By Melisa Luymes
Over the last few years, my February columns have been the hardest to write, both because I’ve written about mental health and because I’m writing from the middle of my own winter slump. But let’s just continue the tradition, shall we?
I’ve been getting some projects done around the house and one evening I cut and installed chair rail trim alone, and in an old house without square corners. It was immediately obvious that this was a job for two people, but I persisted even as my patience with myself grew thinner and the cursing got louder. When I cut an eight-foot piece too short by a quarter inch, it was the last straw and I just lost it on myself.
After a few moments I sat on the floor and started to tear up. “You’re so mean,” I replied quietly to myself.
I could feel there were at least three parts of myself having an argument on the floor. There was a perfectionist part needing the trim to look good, an impatient part that just wanted the job done and an independent part that didn’t want to ask for help. And they all had a point.
But even more interesting was the fact that I could take a step back and just watch my thoughts, observing the three (or more) characters fighting it out, not even sure which one was me.
Many years ago, a therapist had explained to me how we have many parts to ourselves and, like actors on a stage, they come out for their roles as required. Sometimes a certain actor can dominate a scene or go off script and ruin the whole show.
“So, I have multiple personality disorder,” I joked. My therapist didn’t laugh. (No, that is serious.) People naturally have these different parts or archetypes within us. And none of these characters are really us. If anything, the real us is the director of the play, the one that can observe the thoughts.
“Don’t believe everything you think,” someone once told me (and it’s the title of a great book too!) Our minds are not reliable narrators. How we see the world is not how the world really is. And goodness, isn’t that a relief?! Because our thinking is the main source of our suffering.
This isn’t a new philosophy, and I recently went down a wee rabbit hole about Eastern philosophy on YouTube, with comedian Jim Carrey of all people - and if anyone knows about playing characters, it is Jim Carrey. He talks a lot about letting go of the ego, the internal character that tells us we’re not good enough, that won’t let us rest. In a podcast, Carrey said “depression is caused by your body saying ‘eff’ you, I don’t want to be this character anymore, it is too much for me.” He then borrows from Jeff Foster that reframed the word ‘depressed’ into the need for “deep rest” from the exhaustion of our false narratives.
But OK, wait. If suffering comes from our thoughts, then the quickest way to end our suffering is to just stop thinking! And yes, that’s what Lao-Tzu meant by “stop thinking and end your problems.” Mindfulness is meditation focusing only on your breath and on the present moment, without any thoughts. With practice, we can train our monkey minds to rest for more than a few moments at a time.
Another powerful way to get relief and freedom from one’s thoughts is to ask yourself some questions, from ‘the Work’ by Byron Katie. First you need to catch the thought and name it. Our painful thoughts are often exaggerated; sitting on the floor with the trim, some of the thoughts of my perfectionist, impatient and independent parts were “you’re no good at anything”, “you always take too long doing things”, and “no one wants to help you”. Let’s use the last one for an example.
Once you’ve identified the thought, one by one, Katie has four gentle questions. 1) Is it true? and 2) Can you absolutely know it is true? (In this case, none of my thoughts were true, and spoiler alert, the answer to question 2 is always no. We simply cannot know if our thoughts are true or not.) Then 3) What happens when you believe that thought? (I don’t ask for help) And 4) Who would you be without that thought? (I would have asked for help and could have been having a good time trimming with a friend. Wouldn’t that have been nice?)
Whoa, I just crammed a lot of self-help books into one column. Reading about it isn’t enough though, we must practice getting better at living well, even in February. And I still have a lot more projects around the house this winter, so if anyone wants to help me, please get in touch!◊