The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Though we like to think of ourselves as free, many of us are confined to a mental prison we’ve built for ourselves.

Our most vicious jailer is our unhealthy “self-talk”—our inner critic that savagely sabotages us with haunting doubts and harsh judgments. We’re our own worst enemy.

We’re a prisoner of our “monkey mind”—feeling unsettled or restless and easily distracted by thoughts that bounce around like agitated apes. Often, we’re dwelling on the past or worrying about the future—always neglecting the present moment.

Most of our mental prisons are fictional stories our minds invent to prevent us from potential suffering. The sad secret, though, is that the suffering is wildly unlikely to occur outside our overactive imaginations. Our mental prisons are fear factories.

“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands.”Martha Beck in Steering by Starlight

Sometimes our mental prison is the need we feel, often flowing from childhood, to gain approval and be liked or admired, or it’s the prison of the expectations of others (or, more accurately, what we presume those expectations to be, often wrongly).

Here’s the thing: We think we’re struggling with the outer game but it’s actually the inner game that’s tripping us up.

“Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically.”Shirzad Chamine, author

 

The Toll of Our Mental Prisons

These prisons are harmful in countless ways:

  • Lower confidence, sense of wellbeing, and joy.
  • Decrease in motivation and performance.
  • Distorted perceptions: we’re looking at reality with an overlay of past memories and hurts as well as future hunches and worries, skewing our senses.
  • Loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility—sometimes by blaming all our troubles on a single source (such as an ex-spouse, or an addiction), when in reality there are multiple factors contributing to problems (including our own mindset and behavior).
  • Learned helplessness”: a well documented phenomenon in which we give up after a number of futile attempts at something, eventually surrendering our agency even when there may be potential solutions and overlooking opportunities for change

 

The Building Blocks of Our Mental Prisons

Building our own personal confinement is a strange endeavor, yet all too common. What drives it?

It begins with root causes that are exceedingly difficult to overcome because they’re often subconscious. First is depending on circumstances for our happiness: “If and when X happens,” we believe, “then I’ll be happy.” The logic seems sound, but it’s deeply flawed. We’re terrible at knowing what will truly make us happy and fulfilled over time, causing us to spend time on the wrong things. Also, with this logic, we’re placing our happiness in the hands of too many factors outside our control. The key is to learn to be happy and well regardless of our circumstances.

Second is our automatic emotional reactions to events, preceding our rational brain’s ability to interpret the situation from a higher level of consciousness and with a broader perspective and openness to different interpretations and possible responses.

There are also more mundane but also significant contributors:

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety. This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life.” -Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

In her book, Mindfulness, psychologist Ellen Langer identifies several causes of mindlessness that also inhibit our mental wellbeing:

  • Having a narrow self-image, such as defining ourselves solely by our work (e.g., as a project manager, bookkeeper, or customer service rep) as opposed to all of our multifaceted identities (for example, son or daughter, mother or father, friend, colleague, artist, gardener, athlete, etc.). Being overly invested in one part of our lives is risky because it’s likely to go up and down over time—and can even disappear entirely.
  • Having false beliefs about common things. Example: conflating old age with poor health. While they’re correlated, they’re very different, and there are many examples of people who thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically in their later years.
  • Preoccupation with expected outcomes that sometimes fail to materialize (based on many factors outside our range of influence), instead of a healthy focus on the process.
  • Making faulty comparisons with others based on the outcomes they have (e.g., wealth, accomplishments) instead of the process they used to get them.

 

Our Mental Saboteurs

Shirzad Chamine, an executive and best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has done important work that can help us understand how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

He identifies nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. As you read them, note which ones challenge you:

  1. Judge: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances
  2. Victim: focus on painful feelings as a way of earning attention or empathy
  3. Pleaser: flattering, recuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance
  4. Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts
  5. Stickler: excessive need for perfection, order, and organization
  6. Restless: needing perpetual busyness and never being content with what is
  7. Controller: anxiety-based need to control situations or others
  8. Hyper-achiever: depending on achievement for self-acceptance
  9. Hyper-rational: excessively analytical processing of everything, including relationships
  10. Hyper-vigilant: excessive vigilance that never stops, seeing danger around every corner (Source: Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence)

