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When Your Mind Becomes Your Prison

Shannon is a passionate individual whose feelings and thoughts tend spill onto the pages, often in the form of poetry and sometimes essays.

Photo by Austin Matherene

Photo by Austin Matherene

Imagine taking a train journey that doesn’t make sense until after the tracks are properly mapped out and followed from point to point. Thoughts are like that. They are funny little creatures that invade the mind, often without warning and often as a seemingly random chain of words connected by memories, feelings, and other stimuli. Sometimes they don’t make sense until they are accurately put together. Some pieces of the track are kept in place, others moved around, and still more are discarded as useless. Eventually, it becomes clear how you can start in one place and end up at a totally unexpected destination.

For me, it was as if my intelligence said, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, you are simply enough just the way you are. With all of your imperfections, past mistakes and those yet to come. You are perfectly imperfect. And that’s okay because that means you’re as human as the next one.” But then I kept finding that I did not actually believe that to the very core of my being because if I did, I would not have been held back or weighted down by the things that created doubt. Each time I felt determined to rise above my fears I second guessed myself, tried to reason with myself, tried to rationalize my own thoughts or reactions, only to find those things were a temporary fix. I managed to quell the anxious thoughts for a while, but then they’d come back in other forms and I’d be going backward.

Then one evening, someone turned on Netflix and the familiar theme song for “Orange is the New Black” came on. For some reason, that night, for the first time, I identified with those lyrics, and it hit me like a sudden two by four right between the eyes. What had been just another theme song suddenly became relevant to me on a personal level. It occurred to me right then and there that my mind had become my own personal prison. “Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard,” or so the song goes. I suddenly understood what I couldn’t see when others used different words to tell me the same thing. I was overthinking, mixing thoughts and issues that should have been separate, and allowing the fear and anxiety connected to those issues to take over, preventing me from taking real steps in any direction.

Maybe it’s true that it’s hard to see the full picture when you’re inside the frame. Now that I’ve managed to step outside of the frame once in awhile, I see that I am finally embracing things on an emotional level that I had previously only embraced on an intellectual level. Perhaps ironically, doing so has allowed me to see how my very thoughts also controlled my emotions, preventing me from maintaining a healthier outlook on a consistent basis. The following tips are things I learned along this journey that are now keeping me rolling forward more often than I go backwards, even when my path may seem a little unconventional.

Taking Steps Is Easy, Standing Still Is Hard

Think of all the roads. Think of all their crossings. Standing still is easy. Taking steps is hard.

— Regina Spektor

Fear Is a Liar

Fear slowly takes over like an insidious infection, causing paralysis until it convinces us that standing still is easier than moving forward. In reality, standing still is much harder because nothing changes. Fear says something can’t be done. It says that circumstances can’t change for the better. It says that other people cannot be trusted. Fear tries to say that any road of change taken is the wrong one.

Recognize the Problem

A foggy mind makes it difficult to make out what the obstacles are, and all of those things looming in front of you and in the distance can be overwhelming. Taking time to clear the fog allows you to focus on the actual problem. For instance, fear is not the same thing as anxiety, yet one can easily masquerade as the other. However, the two emotions also often go hand in hand. The difference is that anxiety is more like intense worry over an anticipated threat. It can be a vague threat and it can be a threat that may or may not come to pass. Whereas fear is a response to an immediate threat. Anxiety also tends to involve irrational thinking, which can create feelings of unnecessary fear.

Think Positive

Maybe the train you’re riding hits an unexpected patch of fog and seems like it may go off the Or maybe it does go off the rails. Either way, it’s okay. You can focus on the fear at hand, on the what-if anxiety inducers, or you can choose to look for and then focus on the light, those things that are good. They don’t have to be spectacular. It’s fine if what you find is merely okay, so long as you aren’t stuck on the worst. Thinking positively seems like an obvious solution, but it’s sometimes easier said than done. However, focusing on the positive

Don't Overthink

Overthinking can be like over-correcting the steering wheel just before a crash. The more you panic, the more you are likely to just jerk the wheel, causing an unwanted chain of events. Or you may be so struck by indecision that you remain there like a deer in the headlights waiting for the inevitable collision with disaster. The best possible outcome usually comes from calmly steering with the problem until it straightens itself out and a crisis is averted..

Remember You Are Not Alone

Relationships sometimes seem like they grow and then snap like brittle twigs, breaking when the slightest pressure point is bent. People are often fickle that way. But you know the old adage, you find out who your friends truly are when you hit your low points. And even when it feels like it, you are never alone. A loss of a few twigs and branches here and there makes room for new growth. If you have to, go in search of that new growth. There is always someone somewhere willing to show compassion and understanding. Even better, be the one willing to offer someone else a hand to help them up off the floor.

People don't change their behavior unless it makes a difference for them to do so.

— Sharon Stone

People Can Change

In the words of Sharon Stone, “people don't change their behavior unless it makes a difference for them to do so.” With the exception of certain diseases that alter the mind or physical appearances, people can almost always help the way they are. Every day we make a choice to accept our flaws or to work on changing them. We can embrace the fact that we are not perfect and still work on changing certain personality flaws we no longer wish to live with. But only if we want to.

Find the Right Person to Talk To

It’s nice to have someone to talk to when we’ve slipped into a black hole. But do that with caution. I gladly took in words of advice offered, along with all the criticism. It wasn’t all constructive criticism either. Let me repeat that. I took it all in. All of it. And as I did so, I compared myself to my friends, to random acquaintances, to peers close to my age, to those younger, and mostly to those older. I wondered things like do they really have it as together as they seem? How old were they when they got it, whatever it is. That secret to staying positive and being genuinely content with life all of the time. I thought and I thought some more. Constantly over-thinking until I wore myself out. I had this idea of who I was and who I wanted to be, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was holding me back. Things went a lot more smoothly when I decided that if I was going to talk to anyone at all about my troubles, I didn’t have to take in any negativity that wasn’t constructive to the cause. Sometimes that means finding a different person to speak with.

Forgive Yourself Often

To quote a wise friend, “We’re all f***ed up.” We must understand that no matter how hard we try, we all screw up from time to time. We all make mistakes. If we are quick to forgive someone that we love for a mistake, why not be as quick to forgive ourselves for being human. It’s even worth forgiving those monumental mistakes that take much longer to overcome. When we truly love someone, we eventually learn to forgive and make amends. If we are capable of loving others that much, why not love ourselves just as much? Forgive yourself because you love yourself. It’s vital. So vital that your nervous system reacts to your contempt. Release it.

Ride Again

While riding the rails of life, the trip is often smooth and beautiful. It is also lined with twists and turns that can sometimes wreak havoc on the serenity of it all. But it's during the chaos that we find out what we're made of, and it's what we do after the disasters and near misses that matters in the end. Make a choice to either rise above the ashes or to stay buried beneath the rubble of a troubled catastrophe. I choose to ride again.

Fall In Love With Your Self


© 2020 Shannon Henry

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