When My Professor Challenged Me to Sit Alone With My Thoughts

At the end of spring semester, my Buddhism and Environmental Ethics professor gave us some advice. “Sit alone with you thoughts. Learn to be by yourself without your phone or computer. You’ll be amazed by what you can learn.”

Little did he know how terrifying that sounded to me, a person who desperately tried to keep herself from being stuck with her thoughts.

Everyone else is doing something productive. Why can’t you? You can’t do anything right. Why are you even attempting that essay? It won’t be your best work, and everyone else in the class will do better. You got an A? Didn’t deserve it. It was all luck. You got a bad grade? Yeah, you definitely deserved that. Look at how happy everyone else seems. You’ll just bring them down. You aren’t good enough.

And a whirlwind of other thoughts.

When my roommate moved out at the end of June, I cried on her bed. I couldn’t express to her how I was feeling in the moment. Obviously, I would miss her, but something worse was coming to mind. I would have to spend more time alone with my thoughts, whether I wanted to or not.

When you have anxiety and depression, unwanted thoughts tend to creep up, and they have a way of convincing you they’re cold hard fact. Up until recently, I thought the only way to fight them was to distract myself as much as possible. The irony in this is I didn’t have the motivation or energy to do much of anything.

The routine soon became Netflix, friends, Netflix, sleep as much as humanly possible and more Netflix. I was falling behind in school, and this only added to my list of negative thoughts. So as you can see, my strategy wasn’t working. Now that I have more time alone, I am forced to face some of these thoughts.

When I was in therapy, she suggested I try acknowledging the thought and then letting it pass. It sounded like some black magic if I’ve ever heard of any. I spent so much energy distracting myself, and when that didn’t work, I was believing and obsessing over the thoughts.

How was actually acknowledging and letting them pass an option? It is. And honestly, I do not know how I would survive if it weren’t an option.

When some thoughts crept up while I was alone in my car one day, I tried to figure out this whole acknowledging and passing thing. The first thing I realized was I had to distance myself from the thought. I picture myself putting the thought as if it were a physical object in front of me but to the side. I know this sounds weird, but imagining it separate from myself helps me to think about the thought instead of obsessing over it.

Then, I try to analyze it. Is there a rational basis for this thought? Is it an exaggeration (i.e. “I fail at everything.”)? Does this thought benefit me in any way? These questions help me decide if this is a thought worthy of any more of my time. If it isn’t, I try to let it go. Try being the key word. It’s like learning a new skill. It takes practice.

After I’ve answered the questions, I try to think of positive thoughts to counteract it. I think of reasons why the negative thought isn’t true. If the thought could be a possibility in the future such as failing a class, then I try to think of ways I can prevent it from happening.

So maybe being alone doesn’t have to be scary. Maybe my Buddhism professor was right.

Image via Thinkstock.

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