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Are you stuck in your head, over-analyzing everything, replaying the same thoughts like a broken record? Are you unable to focus on what matters, zoning out, or becoming socially withdrawn because of racing thoughts often starting with “what if…?”.
“What if I’m not good enough? What if I didn’t do that report properly? What if I fail this class and don’t graduate on time?”
Living in your head can feel like being controlled by a dictator, keeping you from living a life of purpose and connection.
So how do you stop living in your head?
- Accept what you can’t control
- Step back from your thoughts
- Focus on the present moment
- Remove limiting self-definitions
- Live by your core values
- Take action toward what matters
This information is based on the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), supported by over 330 clinical trials.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these principles and how they can help you get out of your head.
Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
Table of Contents
Accept What You Can’t Control
When you are living in your head, you are often attempting to control things outside your control through over-analysis. The problem-solving mind thinks it has all of the solutions, leading to constant thinking.
“I can’t feel this way… I need to fix this… I can’t stand this!”
Although your rational mind is useful when doing logical things like fixing a car or doing financial reports, it is unhelpful when dealing with uncomfortable emotions.
As Russ Harris states:
“Stop trying to control how you feel, and instead take control of what you can do”
Acceptance of what you cannot control opens you up to the discomfort of uncertainty but liberates you from the eternal battle with your mind.
A common ACT metaphor is the Chinese finger trap. The harder you pull, the tighter it gets. Your mind works the same way. Try convincing your mind of something and you will quickly hear the mind’s counter-arguments.
You can continue the battle with the rational mind at the expense of less and less freedom to remain fully engaged in meaningful activities.
To use another common ACT metaphor, imagine you find yourself on quicksand. Your natural reaction might be to run or struggle. The more you do this, the faster you will sink.
A more effective approach is to lay down and make as much contact with the quicksand as possible. This increases your surface area, preventing you from sinking.
Here is a simple exercise designed to help you practice acceptance skills with your own forms of mental quicksand:
Think of a memory or thought you find yourself avoiding.
For the next minute, simply make room for the discomfort, noticing the specific sensations that come up. Where are these sensations located in your body? What emotions come up? What is your mind telling you about these sensations? Curiously tune into what is going on, noticing and making space for it.
Like the quicksand, the purpose of this exercise is to willingly make contact with the difficult area, allowing you to stop the pattern of avoidance that keeps you locked in an unnecessary and unproductive battle.
Step Back From Your Thoughts
It is easy to become entangled with your thoughts, trapped as they distort everything you see. A good day can be easily ruined by a bit of criticism, sparking a forest fire of negative thinking.
“I can’t believe he cut me off!… This is not fair!… I’m going to teach him a lesson!”
In order to stop this cascade of catastrophic thinking, take a step back from your thoughts, distinguishing the metaphorical forest from the trees.
When you step back and notice a thought, you are no longer entangled in it, giving you the freedom to choose what you want to do rather than simply reacting to the thought.
As stated by ACT founder Steven C. Hayes:
“What we need to learn to do is to look at a thought rather than from thought.”
This is especially useful when you notice common thought patters. For example, the thought “I’m not good enough” might show up every time you give a presentation. Rather than fusing with the thought, you can notice it, thank it for helping you stay prepared, and continue to give the presentation anyway.
Thoughts only have power over you if you buy into them as real. Like the Wizard of Oz, noticing a thought as just a thought is like revealing the harmless man behind the curtain.
Here is a simple but powerful ACT exercise called “do the opposite”, designed to develop distance between you (the observer) and your thoughts:
If you are currently sitting down, repeat to yourself, “I can’t stand up” several times. As you continue telling yourself you can’t stand up, simply stand up.
You can do these exercises with any thought. Notice what your mind is saying you can’t do, make space for that thought, and simply do the opposite. There is no need to argue or struggle with the thought. Just notice the thought, acknowledge its presence, and take it with you.
