What’s happening in your head right now? Are you chastising yourself for a mistake made yesterday – or six years ago? Are you dreaming about dessert? Are you wondering what your boss thinks of you, or wishing death upon the mean girl at the office, or evaluating when you can quit and do what you really were put on this earth to do? What is that conversation like, and who is in charge? What if that same mental chatter was happening between you and a REAL PERSON – with them doing all the talking. Would it change things? Would you smile, press their hand gently, and say, “Shhh… take a deep breath! It will all be okay.” Or would you say, “Shut up, you neurotic nimrod! Get outta my house! You’re driving me crazy!”
This topic was part of my meditation workshop some weeks ago. Carol, our event leader, said that some fellow had written about it, calling this concept our internal roommate. An internal roommate is the voice inside our mind, chirping away at us without regard to effectiveness, speed, duration, or impact.
Isn’t that an interesting visual? An internal roommate speaking our very own thoughts to us?
What I like about the idea is that it separates our mental dialogue from the reality of our existence. If we extract our mind’s conversation and insert it into a separate being sitting next to us on the couch, it feels like we have more control over its impact on us. It also gives us perspective – as most distance does. Now we can study it with a bit more clarity and objectiveness. Just because someone says something bad about us doesn’t make it true. This statement applies to our internal chat (self-to-self) just as much as it does to some joker down the street.
As you read this, pause for a moment. How is your internal roommate reacting to this post? What phrases, words, or images are bouncing around your head? Maybe jot a few down.
Now, how do you feel? How do you want to react to your internal roommate? Do you land on the side of compassion while giving your roommate no power over you? Or do you want to toss your internal roommate out of the house and slam the door, banning them forever? Both?
Your reaction is less important than the realization that we are having this type of conversation – ALL. THE. TIME.
At 9:04 am today (Sunday morning), I embarked upon an experiment. I took a blank sheet of paper and began to document thoughts. I used short phrases to describe them, like, “Next trip to Savannah” or “Have I gained weight?” (which I was thinking about as I wrote this because my pants feel tight – yes, my internal roommate is very, very busy!) Then I kept track of how many times I returned to that thought. I decided to track my thoughts for 2 hours without judgment (meaning that I wouldn’t let my internal roommate hijack me by saying, “I shouldn’t tell them I was thinking about that!”), and just see what the conversation landscape looked like.
Fast forward two hours.
Having tracked my thoughts (and in complete transparency, I must admit that for a good 40 minutes out of that two hours I was working on a spreadsheet to track my spending – in short, my mind was mostly engaged and my internal roommate was forced to be quiet), here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I had 21 thoughts that I revisited more than once. The thought I revisited most frequently was a decision I need to make about work, followed by lack of progress on my to-do list. Both make me feel anxious.
I did a bit more analysis, grouping the thoughts into two different categories focused on productive use and timing.
55% of my tracked thoughts were productive – meaning that if I listened to my internal roommate, it would be effective or helpful – benefiting me.
Conversely, 45% were unproductive – meaning they were not of a helpful nature, and would not benefit me. Frankly, this was better than I thought the ratio would be. However, one could argue about volume – perhaps the unproductive thoughts are screamed in a loud voice and the productive thoughts are shared in a whisper. I believe that is the case for my internal roommate.
Secondly, I tracked them based on a timeline. Was I focused on the past, the now, or the future? 76% of my thoughts were focused on the past, leaving only 24% focused on the future (zero were in the now, alas). These timeline statistics are a great source of stress for me. When I look at the positive thoughts about the future (my next trip to Savannah, returning the call of an old friend, and buying my 2nd row seat at the Detroit Tigers game on May 24th), I feel quite happy! I practically high-5 myself! When I look at the stuff from the past – it’s more often zeroed in on missed opportunities or regrets. The old “coulda, woulda, shoulda” syndrome. I think my history lens comes with a magnifying glass attached. I definitely closely examine the problems from my past, giving them HUGE power over me and my sense of well-being. I also self-judge a lot – am I doing the right thing? Was I (it) good enough?
From a strengths standpoint, some of this dialogue is natural. I have Context, which means I am more likely to think about the past than the future. I have Maximizer – excellence is the goal – there is little tolerance for mistakes of any kind because mistakes are the opposite of excellence. I have Achiever, so every day is another all-out sprint for Olympic Gold. But, as I often say to my clients, you must own your strengths. Your strengths cannot own you. Therefore, following my own sage advice, if a strength is not helpful in the moment, then it’s up to me to, a) Recognize that it’s not working, and, b) Dial it back like a dimmer switch
We can project that same approach upon our internal roommate. If the conversation is unproductive, it’s up to me to do something about it. I’m in charge of managing the impact of my internal roommate’s chatter upon my actions and sense of well-being.
I have ideas (always!) on how to improve my ratios. For example, I can create a to-do list item that says, “Plan a positive experience in June.” That’s a longer term strategy (meaning further out in time.) For today and EVERY DAY, I can chose to spend more time on the things I enjoy the most – like writing, for example. And I must give less of my precious 24 hours to work. I work too much, more than is healthy. My internal roommate encourages my work habit by creating crafty messages that are rarely true – both alarming and rewarding in nature. They are all unfounded. The only person who can fix that problem is typing as we speak.
Admittedly, these are two small, simple steps that are part of a more complex equation. But small and simple is good – the odds of completing small and simple increase considerably. Therefore, in front of you, with my readers as my witnesses, I commit to:
- Planning monthly experiences that increase my sense of well-being.
- Spending time every day doing something I tremendously enjoy. For now, it will be writing. I’m a morning writer. If I have a 6 am meeting (I had two last week), then I will find time later in the day. PERIOD.
I have a favor to ask of you. Would you be willing to be my accountability partner? Would you be willing to email me once in a while to check on how I’m doing with my commitments?
If you identify some ideas for change that you’d like to implement, and want my help with accountability, I will be glad to do the same.
One last point – I have a great example of someone managing their internal roommate. My friend Vicki Flaherty shared this blog entry about the gift of feedback – thoughts from people at work that were perhaps hard to hear. It’s a great example of the process we’re speaking about here today – how we react to our mind’s conversation. You can click here to visit her blog (and I encourage you to subscribe.)
Well, this has been quite an experience! Having undertaken this brief project and completed my analysis, I want to close my eyes one last time and listen to what my internal roommate has to say.
My mind is beautiful! Your mind is beautiful! Let’s embrace the “Garden of Eden” in our head and help it grow happily and healthily – pulling weeds, encouraging thoughts & conversations that reward our fertile ground, and finding the courage to share it with others. Our beautiful mind is gorgeous – right here, right now.
That’s a roommate I can live with! Onward!