Last week, a client and I were speaking in her session about the negative self-talk that was running through her mind ahead of a gig she had coming up the next day. In between sobs, she talked about how she couldn’t get the negative chatter out of her head and that she was terrified to sing this gig. She then mentioned that renowned opera coach Warren Jones often calls this negative voice a “pig” and that he advises his artists to learn to “keep the pig in the pen”.
Inspired by this metaphor, I’d love to explore two popular ways of dealing with negative self-talk and then propose a third way that, from what I’ve seen, is more effective and more in line with how we work as human beings.
Option #1: "We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Pen"
Some people figure that there’s nothing they can do about the pig, so they turn their effort instead to fortifying the pen. They learn all sorts of techniques and tricks to keep their negative thoughts at bay or lessen the emotional charge of the thoughts. Some might meditate or practice mindfulness; others might learn various “thought stopping” exercises or anti-anxiety techniques to do anytime they even begin to feel the pig getting out of control. The idea, in their mind, is that with enough work and practice, they’ll eventually keep the pig locked up, never to see the outside world again.
But as we all know, life happens, and despite our best efforts, the pig still eventually gets out. We think negative thoughts sometimes, despite our best efforts to control our thinking. There’s no wall we can build that can truly keep the pig in forever because ultimately, I don't think we have any long-term control over what thoughts show up or when.
Option #2: Turn the Pigs into Cute Puppies
Another popular way of dealing with the pig is, “Well, I don’t need to build a stronger pen – I just need to change the pig!” You see this approach often in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Positive Psychology, as well as other self-help models such as the Law of Attraction, The Secret, and affirmation work. The idea here is that if we challenge or neutralize the negative thoughts, replace them with positive ones, or if we find the right affirmations, mantras, and positive intentions, we’ll eventually become positive people who never have negative thoughts and vibrate in alignment with the positive energy of the universe.
But of course, that’s an exhausting full-time job! And again, no matter how hard we work at changing our thoughts and deliberately thinking more positively, negative thoughts will still show up. Additionally, you’ve probably had times where positive thinking didn’t make any difference in how you felt – or actually made you feel even worse!
I’d like to instead propose a third, disarmingly simple alternative:
Option #3: See it for what it is
When my client told me about Warren Jones’ pig metaphor, the first thing that occurred to me to say to her was:
“You don't need to do anything with or to the pig if you know it's a pig."
As I spoke, you could see the lightbulb go off in her head as she saw for herself the simple truth behind my words. She immediately began to settle down and get more relaxed and quiet than she had up to that point. You could literally see terror, grief, and frustration fall away from her. As we explored that truth more and wrapped up the session, she was laughing, beaming, and talking about how excited she was to head to the airport in a couple of hours and do that gig.
How did that happen? Well, my client saw something that I share often in my work: Your power lies not in doing, but in knowing. When we know how our mind works, we begin to see our thoughts in a new, liberating way. We see that thought is a formless energy that is by nature transient, fluid, and takes many forms. And contrary to popular belief, thoughts are much more random and arbitrary than we’re taught. They aren’t as personal as we tend to believe they are; our mind is much more like a random thought generator than a newsfeed of deeper truths about who we really are or what we really think. And we have a built-in system for alerting us if we ever get caught up in thought that isn’t helpful or true.
When we know that we’re listening to a pig, we’re not going to take what it says so seriously. As a result, we won’t worry so much about managing the pig or building up strong pens to hold it in. And it stops making sense to try and change the pig, because to paraphrase a popular saying, no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, well, it’s still a pig.
As we truly see the nature of thought for ourselves, our thoughts no longer have the weight they used to. It stops making sense to try and do something about them, because we know that like clouds in the sky, they will pass on their own if we let them.
Knowing this doesn’t mean we’ll never get tricked, or that we’ll always remember we’re listening to a pig. We might still get scared of our thoughts from time to time in the same way that we still get scared at the cinema sometimes even though we know we’re watching a movie. But when we can see it for what it is, it just doesn’t become that big of a deal anymore when we do get scared. And when we can take wrestling the pig off our plate, we’ll have more space and freedom to show up and live more fully in the world. That, and we’ll be a lot cleaner and less exhausted from not trying to corral the pig anymore 😉
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