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Making Friends with Thoughts & Feelings

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

Mindfulness involves being aware of the present, noticing our experiences as they unfold moment by moment, whilst being ok with and accepting these experiences, even if they are unpleasant or difficult. These experiences include our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and sensory experiences. As such, mindfulness practices encourage us to change our relationship to our inner experiences from fighting and struggling against unpleasant or unwanted ones, to making room for them and accepting their presence.

Mindfulness involves noticing & accepting our experience, the good, the bad & the ugly

This may appear counterintuitive at first glance- our natural reaction is often to try to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings when they occur, or to try and block them out. This is the strategy we apply to external world problems and dislikes. For example, if we don’t like the music playing on the radio we turn it off. However when we turn this strategy inwards to our inner experiences such as thoughts, feelings and physical pains we find that this does not work.

Mindfulness is based on the idea that many of our inner experiences cannot be changed, blocked or removed- and actually the more we try to do this the worse these experiences can become. This is because our inner experiences are all designed to aid our survival. Our thoughts are designed to scan our environment for danger, to learn from past experiences and to plan for the future. Our feelings act as messengers, alerting us to a potential danger or unmet needs and preparing us to take action. Physical sensations such as pain warn us of dangers to our body.

Thoughts, feelings & physical sensations are all part of our body’s survival system

These responses developed millions of years ago, back when we were cave people. The dangers and threats to our species during these times were physical in nature, for example rival tribes and wild animals. Our inner experiences helped us to predict and plan for these threats, and therefore tend to err on the side of caution. Our thoughts are more likely to predict a worse case scenario- they operate on the principle ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’. Our feelings can quickly overpower us, for example triggering the fight-flight response in our body. Our physical sensations alert us to damage to the body.

These experiences form our survival system, therefore we wouldn’t want to switch them off (even the more unpleasant ones) because their role in our survival continues to be important. Further, it can be really hard to switch off our thoughts and feelings because they can be very powerful. Because they operate like an alarm warning us of danger they draw us in and pull for our attention. However we can learn to change our relationship to them, bringing a mindful approach to how we pay attention to these experiences.

Paying mindful attention to unpleasant thoughts & feelings can help us to see them as useful allies, rather than a malevolent force

Changing our relationship to thoughts, feelings & physical sensations involves learning to view them as friends or allies, appreciating the job they are trying to do- keep us safe and protect us. We learn to view them for what they are- just mental events and sensations occurring within us, as with our sensory experiences- that we can use to inform our daily lives. Some thoughts and feelings are helpful to listen to, even unpleasant or negative ones, whilst some are unhelpful to listen to, including positive or pleasant ones. For example worry thoughts about an exam may appear negative, however if they encourage us to study and revise then they are very helpful to us. Conversely if we have positive and over-confident thoughts regarding the exam leading us not to revise or study, then these thoughts are unhelpful.

Being more mindfully aware of our inner experiences helps us to notice them as they unfold, allowing them to come and go, whilst distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful thoughts and feelings. This provides us with space to listen to helpful thoughts and feelings and respond to these in ways that improve and enrich our lives, whilst letting go of or making room for unhelpful inner experiences.

Building in daily mindful practices can help to cultivate a mindful attitude towards our inner experiences

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