Countering Negative Thoughts

It’s 3:00 AM and here I am, wide-eyed as a marigold. But there is no sun to warm me and open up my petals to the light. Oh no. Instead I am surrounded by the dreaded demons of the night. Nasty phantoms of misery battering my weary, bed-rumpled self with messages of doom, hopelessness, and failure.

“Let’s face it, you’ve never amounted to anything and never will.”
“Your creative dreams come A BIT LATE, don’t you think?”
“You’re too OLD and worn-out to make any money now. Scraping by on an inadequate Old Age Pension is all you can hope for.”

It doesn’t matter how often I’ve had these nocturnal visitations, there’s no getting used to them. Like an infant left alone in a stroller in the middle of a traffic jam – I am always caught off-guard and undefended.

I’m sure that many of you have “been there.” The messages may differ, depending on your age, circumstances and personal history, but the basic theme of self-judgment is a common one, particularly in the west.

Of course the evil emissaries of doom and failure don’t just appear at night. Their carping can carry on throughout the day – especially if you’re taking some risks in your life, whether it’s building a business, taking a new direction in your creative field, or sharing your wisdom in a book.

“What makes you think you can make any money at that?”
“You’ll never be as good as (FILL IN THE BLANK).”
“There are already way too many books out there.”

Allowing negative messages like these to hold sway can kill our dreams, keep us playing it “safe,” and stop us from sharing our gifts. Finding ways to deal with them skillfully ought to be our biggest priority.

The most important thing to recognize is that, regardless of their content, every single one of these messages is wrong and irrelevant. They don’t come from the larger Self who wants to be of joyful service to this world, but from a diminished, fearful version of ourselves who wants to protect us from veering from the beaten path, even if the beaten path is harming us. No matter what the demons are saying, no matter how convincing they may sound, they’re wrong.

Below are some suggested techniques for routing the night-time demons. The day-time naysayers are equally nasty and there are a number of techniques for trouncing them, but for now I will focus on those that strike us when we’re at our most vulnerable. The intent is to settle you down as quickly as possible so that you can get the sleep you need to function happily, productively, and creatively the next day.

• Calm your body. Relax your forehead, your breathing, and your movements. Deliberately change position slowly as opposed to tossing and turning. Focus on your breathing and, if you wish, inwardly count your out-breaths. Sometimes it helps to tell yourself that if you’re still awake after 100 outbreaths, you’re to get up and start your day. I’ve never gotten to 100 yet.

• Invent a sanctuary for yourself. Envisage yourself surrounded by benign presences comforting you and attending to your every need. Maybe you’re lying on a comfortable bed next to billowing white muslin curtains, breathing in fresh sea air. Know that you are safe.

• Listen to a recording of poetry, meditative music, or a talk by one of the many spiritual teachers of our day. Pema Chodren and Stephen Levine are particular favourites of mine.

• If the negative messages are particularly virulent, get up, light a candle, grab your journal, and do a written dialogue with a source of inner wisdom or healing that’s meaningful to you. Allow this being to give you love and wise counsel.

It’s best not to attempt to engage the demons of the dark with counter-arguments. Even if that weren’t futile, it just engages the mind and makes it even more difficult to get back to sleep. Assuming the role of a wise guardian or parent enables us to detach from the stories, to cease identifying with them, and to take command of the situation.

Maybe the nocturnal emissaries of doom have a purpose beyond tormenting us in the wee hours. As a veteran of countless night-time encounters, I have found that I am better able to deal with the negative stories that encroach upon my mind and upon those of my clients during the day. Perhaps the demons of the dark are not our enemies after all, but merely sparring partners to strengthen us so that we can become more effective creators and happier humans by day.

Now there’s an empowering bed-time story.
(a shorter version of this blog first appeared in the Creativity Coaching Association’s April newsletter.)

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5 thoughts on “Countering Negative Thoughts

  1. PJ Reece

    There’s no sleep for me unless I jot down those nocturnal messages. Once recorded, those voices settle down. The writing of them assures the daemons that they will survive til the light of day… when something might actually be done about it… because the worst part about these nightime anxieties is that we can do nothing about them… there in the dark.

    1. Donaleen Post author

      Great suggestion, PJ. Last night I had a particularly virulent encounter with “the 3 AM ooblies.” I eventually settled down by inwardly saying “all is forgiven” on the out breath and “all is well” on the in breath. That always works if one stays with it, but perhaps writing them down and seeing them in all of their absurdity is faster.

  2. Richard Osler

    I call these “night vapours”!SO corrosive. Thank you for this timely reminder during this severe downturn in the oil and gas stock market! Triggers that voice in me for sure!

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