Facing Thoughts, Instead of Running from Them

Through contemplative meditation—and engaging with our painful thoughts—we can learn about our true identity and even how to free ourselves from the negative spiral.

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Photo: Ippei Naoi / Moment via Getty Images

Bipolar & Negative Thought Spirals

There’s a place—a point in time, really—that many will either relish or retreat from. I call it the time in between. And, for most of my life, I tried to stay far away—at all costs.

The time in between is that space where silence arrives and we come face-to-face with a barrage of painful thoughts and memories.

If we don’t divert our attention quickly enough in the pause before whatever comes next—the next conversation, the next work task, the next distraction, even the next mood episode—our minds start replaying traumatic experiences or sink into self-criticism.

We think the worst, expert at creating stories that amplify our misery.

I ran from that space, jamming it with anything that would redirect my attention and shut off my thoughts. That is, until I figured out—with the help of therapy, meditation, and confronting uncomfortable aspects of myself through shadow work—it is precisely by facing these thoughts that we free ourselves from the negative spiral.

It’s now a place I run toward.

Intrusive rumination can lead to depressive mood swings and feelings of complete loneliness. It can lead to losing jobs because we’re cemented into our beds. It can lead to losing relationships because we’re not emotionally or physically available. It can make us or break us.

Seeking Distraction from Negativity

To escape that spiral, we seek solace in distraction. We will call or text our friends, binge-watch TV, play video games, scroll the Internet or social media, do a few more work tasks, take on a special project. Always engaged in anything else.

Within our busyness, suffering seems muted. We’re just being productive—nothing to see here.

It’s also common to fill the time in between with drugs, alcohol, or other risky behaviors, to sandwich the space with pointless relationships or things that take us down a destructive path—all to evade our negative overthinking.

Self-Reflection & Identity

The philosopher Blaise Pascal said that all our miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

I’ll let you in on something: Sitting alone, opening yourself to the time in between, is where you meet the real you. And it’s a life-changing payoff in so many ways.

Yes, you will find discomfort here—condemning chatter, unyielding regrets, anxious dread—but it’s in pushing through and understanding this discomfort that you grow. And in that growth is where your true identity lies, where acceptance flows. It’s also where you can learn to head off that negative thought trap.

Unlike the traditional definition of meditation, where you’re encouraged to quiet your mind, this is about finding what’s in your mind—by just sitting there, free from distractions. (You can also journal or take a walk alone.)

Whether you pose a question and listen for some clarity, or you’re just open to receiving whatever comes, the intent is to be a curious observer. Be open to your thoughts, instead of running from them. Get to know yourself.

Living Authentically

Each day, I tune out the world, connect with myself, and face my thoughts. Through contemplation, I discover more about myself each time, continuing to forge my identity and values. I’m brutally honest about my likes and dislikes, instead of trying to fit into social structures.

It’s an ongoing journey, but here I am—at 35 years old—finally understanding how to live authentically. I’m comfortable with myself and can connect with other people more genuinely. By getting to know and love the real me, I’m also able to treat myself better.

I suggest wading in slowly, starting with just a few minutes. It’s a practice and it’s going to take time, so give yourself that grace.

The time in between is a difficult—and beautiful—place to step into. I am now thankful I stayed long enough to learn how liberating and powerful it is.

Published as “Real Stuff: The Time In Between,” Summer 2022

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