 

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Enter Carol Dweck and her pathbreaking research on mindsets. Dweck is a professor at Stanford University who studies motivation, personality, and development. She distinguishes between two mindsets:

  1. Fixed mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents are fixed. People with a fixed mindset tend to:
    • Want to look smart
    • Avoid challenges
    • Ignore useful negative feedback
    • Feel threatened by the success of others
    • Plateau early and achieve less than their full potential
  1. Growth Mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. People with a growth mindset tend to:
    • Want to learn
    • Embrace challenges
    • Learn from criticism
    • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
    • Reach ever-higher levels of achievement

It makes an enormous difference whether we approach a situation with a desire to look smart or a desire to learn and embrace challenges. Our mindset is especially evident in our reaction to failure:

Do we dread the prospect of failure because we view it as an embarrassing reflection on our competencies? Or are we open to the prospect of failure because we view it as a sign that we’re stretching yourself in new areas?

Dweck notes that mindset plays an important role in virtually all aspects of our lives, from school, sports, and business to parenting, relationships, and more. Our mindsets shape our:

  • enjoyment of challenging tasks
  • goals and ideas about what we’ll strive for
  • honesty when confronted with situations where we may not look as good as we’d like
  • performance on tasks

We’re all born with certain predispositions, and our mindsets can vary in different areas in our lives, but here’s the good news:

“Can mindsets be changed? Can they be taught? Yes.” Carol Dweck, psychologist

How to Escape Mental Prison

If mental prisons are common to the human condition, what have we learned about ways to break free? Much, it turns out.

For starters, a surprising intervention involves breath work to change our physical and mental state: breathing deeply and intentionally, as with “box breathing.”

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

We also want to start noticing our thoughts more—observing the strange things that pop into our heads and spotting the negative patterns that reappear. It helps to label them (e.g., “My ‘controller’ is making me feel anxious, or “I’m being overly judgmental again”).

 

More Actions We Can Take

  • Focusing on what we can control, and not worrying about the rest.
  • Exploring different aspects of the issue with a sense of curiosity and fascination.
  • Remaining open to new possibilities and alternate interpretations.
  • Avoiding the trap of catastrophizing (assuming the worst or exaggerating our flaws).
  • Changing our context to bring a different perspective and renewed energy, especially to a place that provides sanctuary.
  • Replacing our inner critique with a more charitable and helpful narrative.
  • Cognitive reframing: shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a different and more helpful perspective, such as redefining a problem as a challenge or puzzle that we become curious to solve.
  • Playing: it often changes our physiology by moving us into a state of deep engagement or flow.
  • Taking action: there’s freedom in action, and it reveals fear for the false phantom it is.
  • Choosing what to think and be mindful about. Many people become passive victims of the random thought-stream in their minds instead of engaging their “observer” or deeper perspective and employing their ability to choose which thoughts to keep and which to dismiss as unproductive or unwelcome.
  • Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Is your self-talk too negative?
  • Are you disrupted my “monkey mind”?
  • What will you do to start arranging your escape from mental prison?

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Break Out of Mental Prison

  • “When you fight life you lose but only 100 percent of the time.” -Byron Katie
  • “To me, real success is where I can be at peace in the midst of chaos.” -Peter Crone
  • “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.” -Byron Katie
  • “The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” –The Bhagavad Gita
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “Everyone fails…. There is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?’” -John W. Gardner
  • “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle

Books that Will Help Free Your Mind and Mindset

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Do You Have Margin in Your Life?

Many of us are always “on” these days, running from task to task. Never-ending demands. Frenetic pace. We fill every available moment with activity or scrolling through our digital feeds.

Young hustlers making it happen. Working parents managing the household. Climbing the corporate ladder or growing our small business or nonprofit.  Perpetual busyness.

It feels heavy always going at this pace. We get exhausted.

The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

It’s not common to talk and think in terms of margin in our lives. But it’s needed now more than ever. A margin is the border between things, like the margin on a page. Filling every page up to the max just gets overwhelming.

