When you want to invest in yourself typical advice is to take classes or develop a healthier lifestyle. You may start by trying to lose weight, make better food choices, establish better connections or reconnect with friends.
And when you want to invest in your mental health, or overcome depression, typical advice includes meditating, journaling and doing yoga.
While that advice and those things are helpful, I found they won’t produce any lasting change until you focus on your mindset.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a HUGE advocate of the fact that when you change your thoughts, you change your life. Below is my story, reasons you need to focus on your mindset, and some tips on how to get started.
The Story Begins
At a time in my life I felt like shit. It was hard to get out of bed or even leave the house. I lived in a 2nd floor apartment with steps that lead down to a foyer with the front door. I can still remember the feeling of the carpet on my cheek as I laid on the floor and started down the steps. It felt impossible to move. I felt stuck, locked in a cage.
My poor mental health inched its way into my physical health. I slept a lot or not at all. I’d restrict calories and then overeat. My clothes got tight, I got larger sizes, then those sizes started getting tight. I was bartending at the time and a customer said it looked like I got fat. What a dick thing to say. I would have been appalled had I not been thinking it was true.
The weight wasn’t a representation of me, or my beauty, or value as a person. To me, it was a representation of me not taking care of myself. I was drinking… a lot. And I was also eating a poor diet and smoking cigarettes. The worse part was, I knew better. I hated the world and now I was hating myself.
The Change Begins
After seeing a photo and barely recognizing myself, and after getting tired of being tired, I set out for a change. In the first year of what people refer to as their “journey” I lost about 40 lbs. I ate healthier, worked out and reconnecting with friends. While I was a smaller pant size and eating enough greens to feed a horse I still didn’t feel so great.
While the weight loss and being healthier felt (and still feels) amazing, the high from the weight loss was fleeting. It wasn’t enough to counter the negativity I felt.
By the second year I was doing yoga and writing in a journal whenever I felt horrible. And wow. I can’t say enough about how helpful journaling was. I loved having a place to go to collect my thoughts and to contemplate my life. And with yoga I was feeling limber and flexible. But even that was not enough. I felt like I was just spinning my wheels and going in circles.
Then, about 5 years into my journey, I had a revelation.
Focus on Mindset
A friend I reconnected with was going to therapy and loved it. Therapy is NOT something I was interested in. But nothing else seemed to work so I forced myself to try it out. Therapy helped, but there was something else that was helping in every area of my life—even therapy.
That something was focusing on thoughts and my mindset.
My therapist practiced CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and in our early sessions I started asking her about how it worked, why it worked and where it came from. I then read books on CBT and thoughts. To paint a more accurate picture, I became ADDICTED to reading about thoughts (still am).
And after learning why we have thoughts and where they come from, I question how we can use them to our advantage.
Once I started focusing on my thoughts, I realized how mean I was to myself. I stopped bullying myself and the most important thing; I made a safe space in my mind. A place for me to work through tough feelings and a harsh inner critic.
In fact, my therapist mentioned I was making really substantial progress in a short amount of time. And as of May 2021, I am in remission for c-ptsd, depression and anxiety.
We Don’t Like to Be Alone With Our Thoughts
If thoughts had an IG or twitter account, they would be blocked by most people.
But not focusing on our thoughts, and not updating outdated and unproductive thinking patters would be like running on old code. Could you image using Windows 95 today? People will stand in long lines from the newest technology, but they will get wasted or do any escape instead of updating their thoughts. I know I did.
First, we need to be able to be alone with our thoughts. To not try to escape them and focus on them—no matter how annoying, depressing or horrible they seem. Which can be tough for some because people don’t like to talk about thoughts. In fact, they kinda hate them.
Updating thoughts is tough work, and you can’t buy your way out of it. You have to do the work. But I promise the work is worth it. A good place to start is by acknowledging you are not your thoughts and then allowing them to just be. For that, you can try this exercise here.
