Stuck in a rut. Try as you might not to think about what just happened, or didn’t happen but should have, still you can’t let go. Even if you want to let go, and you’re not sure you want to, the “insult” sticks in your head like Velcro.
In your mind, an endless mental vicious cycle of resentment or doubt or regret or anger spins: “She’s always so difficult!” “He doesn’t care about my feelings!” No peace is to be found.
Of course, this endless vicious cycle of thoughts and feelings isn’t restricted to a relationship with a romantic partner, but no one else affects us as powerfully.
What to do? Are we doomed to suffer this mental torture of self and partner, this tyranny of the mind?
Consider this analogy: The stomach secretes stomach acid to help us digest food, but too much stomach acid can cause discomfort and disease. Our brain secretes thoughts and feelings. The brain can overdo it, too, and with severe negative consequences.
There’s one more important part of this analogy: We don’t identify with our stomach acid, but we generally do identify with our thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts and feelings collectively define how we see ourselves. However, that self-identification traps us. Like a caged tiger at the zoo, pacing back and forth behind bars, our thoughts and feelings never rest in this self-made prison.
Upside of mindfulness
Enter the concept of “mindfulness,” which, though having ancient roots in Buddhism, has become in recent years part of the mainstream discussion about mental self-help. What is mindfulness?
There are various ways to describe mindfulness, and books are written on the subject. In short, it’s to realize that you are the observer, the witness, of this mental show and not the mental show itself. It’s a step back, to observe and not get caught up in the fray.
Without judging good or bad, mindfulness is accepting what’s happening right now with full attention. Although you may act on thoughts and feelings as they arise, you are free not to. No cage. They aren’t you.
Mindfulness takes practice, because though fundamentally simple, mindfulness must swim upstream against a current of habits. There are, for example, meditation techniques to help strengthen mindfulness. But mindfulness can be applied when doing the dishes and in our conversations with our partner.
What’s the upside of mindfulness, especially for our romantic relationships? We’ve talked about the tyranny of the mind. Once you depose the tyrant, you can see and hear your partner more clearly. You naturally empathize more, criticize less. (More wag, less bark!) Hear the words and tone, see the facial expression and look deeply into your partner’s eyes. With no desire to interrupt, be fully engaged, listening and watching with your full attention. You’re free to act on thoughts and feelings that are loving and supportive rather than critical or spiteful. You have the power to decide.
Do you want to be the puppet or the puppeteer? You can be the boss.
Nancy Andersen, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, provides counseling for couples and individuals in her Loyola Corners office in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit nancyandersenmft.com.