Focus On The Present Moment
When living in your head, most of your time is likely spent thinking about the past or worrying about the future.
“Did they misunderstand what I said the other day?… Will they be upset?… Did I make a mistake?… Will I regret this?
Notice how quickly these statements flip from the past to the future. They focus on everything but the present moment.
Although focusing on the present moment helps you stop living in your head, there is a time for thinking about the past or the future. Without this ability, we wouldn’t be able to learn from mistakes or plan for the future. The problem occurs when these thoughts become so frequent that they begin interfering with your life.
As Lao Tzu said:
“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Although this is a bit of a generality, it is important to refocus your attention on the present moment when the past or future thinking is no longer helpful.
So what does it mean to be focused on the present moment? Daniel J Siegel states:
“Mental presence is a state of being wide awake and receptive to what is happening, as it is happening in the moment, within us and between the world and us. Presence cultivates happiness.”
When you live in your head, you lose touch with the present moment. This creates a barrier between you and the world by preventing you from noticing opportunities for connection. It also prevents you from noticing the beauty in simple everyday things.
Here is an exercise you can do to practice getting out of your head and getting back in touch with the present moment:
If you are sitting down, bring your attention to the sensations in your body. Notice the sensation of your back or legs against the surface.
Now bring your attention to your feet, noticing how they feel against the surface they are resting on.
Now notice the sensation of your breath. Feel the rise and fall for a few moments. You may even now be aware of your heartbeat.
When you’re ready, bring your attention to your face. Notice any tension in your jaw, and simply let it go. You can then bring your attention to the sounds (or silence) around you. Notice the details of any sound. Listen to any sounds curiously, as if listening to a fine piece of music.
Now you can take a few moments to look around, curiously noticing the textures, colors, shapes, and placement of the things around you.
Any time you find yourself getting stuck in past or future thinking, take a moment to ground yourself in one of these areas. Some people find starting with the breath to be the most effective, whereas others prefer focusing on a body part like the feet.
Remove Limiting Self-definitions
Living in your head often results in excessive concern regarding self-image.
“Will they like me?… Am I good enough?… Am I smart enough?”
When you apply rigid labels to yourself, you are limiting your ability to connect with others. Holding too tightly to labels about yourself puts you into social comparison mode. Being “not good enough” implies self-comparison to a made-up standard.
These made-up standards could be ones portrayed by the media, or they could be learned early on in childhood. Either way, you take on the voice of that standard, criticizing yourself for never living up to it. The problem is that this standard is constantly out of reach like a donkey chasing a carrot on a stick.
Although it is tempting to replace the negative self-concepts with positive ones, these can be limiting and disconnecting too.
Positive rigid self-definitions contribute to social comparison and disconnection, similar to negative ones. For example, needing to identify as smart requires your mind to constantly justify this sense of smartness by comparison to others. This social comparison causes a sense of disconnection from others.
Rigid self-definitions are the ego’s armor, protecting a fragile underlying sense of self. Rather than countering low self-esteem with positive affirmations and false high self-esteem, opting out of this process altogether is more effective, helping you get out of your head and connect more deeply with others.
As stated by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth:
“Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. And don’t be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it’s their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don’t be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.”
Here is a metaphor from The Big Book of Act Metaphors you can use if you find yourself getting trapped in self-critical or grandiose thinking:
You are the sky and your thoughts are the weather. Clouds may come and go, become turbulent or calm, but no matter what happens with the weather, the sky above remains blue and unchanged. No matter how bad the weather, the sky always has room for it. When the clouds become thick and stormy, we may forget the sky is still there, but like flying in an airplane, when we rise above the cloud-line, the sky is clear, stretching in all directions.
You are not your thoughts. Rather, you are the awareness of your thoughts. Like the sky, you are the space that contains the thoughts. They can come and go like the weather, but remaining connected to the sense of yourself as an observer allows you to more flexibly act according to your values.
