasons that your mind cycles through here.
So now that we know the difference between the brain and the monkey mind, we know we can’t compare our thinking to any other person on the planet because we have all had different experiences; comparing is futile. We also know that our thinking drives our behaviour, so how can we maintain healthier thinking patterns and dump the crappy ones that aren’t serving us?
We start building that fancy highway!
We do the Mahi on ourselves. We start pebble by pebble at first, and then we start dumping loads of premium asphalt on that road and jump in the roller to smooth it down. We plant along the berm and make it a happy place to be. We see the old dirt road, and we leave clear, obvious paths from that old dirt road to enter the new fancy highway in case we get lost at some point.