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Don't feed the birds. A DBT approach to minding your thoughts in the New Year.

In early December, I set a personal goal to get a website up and establish an online presence promoting myself and my services as an MFT by the end of the month. This was important to me because I was moving to a new town and needed a way to connect to other professionals and potential new clients. You’ll be happy to know I accomplished this and felt successful. Then, I set the intention to, by New Years Eve, write on my blog once a week (and then some) to discuss topics close to my heart and relevant to maintaining wellness regardless of the happenings in The World. And then, New Years came and I hadn’t written a thing. I would sit down at my desk to start and next thing I knew, I would have an online shopping cart full of pending items to check out, reservations would be made at a new restaurant in town and I’d be reading up on some news story telling myself, “It’s important to know what’s going on. I’ll write later.” Sound familiar?

After a few days (errrr, ummm okay, a week) I acknowledged that while having good intentions to start something new, I was not taking steps to make it happen. Being curious about that, I spent a few minutes today to ask myself why and then listened for my reply (I do this often and encourage you to talk to yourself as well—you can say a therapist told you to). Here is what I heard: “You’re not a writer. You don’t have time. It won’t be good enough. What if no one reads it? Why does it matter? It won’t make a difference…” and so on and so forth. Sound familiar?

Then I realized the problem: I believed these thoughts to be true. What’s worse, they were starting to change my behavior. Instead of being energized and enthusiastic about my new endeavors, I had begun questioning my choices, feeling down about not meeting this “intention” and considered calling the whole blog thing off. It was in this moment that it dawned on me: What I was experiencing is exactly why New Years resolutions fail and people don’t acquire that long term change they set out to gain, even with the best intentions. It’s more like, New Year, New me? for the majority of us.

What’s interesting is that ultimately, what gets in the way of our goals being met is simply and dauntingly our own thoughts.

Recognizing all of this, I used this as an opportunity to check in with my wiser self and asked, “How would I help someone else in this exact situation?” The first thing that came to mind was the skill we teach in DBT called “mindfulness of thoughts.”

Mindfulness of thoughts is this idea that our thoughts are just that: thoughts. A product of our wiring and rapid firing in our beautiful brains. Sometimes our thoughts are factual, other times they are not. People usually argue me on this point but hear me out. Ask yourself this: How many thoughts do you have a day? A hundred, one billion, three thousand and seventy-four? Write that number down, look at it and then ask yourself: Is it possible that each and every one of those thoughts are facts about the world? True facts that would hold up in the court of law? (Go ahead: picture yourself pitching these thoughts to Judge Judy and hearing her response.) There is just no way!

Let’s apply this to my situation. If I acknowledged that my thoughts are not all facts, then the thought “I will fail,” instead of being a doomsday thought that guides my behavior away from the exact thing I set out to do, becomes a mere fleeting creation of the mind that I can choose to either attend to and act on, or observe and watch go on by.

Believe it or not, we all have a choice in this and we all can take this new approach with our thoughts.

Utilizing imagery can be helpful with this skill. Some like to picture their thoughts as clouds passing in the sky. I like to think of my thoughts as trains coming and going out of Grand Central Station. I can watch them, I can hop on and off of them, or I can try to conduct them! If I recognize that I will have thoughts doubting my choices and that those thoughts will come and go, I am no longer ruled by them and instead, I am open to do whatever I want and in turn, am more likely to reach those goals and intentions I set out for myself.

The skill also teaches us that thoughts don’t stick around forever; it’s only the ones that we give “air time” to that stick around.

It’s a similar idea to what happens when you feed the birds at the park. You know, when you see that sign “don’t feed the birds” but you sprinkle those bread crumbs anyways to that cute little bird sitting by its lonesome, what happens next? Out of seemingly nowhere, the rest of the flock swoops in, havoc ensues and some even start following you around waiting for the next crumb. Our thoughts are no different. Crumbs are the attention we give to our thoughts, the birds; the moment we feed them, they grow and stick around.

So with that, in this dawn of a New Year I encourage you—like I am encouraging myself—to try this skill and see what comes of it. If you’re one who sets resolutions and find yourself so far from the course a few days/weeks/months from now, remember that you are in control of your behavior, and when self doubt or worry sets in, remind yourself “don’t feed the birds.”

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