5 Ways to Handle the Punches Your Mind Throws at You

Like many Ohioans, I’ve been pumped for the arrival of warmer weather. Besides the typical reasons, I had one extra: it would be time to set up our basketball hoop.

I bought an in-ground basketball hoop on Black Friday, and I couldn’t wait for the ground to thaw to put it in. Miraculously, my curious kids never asked what was in the box that sat in our garage all winter.

With my oldest son’s birthday coming up, I told the kids about the basketball hoop. Caleb’s squeal of joy was music to my ears.


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Though I’m not very handy, I wanted to do as much as I could to set it up. I watched the how to install video half a dozen times and took notes. I got my hands on the necessary tools and materials. Knowing my limits, I asked my friend, Eric, to help pour the concrete.

I started to dig.

My aim was to have most if not all the digging completed by the time Eric came over. We were going to install it on a Sunday afternoon, so on Saturday I got started.

I dug to 22 inches, over half the of the required 36 inches.

On Sunday, I began to dig an hour before Eric would arrive. Soon I hit 24. Then 28. 30. 34. Almost there.

Then it happened.

I pounded my boot on the shovel, and I heard a “crack,” and water started filling the hole. Various words followed by exclamation points that I won’t type ran through my head.


There’s Nothing Quite Like Beating Yourself Up

My neighbor, Sean, was outside and kindly let me borrow their pool pump to try to get the water out of the hole. Eric arrived soon after.

A couple other neighbors came over. We thought I had hit a drainage pipe, but the water kept coming. Forty-five minutes later, I called the water company.

The crowd of supportive neighbors grew larger, and the voice in my head got louder.

“Why do you suck so bad?”

“You can’t even dig a hole right.”

“You’re an embarrassment to your family.”

And on and on.

I had hit our water line, which a plumbing company fixed two days later. The basketball hoop project was way more expensive than expected. The icing on the cake is that we have to wait three months for the ground to settle until I put up the basketball hoop.



Can You Relate?

Is your mind as friendly and helpful as mine? From what I’ve heard from clients in my counseling practice, I bet it is.

Our minds are remarkable. Our ability to analyze situations, solve problems and more has been a gift to humankind.

Our minds are also gifted at beating us up.

For most of my first thirty years of life, my mind earned a black belt in beating me senseless. If I fell short in a scenario, real or perceived, my mind pounded me mercilessly.

How about you? Is your mind a martial arts expert who likes to focus its rage on you, too?

Imagine you were brave (or crazy) enough to step into a boxing ring at a gym. If you had second thoughts about getting punched in the face, you can leave the boxing ring.

Here’s the rub. There’s no getting out of the ring with your mind.

I used to be crazy enough to get into a boxing ring. In college, I got involved with Ohio Northern’s kickboxing team for a few years. It was fun and (at times) painful. I learned two ways to avoid getting punched in the face.

The first, bobbing and weaving, looks the coolest. If you do it right, your opponent looked hapless as you time their punches and dodge them all.

Misjudge a punch…and you duck right into it. Nap time!

The second and safer strategy is keeping distance. Moving your feet so that your opponent can’t reach you. If they do connect, it’s a glancing blow rather than a knockout punch.

Here’s the take home: You will never get out of the ring with your mind. Difficult thoughts are going to come. You need to learn to distance yourself from them, rather than trying to defeat them.

Without further ado, let’s get into some strategies on how to achieve that distance.


5 Strategies to Get Distance from Difficult Thoughts*

1. Write them down/check them off.

As I’ve discussed, our instinct is to avoid difficult thoughts. If the thought hits you in a raw spot, you want to ignore it.

Instead of avoiding them, grab a piece of paper. Notice what your mind is telling you about yourself and your life. Write down every difficult thing your mind has to say.

Then as you go through your day, keep that (not so) fun list with you. Whenever you notice your mind telling you one of those thoughts, put a check by it.

At first, being more aware of your difficult thoughts can feel quite uncomfortable. But if experiment with this, your thoughts may not hit you as hard.

You may notice that your mind isn’t very creative. It tends to tell you the same thing over and over.

With this in mind, to get even more distance from difficult thoughts, you can…


2. Name the story.

Look through the list you wrote down. How many of those thoughts are brand new? Odds are none of them. I bet most of those thoughts have run through your mind thousands of times.

Imagine that I was making a documentary of the thoughts that run through your mind. Look through all the thoughts that you wrote down. Identify the major theme, then give it a title.

For example, the thought that I am a failure has been a major struggle for me in different seasons of life. If I hit a roadblock (or a water line), my mind loves to hit me with a, “You’re failing story.”

Got your title? Good. Now give this a try.

On the blank side of the paper where you wrote down your difficult thoughts, write this: “Aha, here it is again. The ‘X’ story. I know this one.”

After I hit our water main, I saw my mind was breaking out its familiar strategy. After I recognized what was happening, I could say, “Here it is again, the I’m failing my family story.” That gave me some distance. I could refocus on what’s important to me and move forward.


3. Personify the thoughts.

I’ll keep running with my “you’re a failure,” example. I know that I’m not the only person who deals with that one.

When our mind is punishing us as with this overwhelming, harsh voice, it is agonizing. It can take us to some dark places.

What if you imagined a movie or cartoon character saying the thought? Would it still hit you like a ton of bricks? Or might you not take it so seriously?

The first one that I go to is Dr. Evil. If I envision him telling me in that goofy voice, “You’re a failure,” the thought doesn’t have the same impact.

Spend a few minutes playing with the difficult thought. Imagine a movie or cartoon character saying it in their voice. Where are they? Are they standing by you? Or is it a tiny version of them sitting on your shoulder?

See if that helps you get some distance from the difficult thought.

Note: I would not recommend experimenting with this strategy if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or if you are trying to heal from a traumatic experience. This strategy seeks to break thoughts down into words and pictures with emotion attached to them. In the situations I just mentioned, this exercise can easily backfire.


4. Learn that you aren’t alone.

Two of the most powerful words we can hear from someone we love and respect is, “Me too.”

It takes vulnerability to open up about your problems. You want to be wise with whom you share your battles. That being said, isolating yourself doesn’t help you win your battles. Isolation compounds them.

After I busted our water main, my friend Eric and my dad (both of whom are handyman superstars in my estimation) told me stories of their home mishaps. That helped my wounded pride. Though not my hurting wallet.

Realizing that we aren’t alone in our struggles helps reduce their potency. Sharing your struggles with people who love you can lead to empathetic support that you need. And you may hear, “Me too.”


5. Pull yourself back into the present.

Another strategy is to get present when you get trapped in your head by difficult thoughts. Then do what’s important to you in that moment.

A powerful skill that will help you get more present in the moment is Dropping Anchor. I covered how to learn it in this post.

These aren’t the only skills that can help you get distance from difficult thoughts. But they are a good place to start. Experiment with them for a few weeks and see if one or two prove to be particularly helpful for you.


*Most if not all of these strategies come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which I learned from Russ Harris. He’s a leading practitioner and trainer of ACT. He’s a big deal, and I’m a huge fan.


Are you struggling with loss & grief, anxiety, or burnout and live in Ohio? Reach out to me at Oak Harbor Counseling Services. My office is conveniently located in northern Columbus. You can learn more about my counseling practice here or email me at [email protected].
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Brent Flory

Brent is a licensed professional counselor in Columbus, Ohio. He works with adults and adolescents, and specializes in helping people who are struggling with anxiety, loss & grief, and burnout.
In his spare time, he enjoys hanging out with his family, playing basketball, and eating too much ice cream.

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