Breaking Free from Toxic Thoughts: The Path to Mindful Living and Inner Peace

Breaking Free from Toxic Thoughts: The Path to Mindful Living and Inner Peace
Photo by Fabian Møller / Unsplash

No matter how painful it may be to admit it, we all have things that we don't like about ourselves. Ironically, being aware of something that you don't like about yourself is actually a great thing because then you're in a position to change it. Unfortunately, a lot of us are unaware of the parts of our lives and personalities that could use improvement. Some of us are born with the gift of self-awareness but for others, it's something that we've had to cultivate. Personally, I've always felt like I've had high emotional intelligence but meditation led me to practicing mindfulness and practicing mindfulness has allowed me incredible insights about myself, what I think, and why I behave the way that I do. Having a fragile ego made it really difficult for me to take criticism because I'd based a large part of my identity in this inflated sense of self. My large ego also made me blind to a lot of the toxic habits and behaviors that I'd developed over time. When I started to meditate, I developed a different quality of awareness about myself and my surroundings. I began to think before I spoke and magical things started to happen to me. I began to notice the patterns that had been repeating in my life up until that point. I had to face a lot of things in myself that I didn't want to face like the fact that I felt empty and the fact that I often manipulated people to try and cure that emptiness. But I noticed that even though it was difficult to face these truths, facing them gave me a certain sense of power. Yes, it hurt to look at myself critically but it also gave me hope because now that I knew about the things in me that I didn't like, I could work to change them! I used to hate feeling so controlled by the things that other people did and said to me. Especially if I felt like they were trying to push my buttons to intentionally to get a reaction out of me. But that's where the magic of mindfulness really shines.

Being mindful taught me that just because someone wants to get a reaction out of you, that doesn't mean you have to comply.  Just because someone approaches you with negativity, that doesn't mean that you have to reciprocate negativity back.  By practicing mindfulness I've gained so much more control over my emotions and how I react to circumstances. I can honestly say that I don't have toxic people in my life anymore but I don't think that it's because they became less toxic – I think it's because I became less toxic. It's because these days I have an awareness of my emotions and the energy that I exude and I'm very particular about how I allow that energy to be used. These days, I'm mindful of the things I say and of the things that I do. These days, I'm especially mindful of the thoughts that I think because thoughts are where everything begins. And if we can learn to better control our thoughts, we can certainly learn to better control our lives.

Rene Descartes said "I think, therefore I am" showing that even in the 17th century, we worshipped our thoughts and identified who we are with what we think. Human thinking is responsible for some pretty incredible things from placing man on the moon to the mass production of Reese's peanut butter cups so I can totally see why people would obsess over their thoughts.  But the truth about thoughts is that they are not always good or helpful. Sure, you could spend most of your thinking time on useful thoughts like trying to develop a cure for cancer but most of us take regular breaks from trying to solve the world's biggest problems in order to enjoy some lower quality thoughts from time to time. These lower quality thoughts come in the form of worry, fear, self-loathing, anxiety, gossip, hatred, envy, or maliciousness just to name a few. What's worse is that most of us don't have nearly the amount of control over ourselves or our thoughts as we think that we have. I used to think that I was a great listener but practicing mindfulness showed me that I had a ton of room for improvement. I began observing my conversations with others and I noticed that I have a habit of cutting the other person off when conversing. 

It was really difficult for me to listen to the entirety of what the other person had to say – typically because I felt like I already knew what they were going to say and it was going to be wrong. I noticed that in most of my conversations with others, I listened with the intent to respond – I listened with the intent to control the conversation and have it end in my favor. While my ego has absolutely no problem with seeking to "win" every interaction I have with another person, my soul grew tired of always trying to best people. My soul only wanted to love people, not beat them, and that's what allowed mindfulness to show me the error in my ways. I've learned that just because I can manipulate or take advantage of people, that doesn't mean that I should. Just because I sometimes feel like I'm intellectually superior to some, that doesn't mean that the thoughts they have or the words that they say have any less value than mine regardless to my ego trying to convince me otherwise.

A wise woman once said "misery loves company" and I've learned that like misery, negativity needs negativity to exist so the negative people in your life only exist as a result of your own negativity. Consequently, the only way to rid negativity from your life is to rid negativity from yourself and the only way to rid negativity from yourself is to be mindful and notice it when it arises within you so that you can be aware of what triggers it. It may not seem like it now but YOU are the biggest reason that there are so many negative people in your life because without you feeding into their negativity, it wouldn't be effective and they would eventually tire of trying to be negative towards you or just go find someone else that will participate in their negativity. But when you give a negative person what they want, which is a reaction, you are reinforcing their behavior. You are renewing the lease that they have over your life each time that you react to their negativity by trying to out-negative them. I know very well the sometimes overwhelming desire to "put someone in their place" after you feel like they've disrespected you but it's a trap! Especially when your ego is as big as mine and even the littlest of things feel like disrespect. You can never win by fighting negativity with more negativity because in order to be negative, you have to sacrifice your own joy. Sure, it may feel great to say something hurtful (but true) to someone in order to "win" an argument but in order to say something hurtful, you have to allow yourself to first become angry, resentful, or vindictive. And while that anger may bring you pleasure for a moment, you have still lost because you've allowed someone else to be a dictator over your mood. 

Mindfulness provides an opportunity at freedom for those willing to try it, though. Mindfulness allows us to recognize that we shouldn't take anything personally because most people act and make decisions based on their own limited perspective about things. Mindfulness allows us to recognize that most emotions are suggestions, not demands, and just because we feel anger arise within us, that doesn't mean that we have to give in to it and hurt others because of it. Mindfulness allows us to understand that people try to hurt us because they are hurt and the only way to "win" in those situations is by trying not to hurt the other person back. Mindfulness is what allowed Gandhi the wisdom to understand that "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."

Mindfulness, at it's root, is awareness. Practicing mindfulness is practicing not being controlled by circumstances or the things that people say or do. Mindfulness is not being snarky in that email response even though you feel like the original sender was being snarky towards you. Mindfulness is not going to the sweets section of the grocery store if you know that you're trying to cut back on sweets. Mindfulness is not texting your ex just because you're lonely because you understand that you're only lonely for a moment and that it will pass. Mindfulness is getting your lunch prepared the night before so in the morning, you won't have to rush to get it done or even worse, skip making it and eat fast food instead. Mindfulness is making a full assessment of what is happening in the current moment and then responding to that assessment with love and understanding instead of fear. A lot of us ruin our own blessings and then blame everyone else for it because we lack the strength to accept responsibility for not being happy with our lives. But being mindful immediately improves our lives because it gives us back control so that we can stop being puppets that are manipulated by external circumstances.

So, I implore you to spend less time thinking about how you've been wronged and more time thinking about what you're thinking about. Make honest evaluations of your thoughts and ask yourself "is me thinking this serving me or anyone else?" If the answer is "no", work to think those kinds of thoughts less frequently. Not only will you be doing the world a great service by being more mindful of your thoughts, you will have taken the first step to learning more about who you really are and learning to accept that person fully.