When our Minds are not as Helpful as we Think

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Sarah Parker

Change coach, therapist, human being, and founder of Well of Being.

Recently I inadvertently missed an appointment with a new client. I had to attend to something urgent and last minute and unfortunately didn’t let the client know.

This is something I have never done before. Indeed, I pride myself on being true to my word and not letting others down.

Understandably the client was very unhappy and has decided not to work with me. I am deeply sorry for adding to her unhappiness.

Of course, my critical inner voice has had a field day – “you’re useless”; “you’ve let people down”; “your practice will fail because you’ll have a bad reputation”. I am sure some of you will know the kind of things. When those phrases ring in my mind I feel dreadful – guilty, sad, ashamed, to name but a few.

Of course, my mind doesn’t want to harm me – it is simply trying to help me not make mistakes again; but our minds are not always helpful, and they are certainly not always kind.

Our minds are good at learning from the past, so if we do something that feels good, our minds try to repeat that thing again and again. Similarly, if we do something that doesn’t feel good, our minds will do whatever is needed to try to avoid repeating it.

This seems like a great system. It is, indeed, a fantastic system when it comes to intellect – our ability to learn and remember facts at school; but unfortunately, it is really quite detrimental to us in other areas. The system does not allow for change, adaptation, and flexibility.

Sometimes if something feels good, we do it again; but just because something FEELS good, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is good, or will always feel good. Likewise, sometimes when something doesn’t feel good, we should avoid it, but this is not automatically true because not everything is so black and white. If we have a bad day at work, we still go in again usually, or if we go on holiday and we have bad weather, we don’t automatically avoid holidaying for the rest of our lives.

Psychological flexibility is the ability to respond emotionally to each situation, which is key for emotional and mental wellbeing. It allows us to adjust our thoughts, emotions and behaviours to fit new situations so we can adapt to change.

With psychological flexibility we are better able to connect to our values and goals – those things which really matter to us in life. We can make choices based on what really matters, even when those choices are difficult, and our mind wants to avoid them.

Treating people with respect and thoughtfulness and being true to my word really matters to me, AND compassion also matters deeply – both towards others and to myself. When I let the client down, initially my mind jumped in with criticism because in the past it learnt to be harsh so that I didn’t make the mistake again. That makes sense to a mind that wants to keep me out of trouble and wanted to please others at any cost in the past. However, in my life now, it matters that I am also kind to myself and compassionate, so berating myself doesn’t help me in the way my mind believes it will. When I can be more flexible, I am aware that my mind will be critical, but I can focus on what is most helpful in the here and now – acknowledging and apologising for my mistake, but also bringing kindness and acceptance to myself as someone who is always seeking to do my best, and also someone who is innately human, and therefore prone to being imperfect!

When we are able to bring our values into situations in the present, our old habitual critical thoughts have less power and we can respond with what really matters to us.

I feel very sorry that I was not there when I arranged with the client. If I am harsh and critical on myself, I will try my best not to have to let people down again. However, because it is important to me to be kind, I don’t want to let anyone down anyway, so the criticism isn’t needed. If I override my mind by connecting to what really matters, I can bring acceptance and kindness to myself and feel more peaceful and still strive to do my best for others.

That seems like a win to me.

With May love,

Sarah ❤️




 What is negative self-talk and why is it a problem?

Negative self-talk is the internal dialogue that we have which is unhelpful, critical, and pessimistic. It can erode self-esteem, increase anxiety and depression, and get in the way of reaching, or even working towards goals.


How does psychological flexibility help with negative self-talk?

Psychological flexibility helps us to respond more effectively to negative self-talk by teaching us to relate differently to thoughts and feelings. Instead of trying to avoid them, or push them away, we learn to acknowledge them with openness and compassion. This takes away their power and reduces their impact on our mood and behaviour.


What are some examples of negative self-talk?

These can include self-criticism, eg “I’m a failure”, catastrophising, eg “Everything has gone wrong” or “This is a disaster”, mind reading, eg “”They think I’m useless” and all or nothing thinking, eg “If I’m not perfect I am worthless”


How can I challenge negative self-talk?

First of all, you need to look out for it. Often it is so familiar, we stop noticing. The first step is to notice the negative self-talk and simply name it “Oh there’s my mind being critical again” or whatever phrase you choose to use. This alone can take some of the power out of the self-talk.


Can I get rid of self-talk completely?

It is unrealistic to believe we will never have any negative self-talk again. However, we can learn to reduce its intensity and frequency through regular practice and compassion. The goal is not to get rid of negative thoughts, rather to change our relationship with them so they don’t have power and influence over our mood and behaviours.


Where does self-compassion fit in?

Self-compassion involves treating ourselves with kindness and understanding, especially in times of struggle. By cultivating a self-compassionate approach we counteract the harmful effects of negative self-talk and strengthen our resilience.


How can I cultivate self-compassion?

You can use exercises like writing a compassionate letter to yourself, imagining how you would comfort a friend in your situation and do the same for yourself, or engaging in activities which you find soothing to promote feelings of warmth and care.

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