Recently, at lunch with a friend, the talk turned to stress. My friend said she handled it in a word. Literally. "When things fall apart, I stop and tell myself, Breathe," she said. "Just: Breathe. It instantly takes me out of confusion." Breathe was her personal mantra. Then she asked me if I had one.
"Uh, Man?" I said. "Would that be one?"
She looked at me.
"Okay, what about Oh maaaan!"
Clearly, if a mantra is a mind tool—the word's literal meaning in Sanskrit—I was operating with a pocketknife. After another friend, a therapist, told me about a patient who quite probably changed her life by changing the damaging tapes running through her head, I decided it was time to find me something sturdier.
My friend, whose name is Sheenah Hankin and who is the author of Complete Confidence
, specializes in cognitive psychotherapy, an approach aimed at getting people to change the word loops playing in their minds. Not long ago she was treating a woman whose husband was beating her. "A Park Avenue matron," Sheenah said. "She was coming in bruised and cut. Each time I'd ask, 'Why are you putting up with this?' she'd answer, 'I can't be alone.' That was her mantra."
"Her husband was brutal," my therapist friend said. "I was really afraid for her. He was so crazy that when she finally left him, it had to be with armed guards. But she did leave, and the way she did it was to tell herself, I'm doing the right thing." Every year now she sends my friend a Christmas card: Still doing the right thing.
The story underscored for me how powerful the things we tell ourselves are. We all have phrases that repeat in our heads when life heats up. I began to think of these inner voices, good or bad, as spelunking guides. Some of us, in a deep cave of worry, tell ourselves, There's no way out. If that's the voice you hear and believe, there won't be. But if your guide shouts, You fall down seven times, you get up eight, you're going to find the light.
"As you think, so shall you be," the philosopher William James once said. What I wanted to be was more confident. Man! would only keep me wobbly. I hit on a plan. I'd put out an e-mail asking people what they told themselves in times of stress, then test the various mind tools till I found one to adopt. "I can't give people the words," Sheenah had told me. "They have to discover what has meaning for them." But I was hoping someone else's discovery could be mine.
A flood of responses poured in. Some were mind bombs: It'll never work and I always mess up were two of the greatest hits. In that case, no doubt It rarely will and You probably do. "The brain works by repetition," Sheenah says. "If you repeat anything long enough, it gains meaning." If you find there's a self- defeating loop repeating itself in your head—and it can be startling to realize what you actually tell yourself—try replacing it with a mind tool: Don't quit before the miracle, perhaps, or the lovely. When you come to the edge of all you've known and are about to step into darkness, one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid for you to stand on or you will be taught to fly.Mantras are generally short and therefore easy to remember, often as short as 1 word