Live By Your Core Values
When you are living in your head, comparing yourself to others, you begin to live by external values rather than your own.
“Am I doing this right?… Am I doing enough?… Am I going to be successful?”
The media bombards us with messages that success means having money, power, privilege, or beauty. This false image of success keeps us always looking for more. Bigger, better, smarter, faster, stronger, more attention, more stuff! The more we get, the more we want.
So what is the true meaning of success?
It means living in alignment with your personal definition of success by taking meaningful actions in line with your values. A stated by Russ Harris:
“Success in life means living by your values.”
When living in your head, it is easy to get distracted by external definitions of success. External definitions of success give you a hollow goal, void of a deep sense of purpose.
Values are distinct from goals since they provide a sense of meaningful direction and do not have an end-point. Goals are finite, whereas values can be drawn on indefinitely, acting as a compass for action.
Here is a quick practical ACT exercise designed to help you get in touch with your personal values:
Imagine you have a mind-reading machine that can tell you the thoughts of someone close to you. Tune in to what that person is thinking about you. What are they thinking about what you stand for? What do they think are your personal strengths? What do you mean to this person? In an ideal world where you are the person you want to be, what do you hear this person thinking?
What theme do you see?
Come up with a few core values and keep them with you throughout the next week, being mindful of how they inform your actions.
Some examples of values include compassion, creativity, authenticity, community, order, justice, courage, curiosity, and loyalty.
Simply put, values are a way of being.
Rather than second-guessing yourself and worrying about what others are thinking, getting out of your head requires being mindful of your values, and acting in accordance with them.
Rather than getting lost in your thoughts, you can ask yourself one simple question: did I act in alignment with my values?
Take Action Toward What Matters
When living in your head, it is easy to procrastinate, hoping for some ideal time to take action.
“I’m just not ready yet… what if I fail?… am I an impostor?
This is the realm of perfectionism. When your desire for competence becomes distorted, you constantly question whether or not you are ready to take action. Impostor syndrome can take over, and you feel like you are a fraud.
When stuck in a state of analysis paralysis, we stall our efforts to take meaningful action toward what matters. So how do you get out of your head and begin to build behavioral momentum? The key is building habits into your daily routine. As Aristotle stated:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
The most effective way to build new behaviors is to slowly integrate new patterns of action into your daily routine.
Here is a practical guide to getting out of your head by incorporating meaningful behaviors into your life:
- Consider one of your core values from the previous exercise.
- List some new actions you can take to bring this value into the world.
- Create a goal for a specific action based on the SMART principle:
– Specific: Is this a specific goal, or is it too broad?
– Measurable: How would you measure progress toward this goal?
– Achievable: Is this a realistic goal?
– Relevant: Is this meaningfully connected to your values?
– Time-bound: What is your timeline/ deadline for this goal?
- Consider where you can slot this new action into your daily routine.
- Consider ways of amplifying this action within your routine over time.
- Continue to remind yourself how this action is based on your specific values.
Getting out of your head requires accepting what you can’t control, stepping back from your thoughts, focusing on the present moment, removing limiting self-definitions, living by your core values, and taking action toward what matters.
In short, it means letting go of the dictator within, reconnecting with your core values, and acting in alignment with those values.
Letting go of the dictator can help you gain freedom from addictions (notice the commonality between the two words). Addictions to alcohol, substances, gambling, gaming, the internet, or work are ways to turn the mind off and temporarily escape the dictator within. When you escape the dictator through these short-term methods, it comes back with a vengeance, leading to longer-term consequences and even stricter rules.
Trying to fight the dictator within only leads to a futile tug of war. You spend all your time struggling while the meaningful moments pass you by. The ACT techniques described in this article are designed to help you drop the rope.
This is not meant to be an easy process. Working on getting out of your head requires a degree of short-term discomfort that can lead to longer-term freedom.
You can undertake this process yourself or with the support of a mental health or addiction specialist who can partner with you on the journey.