The Biggest Mistake We Make When Trying To Practice Mindfulness

Image: Jayme Burrows

Mindfulness can sometimes feel like a miracle cure, a panacea that can tackle both mental and physical ailments alike. A mindful outlook or practice can lower stress, ease negative emotions, lessen physical pain, and make sex more pleasurable. Indeed, the upsides to mindfulness seem endless.

Are there any downsides? That's debatable—but a new study suggests there's at least one big mistake we fall prey to while trying to be mindful that can lead to some pretty negative outcomes.

The Italian study looked at different aspects of having a mindful personality—that is, a natural tendency toward being aware of their own emotions and thoughts—and how they correlate with incidents of depression and anxiety among participants. Participants answered questions about their symptoms of depression, anxiety, rumination, and worry, and they also filled out a questionnaire about their adherence to five different facets of mindfulness: observing, which relates to noticing what's going on around and within themselves; describing, which is how apt the participants are at labeling their experiences; acting with awareness rather than being on autopilot; non-reacting, which means allowing one's emotions and ideas to come and go without reacting to them; and non-judging, or viewing one's thoughts and feelings without judging them.

It's this last trait that seemed to be posing a problem for mindfulness seekers. The findings showed participants who admitted to having strong judgments about their thoughts and feelings were more prone to depression and anxiety.

It's easy to understand how one can slip from the positive outcomes of mindfulness—understanding and accepting oneself—and accidentally fall into the trap of self-judgment. But taking notice of one's flaws, emotions, or upsetting feelings isn't the same as judging them. When we attach a harsh judgment to an already difficult thought or feeling, we're just adding salt to an already painful wound.

"When individuals criticize themselves and their feelings, thoughts, and emotions, they experience higher levels of suffering," the paper notes. "Such self-criticism, far from being helpful in getting rid of negative moods and beliefs, exacerbates the very same negative thoughts and emotions that they are experiencing."

In other words, as we progress in developing a mindful state of being and start being able to observe our inner workings, it's important we're not responding by judging what we're now able to see about ourselves. Practicing forgiveness is part and parcel of practicing mindfulness.

In the midst of a self-judgment storm, stop and ask yourself, "Would I talk this way to a good friend?" And if you're feeling stuck in a critical spiral, try the metta, a loving kindness meditation. Taking just a few minutes to wish ourselves to be safe, healthy, and free from suffering can help shift our state from one of judgment to one of self-love. 

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