I have been known to joke that at the ripe old age of 41 I do not feel any different from when I was 21, and in some ways that is true. In others, I am happy to say, it is not: I am definitely more confident and self-possessed now, and less concerned with what others think of me. So while the changes to my physical self that result from the passing years might be somewhat unwelcome, they are a fairly small price to pay for the huge advantages of wisdom accrued and perspective gained.
Indeed, I have often thought that as we move through life, one of our aims should be to acquire as much wisdom and insight as we can, compiling our own Desiderata or, if you are also around my age and grew up in the UK, you may remember Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen song (“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it”). In my years of coaching and extensive reading in the personal development genre, I feel like I have acquired more than my fair share of advice. Richard Carlson, Martin Seligman, Edith Eger, William Bridges – to name but a few – have all contributed to my understanding of the world and myself, and helped me negotiate life with greater ease, peace and grace. However, no nugget of wisdom from a book has ever been able to rival those offered by my nearest and dearest. Most often, it is their voices I hear whispering words of wisdom in times of trouble.
Recently, it is a little gem of my husband’s that has been keeping me on track: don’t listen to yourself when you’re tired. While it seems intuitive, this simple idea actually distils several important notions that can really help deal with an intrusive inner monologue and what I call “2 a.m. thoughts” – the dark thoughts that descend sometimes and make everything seem bad and wrong. Fully grasping its wisdom is key to harnessing its power!
The triple threat to good sense: Tired/Hungry/Cold
The first important point my husband has spent years reminding me is that no one thinks straight when they are tired, hungry or cold. When I’m tired, everything seems like an uphill climb and problems are insurmountable. When I’m hungry, life feels like an emergency (the real emergency being that I need to eat!). When I’m cold, I can’t focus on anything other than getting warm. This may seem blindingly obvious but it’s a circular problem – the very state that’s stopping you from thinking straight also stops you from realising that you’re not thinking straight.
When you become a parent, it is especially important to remember this as you spend most of your time tired and also a lot of time putting someone else’s needs before your own. As a result, you are usually tired, and often also hungry (I’ll eat once I get the baby down) and/or cold (kids love going to the park – even in the depths of winter!).
So, point number one is that when you are tired, hungry or cold, it is not the right time to analyse an issue, brainstorm solutions to a problem, or think through a major life decision. If I start down the road of thinking when “T/H/C”, my husband always reminds me just to set aside my thoughts for when I’m in a better place physically and – much as it pains me to say it since it seems to set a dangerous precedent – I have to admit he is right.
Listening to yourself is a choice
The second interesting thing about this advice is the notion that we have a choice about whether or not (or when) we listen to our own thoughts. We are all familiar with that little voice inside our head that maintains a non-stop monologue about everything from what we think of ourselves, others and the world around to our views on what’s being said on the news, a star’s choice of Oscar gown, or an advert on the side of a bus… It’s like a radio DJ curating our mental soundtrack. However, the difference with a DJ is that we reserve the right to turn off the radio, while we often give free rein to the voice inside our head. If we heard a load of rubbish expressed on the TV we’d mutter “Come off it!” and quickly bring up Netflix to watch something sensible and calming like Squid Game. But we have a tendency to feel obliged to listen to ourselves, even if what is being expressed is unkind, judgemental, critical, unreasonable, lacking in evidence, or quite simply untrue. When we realise that we have a choice about how much we listen to our own thoughts, it’s like we finally locate our own mental volume or off-switch. Suddenly, we can choose whether to give credence to our own thoughts or instead to turn down the volume or change the radio station entirely.
Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true
The obvious extension of giving ourselves the right not to listen to our own inner monologue is the realisation that our thoughts are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. How is it that you can go to bed feeling chirpy and wake up feeling like the world is against you? Your situation has not changed overnight, but your inner monologue and analysis of your life is radically different. Your thoughts have become negative, dragging your emotions down with them. But not every thought we think is true. Realising and internalising this is hugely liberating. When negative thoughts pop into your head, you have the option to assess them for accuracy before believing them and letting them affect your mood or behaviour.
So, in the spirit of Luhrmann’s Sunscreen: “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, it would be never listen to your own thoughts when you’re tired, hungry or cold.” And always remember that your thoughts are just thoughts, not the Gospel truth. You have a choice about whether or not to believe them – and indeed, whether to listen to them at all.
If you want support taking stock of your life and working out where to put your energy, holistic coaching with an experienced professional can help you figure out which thoughts are worth listening to and how you want the soundtrack of your life to be. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.