Taking a Light Hearted Approach to Thoughts
Sometimes a thought pops into my head and I just acknowledge it and think “hmm, that was an interesting one.” I’ll literally laugh at thoughts, too. Like an anxious thought, my inner voice will relay that to me. Something fucked up, like I am going to trip up the steps while I’m going to an important event.
I’ll counter the thought and think “hell, it’d be more fun to roll down em’ but if I’m gonna trip up them, that’s fine too. Hey, maybe I’ll even rip my dress and everyone will see my bare ass too!” … I never tripped up those steps.
My favorite now is when I’m frustrated and I get “never” and “always” thoughts (called all-or-nothing thinking). If something bad happens, I sometimes think “things never go right.” Then I realize this is a cognitive distortion and unproductive thought process.
I’ll start singing Taylor Swift “never, ever ever, getting back together,” have a chuckle and then think of times when, if fact, things went right. If you ever hear me singing “weeeeeeeee, are never ever ever” then most likely that day I had some extreme thinking going on.
The Ultimate Compassionate Listener
What I learned on a decade long “journey” on self-investment is that we need a compassionate listener and a safe space in order to grow and develop. Therapy offers a compassionate listener—if you get a good therapist. But that safe space needs to be in your noggin.
Losing weight or getting any goal will not be easy if you have a bully in your brain who is telling you limited beliefs like: “this won’t be easy I don’t know if you can do it” or “you don’t deserve love.”
It’s also not going to be easy if your thought processes are ripe with cognitive distortions, or if you blindly follow one of the thousands of thoughts that flow through your mind every day. It would be like trying to do a paint by numbers blindfolded.
Not only that, but your thoughts can limit you and your abilities to maintain progress. I would NOT have been able to maintain a 40 lb weight loss for over 10 years had I not changed my thoughts. I know because at one point my weight was seesawing back and forth. But when it stopped, when I finally got off the damn seesaw, was when, and only when, I changed my thoughts about my weight.
I no longer would bash myself or feel guilty for eating something that wasn’t healthy. I would consider the importance of moderation. And when I weighed myself I stopped thinking of my weight as a determinant or identifier of who I am. Removing pressure, I considered it a number associated with my weight loss progress. Years ago, I would never tell anyone what my weight is. I’ll tell ya right now. This morning it was 149.
And that number may be too high for some, or too low for others, or some of you may not even care. But guess what? Your thoughts on my weight don’t matter. Why? Because I have self-love and I don’t need external validation. Why? Because I noticed my thoughts were negatively affecting me and I changed them. I loved myself and I gave myself the opportunity to be happy and find fulfillment.
A Great Place to Start
We are always striving and thinking that we need to get to a certain place. Reach a certain number and then we will be happy. But what we need to do instead is focus on why we think that reaching a certain goal or number will make us happy.
A great place to start is by taking an inventory of how you think about certain aspects of life. Do you think everyone is bad and out to get you? Do you think you aren’t deserving of happiness? Do you think your best days are over? Or that weight loss or a specific goal is out of reach?
If you think something is a certain way, then it will most likely be a certain way. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if your thoughts are all focused on negatives or that you can’t do something, then you are likely to not do it.
For Professional Growth Too
The original title of this article referenced personal growth and development. “Personal” got the axe as I was writing because thoughts should be the primary focus of any growth and development, professional development included.
Throughout my career I’ve always done well. It was just how it was going to be. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college and I worked full-time while in school to finance my education. When I was in school I was going to graduate, there was no other option. And after I graduated, I was going to establish myself and have a career. There was no other alternative.
My thoughts were focused and I was going to make them a reality. Every rejection I got, every failed interview, every awful experience was washed aside as I continued to drive towards my goal. I once told a friend I envisioned myself as a steamroller. Not a mean one, image one that would be in the movie “Cars”. And as a steamroller, I just kept moving forward no matter what obstacle stood in my way.
While people can try to counter negative comments and tell us that we are perfect and beautiful, all of that doesn’t matter unless we think and feel we are beautiful ourselves. And any feeling of beauty starts with our thoughts.
Had I not focused on fixing my mindset and focusing on my thoughts, I would not be where I am today.
Photo by kylie De Guia