You see, you may not know this about me, however – when I was in my early twenties I suffered severely from social-anxiety.
I can hear you saying, “Carrie Bell? How is that possible? She is so outgoing, bubbly, and happy – how could she have experienced this?” Well, it’s a true story. And it was a particularly dark period for me.
In college I would have so much anxiety around thoughts like: not being good enough, not being smart enough, not being thin enough, not being good enough at dance (my major), not being worthy enough to be loved, too this, too that. The voices in my head were constant.
They became so debilitating at times that I would actually skip class for fear of having to engage with people. My thinking was, if I had to interact with people they would surely see how different I was, how imperfect I was, how flawed I actually was.
My time period with this anxiety extended for a few years. And, truth be told, when I don’t practice what I am about to share with you in this blog post, I still find myself feeling anxious from time to time.
So, what changed things for me? What helped, and continues to help me stop my negative thinking in its track?
It is when I consider the truth of what is our Ego – and not Ego in the surface sense of “she has a big Ego” – end of conversation. Instead, stepping back and considering the term from a much more contemplative, feeling based place.
Let me explain. There are two ways to think about Ego.
1. Ego as it fits into the spiritual perspective
2. Ego as it fits into the scientific perspective
I was first introduced to the concept of Ego through a spiritual lens. My mother, in all of her wisdom (..shout out to Wendy Bell, hey girl ;) introduced me to a book titled, The Power of Now written by spiritual thought leader Eckhart Tolle.
Let me just pause for a moment – pleeease, if you have not read this book go out and get yourself a copy today – the man is a genius.
How does Mr. Tolle define Ego? He describes ego as our obsessive identification with thought. Meaning, we have a tendency as humans to listen to the thoughts that are taking place in our brain and immediately assume they are true. We identify with them. We personalize them. Then, our thoughts become our stories of who we are.
Now, in science, Ego is defined as the part of the mind that adapts to the real world. How does our mind adapt to the real world? By thinking, of course.
In psychology, thinking is often referred to as rumination, or the “voices in our head,” or our “mind chatter,” or our “internal radio station.” And because a massively disproportionate amount of our thinking tends to be negative (if you missed my blog entry last month – see my post here on our negativity bias), some researchers refer to the voices in our head as our “ANTS” (Automatic Negative Thoughts).
To quickly clarify, I am not saying that thinking is something that is always a bad thing. Our capacity to think is one of the most beautiful, amazing gifts that we have as human beings. When used appropriately thinking helps us to solve problems, to keep ourselves safe and it greatly contributes to our creativity.
Thinking is only problematic when we identify with our thinking, when we label and rigidly judge.
Let me pause – you are doing awesome! This blog entry is becoming a little longer than I originally intended! I honor your commitment to educate yourself so that you can increase the quality of your life.
Onwards! What research shows is that we create our own reality. How do we create our own reality? The voices in our head create beliefs about our reality. You may want to re-read that. :)
Lets look as what the definition of a belief is. A belief is something that you have repeated often, or something that you have convinced yourself is true. Notice that nowhere in the definition is there any indication that a belief is something that is true.
A belief is not a fact.
Knowing this, it is useful to understand that our brains have an attention bias, or what is often referred to as the Velcro and Teflon Effect.
The attention bias states that our brains are constantly scanning the world for evidence that supports our beliefs or does not.
And, when we find a piece of evidence that aligns with our belief, that evidence sticks to us like Velcro and our belief becomes stronger. But, when we discover a piece of evidence that does not align with our belief, interestingly, it falls from us like Teflon.
(If this is interesting to you, ask me about the neuroscience that explains this, it will blow your mind :)
So let’s put this back into context. As I mentioned, one of my many beliefs when I was experiencing anxiety in my early twenties was that I was “not a good dancer.”
Why did I come to this conclusion? Because, I initially had a suspicion, a small belief that perhaps I wasn’t a good dancer. Then my brain began activating its default system (the attention bias) by scanning the world for evidence that supported my belief that I was not a good dancer.
What did I find? That she was more technically advanced than I was – that she was thinner than I was – that she was called upon to demonstrate movement sequences in class and I wasn’t – that she was picking up the style faster than I was. That she.. and on, and on, and on.
Then, all of that evidence I collected which confirmed my belief that I wasn’t a good dancer became part of my regular mind chatter, part of my Ego, it became part of my story about who I was.
I would ruminate over these defeating thoughts all day. And ya know, looking back, I can see so clearly now, and perhaps you can as well, as to how the attention bias was at work.
All of the evidence which proved I was a strong, skilled dancer – the massive amount of growth I was making technically – how I was earning high grades in all of my dance classes – my choreography being selected for adjudication at the American College Dance Festival – the praise I would receive from my peers and professors …and on, and on – I chose to ignore all of that because it didn’t support my belief.
It was as if the constructive, positive evidence didn’t even exist.
This is the attention bias. It is embedded in our psychology. We all have one.
Our brains do not automatically take balanced, full consideration of the good and bad circumstances that happen to us.
Our attention bias – in conjunction with the negativity bias feed our Ego.
So, what is the lesson to learn? Whether you prefer to intellectualize the concept of ego through a spiritual lens, a scientific lens, or both – the point to take home is this:
Just because you think negative thoughts, that doesn’t mean you have to identify with them. The negative way you frame yourself in your mind is not accurate, and it is certainly not who you are.
Who are you? You are the awareness underneath your thoughts. ..a fun, meaningful and very juicy subject for a future blog entry.
As promised, here are some evidence-based strategies that you can apply right now to help you break free from your Ego.
When practiced, these strategies will help you create healthier, more optimistic ways of thinking and they have the potential to drastically increase your self-confidence and resilience.
#1 Identify your barrier thoughts. Journaling is a great practice for this. Create time to write from a pure stream of consciousness. Do not alter or manipulate what you are thinking and just try to “get things off your chest.” You literally write whatever is on your mind. This is a fascinating activity because when you reread what you’ve written you will be able to see your thinking from a new perspective. When you read your own thinking, versus just thinking about your thinking in your head, you begin to recognize patterns and barrier thoughts (negative thoughts about yourself) that you hadn’t noticed before.
#2 Alternate your reality. Practice reframing your thinking. Example: “I’m not a good dancer.” To – “I’m not feeling like the best dancer right now, but I know my work ethic is excellent and that I have come a long way in my ability. I know if I continue practicing I’ll only get better.” Or, “I’m an unattractive person.” To – “although I am not feeling very attractive right now, I know that lately I haven’t been exercising and eating as healthy. In the past when I made those changes in my life, I remember feeling healthy and beautiful/handsome. I know if I make healthier lifestyle choices I will feel much more confident and attractive.”
#3 Practice being the awareness of your thoughts by engaging in mindfulness meditation. Sit down quietly, breath, and focus on your breathing. When thoughts arise, which they will, your job is to simply notice them in a nonjudgmental way. Do not try to direct, follow, or manipulate your thoughts. Just notice them and let them pass, notice them and let them pass. Always returning your focus to your breathing.
Thanks everybody! It is my deepest hope that what I’ve shared here, in some capacity, has added value to your life.
Please feel free to either leave a comment below or write me directly if you need any guidance and/or clarity around the ideas I presented here.
If this is the first time you are hearing any of this, it can be a lot to take in. I am more than happy to talk things through with you!
Until next time you sassy little friend of mine. :)
With love and gratitude,