Cclick on images to the left to see this article which appears in 'In the Moment' Magazine, March 2018.

Clear your Mind of Clutter


Freeing up your headspace can make way for kinder, more positive thinking, 

says Jo Bisseker Barr

We’re all familiar with the rather clichéd proverb that states in order to love others, we must first learn to love ourselves. But the expression does carry truth – addressing our self-care, through tuning into how we talk to ourselves as we go about our daily lives, is a recurring theme and in fact a bedrock of my therapeutic practice - both in the counselling room, and in the workshops I run in writing for wellbeing. Normally this ‘inner chatter’ runs like a never-ending tape player in the background, completely unconscious to us, yet informing and guiding so much of our conscious thought, feeling and behaviour. And a surprisingly huge chunk of it can be negative, increasing our anxiety and stress levels, restricting our ability to step out of our comfort zones and hindering the chance of bringing positivity into our lives.

These Negative Automatic Thoughts (or gNATS for short) constantly buzz around our head-space, getting in the way of clearer, calmer and kinder thinking, and will commonly emerge in moments where we feel we’re not in full control, casting doubt over our ability to take a risk, go for it, and emerge successful.

Over time, repeated thought-patterns become entrenched - breeding anxiety, which launches itself, like spiky burrs with their tiny hooks, onto ever-more things in our life, bogging us down and leaving less and less head-space for clear and reasoned thinking. One useful tool for helping identify your gNATs is to imagine you are a stick of rock; what might some of the words, or phrases be that would run through you? One of mine used to be ‘I’m not sporty’, followed by ‘I’ll never be able to ski’. It can often help to think about the mantras, or ‘life-scripts’ that parents or extended family may have carried (like sticky burrs), that you picked up: ‘the worst usually happens’, ‘I’m stupid’, ‘we never do well’, ‘you’ve made your bed so you lie in it’, ‘I can’t cope on my own’, and so on.

The poet and writer Seamus Heaney must have understood something of this, when he said: if you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way – but trying to pin down exactly how we talk to ourselves takes practice. Writing things down in black and white can really help us to capture and take control of our negative automatic thinking. Keep a list of things you say to yourself as you begin to notice your inner-chatter – and then conduct a ‘sanity-check’; so often we’ll have kind words of comfort or encouragement for those around us, but when it comes to ourselves, it seems we’re great at hanging onto the negatives and beating ourselves up!

As a child, I wasn’t as good at maths as I was at English. The more I struggled, the more I told myself I was no good at it. Eventually, fear started to rear its head, which has several effects: it scrambles thinking by filling our head-space with negative messages, creating an assumption from the outset that we won’t be able to succeed. This sets up a self-fullfiling prophesy, where we can then say: ‘see - I told you so!’ On the day I started my first (and only) bar job as a student, I felt too sick to eat. Totting up prices in my head on-the-hoof terrified me; I now know that I worked myself up into a frenzy of negative thinking – ‘I can’t do it’ on repeat isn’t going to give anyone the best chance of succeeding! If I am calm and not under pressure, my mental arithmetic is perfectly sound. The underlying script I was resurrecting was ‘I will fail, and people will think I am stupid’.


Useful Tools

·       Once you start compiling your list of gNATS, think about whose voice this might originally have been – if a parent, were they being fair? Can you make sense of why they were saying this, now you are older and wiser?

·       Try thinking of yourself as a good friend of yours – perhaps an imagined one, who is kind, and really cares about you. What might you want to say to yourself? Think about kindness and positive encouragement here!

·       Imagine you carry around with you a virtual tool-box. This is your ‘Mental Tool Kit’, where every newly learnt understanding or technique, helpful thought or healthy belief should be stored away and carried everywhere, so that it can be reached into when anxiety or stress threaten negative thinking. Adding to it can then be a life-long practice.

Identifying and pinning down our negative inner chatter enables us to clear some head-space and make room for a more reasoned and compassionate style of thinking. It’s akin to clearing out that spare room of all the unwanted and unloved junk we’ve thrown in there over the years with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude, investing in some lovely décor and giving it a fresh new identity, so we can feel proud of our inviting new guest room/home office/craft space! How much more pleasurable life will be if we can let go of some of the unhelpful ‘noise’ we’ve been lugging around and beating ourselves up with, and begin to embrace more of the positives that life can offer.

BIOGRAPHY Jo Bisseker Barr is an Accredited Psychodynamic Counsellor and Writing for Wellbeing Practitioner living and working in the New Forest. She runs ‘Write your Mind’ experiential workshops in writing for wellbeing from her home set in beautiful gardens, where participants are free to wander in order to write their exercises. Lunch including sourdough, and afternoon cakes are all homemade.

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Jo Bisseker Barr

About Me

With an Honours degree in English including Creative Writing, I am a qualified and experienced psychodynamic counsellor, working within my private practice.

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