I know I can learn new mental habits because I started brushing my teeth at bedtime. I know, I know…everyone probably has done that for their whole lives, and it speaks volumes about my formerly filthy night mouth. But there it is. Back in July of 2020, I decided I was going to brush my teeth at bedtime every day. Since that time, this small thing has evolved from an obligation I had to remind myself to complete into a routine which I enjoy and probably could not sleep well without performing. Just like that, I decided I would do this action, and I began to practice doing this action every day, and now it is a comfort and a habit that I find is a part of my bedtime ritual. It wasn’t easy to remember at first, often I had to get out of bed and go brush my teeth because I forgot. Some nights I had to make myself take the time to clean my teeth when all I really wanted to do was lie down and sleep. Somewhere in the days and weeks and months, though, the act of brushing my teeth changed from an obligation to myself into a gift to myself.
I am focusing this month on feeling gratitude and shifting negative thoughts to neutral or positive thoughts. It seems a big undertaking because my default thought/communication style is sarcasm, and I think it’s worthwhile. I can be blunt and even abrasive to others. I can get into negative thought patterns and really bring down my mood, which affects my interactions with everyone around me. These are character traits I am ready to work on changing for the betterment of my marriage, my family relationships, my friendships, my professional relationships, and all my relationships. I enjoy the challenge of growth and change, and I’ve developed a plan I’m following to help guide myself in this endeavor.
I rationalize that since I have habituated nighttime mouth care, I can likewise habituate gratitude, acceptance, and a shift from negative thinking to neutral or positive thought composites. Here’s how I am doing this:
Practice Gratitude Daily
My first action is Appreciation Scribbles. Every morning, I journal three things for which I am grateful, or that bring me joy. This helps set my mental tone to feel gratitude throughout the day. I reflect back on these things at a few different times during the day, just to keep them sort of on the surface of my consciousness and in my awareness. I choose one major thing for which I feel grateful, such as “having a warm and safe home”, one small and seemingly trivial thing, such as “bright ink scratching blank page”, and one experience, such as “those times my son and I hiked together when he was small”. Each of these is an opportunity to stop taking something for granted and truly appreciate it.
Stop and Reword Negative Thinking
Another practice I employ is Thought Cop. Throughout the day as I work or do chores or errands or whatever my day entails, I pay attention to my inner chatter. When I hear myself make negative comments, I stop myself there. I call this “arresting my negative thought”, because that seems fun to me. I arrest the thought, and I look at it, and I reword it from neutral to positive as best I can, then I send it on it’s way out into the universe. Here’s an example of this process: Let’s imagine I am in the office answering calls. I look out the window and see the gorgeous sunshine and blue sky I am missing. Thought: “I am sick of being on the phone! I wish I were out in this beautiful day!” I notice this negative thought, and I stop. I look at this thought. It looks a bit like a mental tantrum in the making, as if my mind has stamped its foot and clenched its fists as it shouts “I am sick of being on the phone! I wish I were out in this beautiful day!” I acknowledge to myself, “The day outside is beautiful, and I will take a break and go for a walk out there in 30 minutes.” Then I make this walk happen, and I relish (with gratitude) the sunshine on my skin, the fresh air in my lungs, and the beauty of the earth in winter. I’m aiming for a subtle shift in my thinking away from the negative. The action following the thought is like a physical underscore for the positive, and a cause for gratitude in itself.
Check Your Privilege
Another gratitude practice I’m into I call It’s My Privilege. I change my inner (and outer) dialogue from the “I have to…” mindset toward the “I get to…” mindset. Here’s an example of how I use this: I might be looking at a to-do list for the day and see that I still have to go pick up the grocery order. Wait, what? Arrest that thought!!! How about this, I am grateful for the opportunity to simply pull up to the grocery store and have someone who has done my shopping for me to load my groceries into my car. That is a huge time saver, and I GET to pick up those groceries. It’s a whole reframing of the thought, and full appreciation of the situation while I’m at it.
Schedule Time for Time-Outs
Another exercise I employ is Alarming Awareness. I set my phone to alert once an hour throughout the day. At that time, I recall the affirmation I’ve chosen for the day and I repeat it as I breathe in and out with intention and awareness for three to five breaths. It is an exercise aimed at helping both to root the affirmation in my mind, and to bring me a moment of presence and mindfulness amidst my busy and easily rote and mindlessly task-filled day. This time is also a great opportunity to stretch and roll my shoulders and neck, or even take a quick walk up and down the corridor.
Each of us faces our own challenges, and many of us are looking for ways to manage the stress which accompanies said challenges. These practices are helping me in this uncertain time of indefinitely suspended plans, long-distance friends and family, and extended periods of isolation.
I think we can easily feel oversaturated with images on social media of how fabulous other people’s lives are so that we might unconsciously judge our own quite satisfying lives harshly and inappropriately, which shifts our thinking toward more negative thoughts and judgments without our realizing it. Couple that with the news media’s constant and frenzied “the sky is falling” mentality, and no wonder we might feel trapped under a cloud of heavy gloom much of the time!
Fortunately, our brains are receptive to retraining, and new habits can be learned. I can keep catching myself in the negative thought loops, and keep lifting my mental machinery out of the ruts to which it is accustomed. I expect this will become more natural until the conscious arresting and reframing is less and less necessary as my mind learns to choose neutral to positive ways to think about things to start with. This will not only benefit my mental well-being, but also the energy I bring to all my interactions with others.
In summary, I am practicing retraining my attitude to gratitude and my thoughts to positivity through Appreciation Scribbles, Thought Cop, It’s My Privilege, and Alarming Awareness. The silly names are easy for me to remember and make the work of the practices a little lighter and more fun, which seems appropriate for gratitude and positivity. New habits are a challenge, and I get the opportunity to make positive changes in my brain. What a fabulous thing!!
P.S. Watch out for part two…I’ve started flossing daily now.