An artist entering a distinguished MFA program sat overwhelmed on a stool in her university studio staring at the unpromising and unforgiving empty walls. The self-induced pressure to create something magnificent for her instructor’s first review was crippling her creativity. Her troubled mind began to rapidly spiral downward as she questioned her talent and her decision to attend graduate school.
Meanwhile, my 10yo daughter sat dejectedly at the kitchen table staring at her unfinished math sheet while her mind spun stories of self-doubt: I should know how to do this. Everyone else does. I am the only one behind.
Though their ages span decades, their stories are the same: I am not good enough, ergo I cannot do this, though everyone else can. My client and my daughter were both stuck because their troubled mind looped repeat messages of self-doubt. Neither could break free from the incessant, demanding, confidence-crippling chatter.
I call this confidence-crippling chatter a mind trick.
Our brain is like the operating system on a computer - always running in the background. We’re constantly streaming thoughts – appraisal, predictions, comparisons -- about how we see our world. Though the background chatter is always operating, it doesn’t bother us when we perceive the situation as friendly or favorable. The mind-stream only becomes problematic when we believe there is a problem. My daughter’s perceived problem: I cannot look like I don’t know what I am doing. My client’s perceived problem: I cannot look like I don’t know what I am doing. Universal mind trick: I am a failure.
Later that night, while tucking my daughter into bed, tears filled her eyes and she confided in heart-breaking and earnest confusion,
“Mom, my mind is playing tricks on me. I keep hearing the message that I am not good enough at math to be an engineer when I grow up.”
Indeed. Her mind was playing tricks on her. A mind trick is so familiar it feels like a second-skin. It’s also insidiously sneaky, making the trick seem nearly impossible to separate from reality. The trick feels so real, so inevitable.
A mind trick is an illusion that we’re convinced is true. When we believe the trick we get stuck - stuck in a destructive mind loop, and literally stuck, unable to move forward.
Mind tricks begin when we learn language. Without language, we cannot judge, compare, label, project, or interpret our world. We simply experience life through our five senses. As we become socially conditioned, we learn to evaluate and compare. This evaluation starts off innocent: I like blue. I don’t like pink. However, over time the socially conditioned voice in our head grows louder, more insistent and ominous. Here are real examples of socially conditioned mind tricks I heard from clients this week:
An artist: My teacher doesn’t appreciate my work. I am a failure.
A mother: He doesn’t respect me. I push people away.
A partner: I should not have to ask for what I need. I am not loved.
A soul mate seeker: I can’t have it. I am not capable of love.
A soul mate finder: He didn’t choose me. I am not lovable.
Every woman was stuck in her own mind trick. She was also stuck literally.
Artist: I can’t stop judging = I am unable to create
Mother: I can’t stop my anger = I am stuck in a pattern of blame.
Partner: I can’t stop complaining = I am stuck hoping she’ll interpret my complaints and give me what I need.
Seeker: I can’t stop avoiding = I am unable to date.
Finder: I can’t stop second-guessing = I am stuck in my present relationship wondering why the man from my past didn’t choose me.
Every woman knew she was stuck, but she knew neither why nor how to move forward. How do we get unstuck? We must first notice when our mind is playing a trick, and we need look no further than the current stressful situation.
We can use any stressful situation to unravel a mind trick. If we’re suffering, then we believe an illusion. Freedom is always available -- so is captivity.
Step one: Notice suffering and look for the mind trick.
The “why” formula is this easy: Why am I suffering? Because right now I believe a mind trick. The first step is always awareness. You must pause and look for the illusion. Start by asking, what thought is looping through my mind right now? What hurts? Now write these thoughts down.
Step two: Reveal the illusion.
You must pull the trick apart -- pull back the curtain of your mind. Remember how insidiously sneaky these illusions are? Humans automatically believe their thoughts because their habitual-thinking-pattern is unquestioned. The mind trick is only true because it’s familiar, well known, established. The illusion works because rather than pausing to question it, we automatically identify, fraternize, and consort with it. We believe the illusion unquestionably, stroke it like our favorite pet, replay it in a never-ending loop, use it to gain sympathy, rally it to self-motivate. The more we fuel the illusion, the more believable it becomes.
The solution for my daughter and my client is the same: To get unstuck, start questioning. Is it true? This mind trick I am attached to, am I absolutely certain that it’s true?
My daughter’s question became, is it true that my confusion today means engineering is not in my future? My client’s question became, is it true that I need to impress my instructor?
At the end of our session, my client self-acknowledged, “I get stuck when I over think.” She stopped thinking and instead stepped in front of her studio's unforgiving blank wall with charcoal in each hand. As she allowed her body to move without thinking, the charcoal touched the wall leaving the marks of her surrender. Creativity returned. Her self-realization is true for all of us: We get stuck when we overthink. Every time we let go of a mind trick, what comes back to us is freedom.
Our thoughts are the source of our suffering, when we stop engaging, and start questioning, we dismantle them. Thoughts lose their power over us when we realize that they simply appear in the mind. They’re not personal.
The next time you’re stuck, notice your uncomfortable emotions. Tune into your thoughts. Listen to what you’re hearing. If a thought causes suffering, it’s a mind trick. Once you realize that suffering and discomfort indicate a mind trick, you may actually begin to look forward to your uncomfortable feelings. Your anticipation for freedom could change the way you view your life: suffering, chaos, confusion - bring it on for behind the curtain of discomfort is the illusion I no longer need.
Freedom is as close as your own most troubling thought. As Byron Katie, founder of The Work teaches,
“Fear is born only to words believed. Who started all this confusion? You did. Who can end it? Only you.”
Join the conversation: What is your mind trick?