The Consequences of Not Having Margin

The consequences of not having margin are severe: lower quality of life, less happiness and fulfillment, and lower performance at work over time.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.”General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps General

It can damage to our health and relationships—and our soul. It can lead to burnout and a sense of emptiness. It takes time away from the things we enjoy, such as hobbies or time with friends. It prevents us from exercising enough. It induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

The Benefits of Margin

Having margin gives us room to breathe, to reflect and renew. To “sharpen the saw,” as author Stephen R. Covey wrote. With margin we can rise up and view things with perspective. We can reactivate our creativity and wisdom.

When we have breathing room, we can start to see where we’re going wrong—where we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with dysfunctional behaviors. We begin to see the possibilities for change.

Without margin, we keep our heads down and keep ploughing forward, stuck in the same traps and not even admitting it to ourselves. Sometimes we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

What to do with the margin we carve out in our lives? With it, we can:

  • reflect on what’s important
  • assess how things are going
  • see if there’s a gap between the life we have and the life we want
  • consider new ideas for closing that gap
  • experience mindful living in the present, without fretting about the past or worrying about the future

Why Is This So Hard?

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy feat in today’s world of dizzying distractions and cunning algorithms designed to hijack our attention with chemical manipulations in our brains. At bottom, they’re not giving us a better life but an escape from it.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster

The evidence is alarming. Average daily digital content consumption (including time spent on social media, news sites, and streaming) is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

 

This can lead to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder in the mind, often including a chaotic mental review of things that impairs our effectiveness. He writes that it “involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish.”

It’s especially difficult if we’re trying to please everyone and not learning to set boundaries and say no—a big challenge for some people. In turn, this leads to us becoming overcommitted and falling into a death spiral of too much anxiety without the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with it and too much work volume without enough deep work to handle it.

“Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”Tim Ferriss

For some, a compulsion to achieve, win, or achieve recognition or status prevents us from carving out enough margin in our lives. This can lead to workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we can’t switch it off or stop thinking about it. Another factor is being overly optimistic about what can get done by when—wearing “rose-colored glasses,” as they say.

What to Do about It

How to get more margin in our life? It helps to acknowledge the problem first, perhaps flowing from an assessment of how we’re spending our time and determining the areas in which it’s not time well spent. (Yes, there are apps for that.)

Perhaps most importantly, we must get clear on what’s important to us, starting with our values (what we value most in life—and the behaviors that manifest those things), purpose  (our reason for being, or what infuses our life with meaning and significance), and aspirations for our life and work. Modern movements like essentialism and minimalism can help us avoid the trappings of overconsumption and overscheduling while distilling things to the essential few that enrich our lives.

It’s essential to establish clear and challenging criteria for what to say “yes” to and to get better at saying “no” to many things that come across the transom in our lives. As author Greg McKeown advises, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Next, we need to build renewal into our days, giving us a sense of serenity instead of that precarious state of anxiety from the cumulative effects of overwork, stress, poor sleep, and not taking caring of ourselves or connecting enough with others. There are limits to our energy. We need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” John W. Gardner

Even better if we can find “sanctuary” in our lives—places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there’s an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. It’s the serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

It helps to schedule margin into our lives: put it on our calendar and protect it. We must regain control of all the things that eat into margin, such as email or Slack, meetings, smartphones, interruptions, and messy workspaces. We need to get better at anticipating and preventing distractions, thereby creating the conditions for focus, flow, and deep work.

We should also look for smaller things we can do—quick and easy hacks that help us preserve margin. In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recommends the “ten-minute rule”: waiting ten minutes before giving in to an urge to check our phone as a pacification device.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have enough margin in your life?
  • How is lack of margin harming your wellbeing, relationships, or work?
  • What steps will you take, starting today, to reclaim your life and the margin it requires?

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Build More Margin

  • “I love a broad margin to my life.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • Margin is “time to make room for change.” -Jeff Sapadafora, author and coach
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence…. Silence is the general consecreation of the universe.” -Herman Melville
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Books that Will Help Change Your Life with More Margin

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek