Taming the hamsters in my head

Spinning, spinning, spinning

Spinning, spinning, spinning

“Are you okay, darling?”

My wife heard me cursing to myself in the shower and she was concerned. It was a normal day and a normal shower. But I was so busy thinking about things that made me angry that I was muttering out loud.

Instead of trying to rationalize my insanity (“Nothing, dear! Just having an imaginary conflict in my head.”), I decided to try and change.

Here’s what I learned.

The meanest hamster

My inner critic

My inner critic

My first insight into what was going on came from a book on cognitive behavior therapy called “Self-Esteem”. In the very beginning, the authors introduce the concept of the pathological inner critic, the voice in your head that tells you what you could and should be doing.

One of the first exercises in the book is to simply monitor your critic and write down what he says. Here’s an excerpt from a 24 year old teacher:

“8:15 The principal must be sick of my getting here late.

8:40 Skimpy lesson plan. God I’m lazy.

9:30 These kids are slow and I’m not helping them much.

9:45 Stupid to send Sheila with the lunch list, she’ll fool around in the halls.

10:00 What kind of teacher are you? These kids are moving ahead so slow.

12:15 Stupid remark in the lunchroom.

12:20 Why am I so inane?

2:20 It was a madhouse today. When will I learn to control the class?

2:35 Why don’t I get some of the kids drawings on the wall boards? I’m so disorganized.

3:10 Parked like an idiot – look at the angle of the car.

3:40 Look at the mess. Nice housekeeping.”

I remember chuckling when I first read this. Then, after monitoring my own critic, I realized how much worse off I was. The authors write that “a loud, voluble critic is toxic.” And now I could see, for the first time, how the hundreds of negative reinforcements in my head each day were poisoning me.

Hamster city

So many hamsters!

So many hamsters!

I soon I realized that my inner critic was just one of many hamsters in my head. Whenever the critic took a break, my mind would be spinning about something else, replaying past events or worrying about future events.

It was around this time that I started reading about “being present.” And I noticed how books as different as “The Miracle of Mindfulness”, “The Willpower Instinct”, “Flow”, “Manage Your Day-to-Day” and “Are Your Ready to Succeed?” all highlighted the power of quieting the mind.

Certainly, part of the reason to do this is to change the habit of hurrying so you can appreciate the present moment and be happier. And yet another important reason is to be calmer so you can think and act more intentionally instead of (over)reacting to every thought and emotion.

Using the same quote from “Presence” I cited last week, quieting the mind is a key to being effective:

“First you slow down and look deeply into yourself and the world until you start to be present to what’s trying to emerge. Then you move back into the world with a unique capacity to act and create.”

Changing the hamster habit

My sleeping hamster (as seen on hamster-palace.com)

My sleeping hamster (as seen on hamster-palace.com)

While the wisdom in the books seemed irrefutable, nothing really changed for me for quite some time. It was only when I started touching the treadmill – taking a small first step – that I begin to develop new habits.

Of course, I started in the shower. When the hamsters started to stir, whether it was my inner critic or a replay of some conflict, I’d breathe in and out a few times, feel the water, and smile. I’d remind myself that “today was not just another day in my life” and I’d be grateful for the hot and cold water at my fingertips. Before the hamsters had a chance to wake up and start running around my head, I was able to transform my expletive-laden shower into a positive experience.

Just as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, I soon began looking for other ways I could practice taming the hamsters throughout the day: washing the dishes, making coffee, walking to work.

“Even when you are driving your car, you can practice. Take advantage of that moment to cultivate mindfulness….Breathe in and breathe out, and remain aware of everything that goes on inside you when, for example, you come to a red light. You look at the red light and you smile. The red light is not your enemy. It is a friend who is helping you come back to yourself.”

I’m no monk, but I don’t curse in the shower or get angry about traffic any more. I’m practicing hundreds of times a day now, gradually getting calmer and happier. Gradually becoming more intentional and more effective.

People first wrote about quieting the mind more than 2500 years ago and there are reasons why so many books are still being written on the topic: it’s important and it works.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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16 Responses to Taming the hamsters in my head

  1. Reblogged this on Houldsworth's Random Ramblings and commented:
    I really need to start doing this…

  2. The funny thing is that I almost didn’t read this because I was berating myself for not getting other things done…

  3. This post is like an egg, self-contained, elegant and nourishing. Thanks,

  4. Andrew.Kratz says:

    John, your post reminds me of this one from the summer below.

    The best thing to do the first thing in the morning according to this post is….do nothing. Get out of your own way and let your brain do its magic. It will clear away the clutter and let great ideas and clarity surface.


    • John Stepper says:

      Yes! These things are related. You can train your brain to spin more (wake up, check email, check social media, …) or to be calm (wake up, smile, practice yoga, breathing, or even just gratefulness).

      What’s empowering to know is that it’s a choice we can all make.

  5. rainabba says:

    I was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident back in 2000 (or 2001, the head-injury leaves many of the surrounding facts fuzzy and hard to hold on to). Not long before that accident, I was unable to find a reason to live, try as hard as I did. In fact, at one point I made a sincere effort to take my life.

    After that accident, I found that I could sit on a curb and stare at things and be content (though not in a stupor as I hope this message would convey *grin*). In the years since, I’ve felt “life” come back down on my shoulders little by little and I’ve been fighting to understand what changed then and since.

    I’ve been aware of my inner-dialog to some extent for years but this article puts it in a new light and I think it might be key to me learning what I’ve been looking for for years. Now that I have children, I’m confident that my demons are not coming back (they give me too much to live for), but I still hear that whispering occasionally and this might be the tid-bit I needed to create the awareness that will let me silence them and hear something more constructive instead.

    Thank you for this 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      That’s a very powerful comment. Cognitive based therapy seems to have helped many people (and makes intuitive sense to me – moreso, say, than older psychoanalytic techniques).

      I wish you well…

  6. Irene Johansen says:

    Hi John,

    I think this may be what I’ve been looking for for a while too, especially here…

    “Just as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, I soon began looking for other ways I could practice taming the hamsters throughout the day: washing the dishes, making coffee, walking to work.”

    I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks, as always, for exploring the edges and boundaries of living.

    • I haven’t been consciously working on this because it slipped my mind so these comments are helpful to bring the issue back to the foreground, but still I’ve found that having read this article and become conscious of the problem, I’m doing it less and feeling better about myself 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      Excellent, Irene! Keep practicing. There are cumulative benefits over time. You’ll just find yourself gradually being present more and more often.

      Awesome that you’re on your way.

  7. Pingback: A glimpse of rapture, a glimpse of peace | johnstepper

  8. Jake M (DB colleague, actually) says:

    “My wife heard me cursing to myself in the shower …”
    Bingo ! And I thought it was just me !! Thanks for putting it all out on the line (or online) … shows guts …

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