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Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing how important our state is when it comes to showing up as our best selves and creating the lives we want to live. Our state determines what thoughts are available to us. Our thoughts determine how we feel, how we behave, and what results we create. So, when we take responsibility for our state, we give ourselves the freedom to think, feel, and act the way we choose.

Our mental state – the combination of our thoughts, emotions, and overall psychological well-being – plays a central role in how we experience and navigate the world around us.

Think of how you show up in the world when your primary emotion is anxiety vs when your primary emotion is content. Think of how you show up in the world when your mind is full of worry and catastrophizing vs when your mind is full of ideas and possibilities.

Yet, for many people, their mental state often feels like something that is largely out of their control, subject to the whims of external circumstances, genetics, and random chance.

However, a growing body of research suggests that we have far more power and agency over our mental state than we might think. While we can’t always control the external events and situations that trigger certain thoughts and emotions, we do have the ability to influence how we perceive, interpret, and respond to those triggers.

By taking responsibility for our inner world and making intentional efforts to cultivate it, we can profoundly improve our overall well-being, resilience, and ability to thrive even in the face of life’s challenges.

In this article, we’ll explore both the scientific research and timeless wisdom on taking responsibility for your mental state. We’ll look at practical steps you can take to intentionally shape your thoughts, emotions, and overall psychological health – leading to a more fulfilling, meaningful, and empowered life.

The Power of Taking Responsibility

One of the core pillars of mental health and well-being is the concept of locus of control – the degree to which individuals believe they have power over the events and circumstances that affect their lives. Those with an internal locus of control believe that their own actions and choices play a major role in determining outcomes, while those with an external locus of control feel that their lives are largely shaped by factors outside of their control.

Research has consistently shown that an internal locus of control is strongly associated with better mental health outcomes. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that individuals with an internal locus of control reported higher levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem, and sense of well-being, as well as lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[1]

The reason for this is fairly intuitive – when we believe that our thoughts, feelings, and actions can meaningfully impact our circumstances, we are more likely to take an active, empowered role in shaping our lives. Conversely, if we perceive ourselves as passive victims of external forces, we are more prone to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and a general lack of agency.

This dynamic is perhaps best encapsulated in the famous Serenity Prayer, attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”[2]

The wisdom here lies in the recognition that we have a choice in how we respond to the circumstances of our lives. While there will always be aspects of our experience that are outside of our control, we have far more influence over our inner world than we might realize.

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James, pioneering psychologist

The Wisdom of the Ancients

The idea of taking responsibility for one’s mental and emotional state is hardly a new concept. In fact, it is a central theme in many of the world’s oldest and most revered philosophical and spiritual traditions.

In the Stoic tradition of ancient Greece and Rome, for example, the notion of “locus of control” was a core principle. Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius emphasized the critical distinction between what is within our power (our thoughts, judgments, and actions) and what is not (external circumstances, other people’s behavior, etc.). The Stoics believed that by focusing our efforts on the former and accepting the latter, we could achieve a profound sense of inner peace and equanimity.

As Epictetus wrote,

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”[3]

The Stoics saw this ability to consciously control our responses as the key to living a virtuous and fulfilling life.

Similarly, in Buddhist philosophy, the concept of “mindfulness” – the practice of present-moment, non-judgmental awareness – is understood as a powerful tool for taking responsibility for our mental state. By becoming more attuned to the stream of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise moment-to-moment, we can learn to observe them with clarity and equanimity, rather than being swept away by their currents.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and founder of logotherapy

The ancient wisdom traditions recognized that while we may not be able to control the events and circumstances that arise in our lives, we do have the capacity to shape our inner experience of them. By cultivating qualities like self-awareness, emotional regulation, and a sense of agency, we can take responsibility for our mental state and unlock our full potential for growth, resilience, and well-being.

The Science of Mental & Emotional State Cultivation

While the ancients intuited the importance of taking responsibility for one’s mental state, modern psychology and neuroscience have provided us with an increasingly robust scientific understanding of how this can be achieved.

One of the most well-studied and empirically validated approaches is the practice of mindfulness meditation. Numerous studies have shown that regular mindfulness practice can have a profound impact on our mental and emotional state, leading to reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as increases in focus, emotional regulation, and overall well-being.[4]

The mechanism behind these benefits is twofold. First, mindfulness practice cultivates meta-cognitive awareness – the ability to observe our own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations with a sense of distance and objectivity. This allows us to respond to our inner experiences with greater wisdom and intentionality rather than being swept away by them.

Secondly, mindfulness has been shown to stimulate neuroplasticity – the brain’s remarkable capacity to change and adapt its structure and function in response to our experiences and behaviors. Numerous studies have found that regular mindfulness practice leads to increased grey matter density in brain regions associated with learning, memory, emotion regulation, and perspective-taking.[5]

In other words, by consciously directing our attention and cultivating qualities like present-moment awareness and non-judgment, we can literally reshape the neural architecture that underlies our mental state.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” – William James

Beyond mindfulness, research has also highlighted the importance of other mental state cultivation practices, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), self-compassion exercises, and even practices like journaling and visualization.

In CBT, for example, individuals learn to become aware of and challenge the negative, distorted thought patterns that contribute to emotional difficulties. By replacing these maladaptive thought patterns with more constructive, reality-based cognitions, people can experience significant improvements in mood, anxiety, and overall well-being.[6]

Similarly, self-compassion exercises – which involve treating oneself with the same kindness, care, and understanding that we would offer to a dear friend – have been shown to enhance emotional resilience, reduce stress, and promote a greater sense of life satisfaction and well-being.[7]

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

Practical Steps for Cultivating Your Mental & Emotional State

So, how can you take practical steps to take responsibility for your mental state and intentionally shape it in a more positive direction? Here are some research-backed strategies to consider:

1. Cultivate Self-Awareness. Regularly pause to tune into your internal experience – noticing the thoughts, sensations, and impulses that arise in response to different situations.

2. Develop a regular mindfulness meditation practice. Start with just 5-10 minutes per day, focusing on the sensations of your breath or body. Over time, gradually increase the duration and explore different mindfulness techniques.

3. Challenge unhelpful thought patterns. Notice when you’re engaging in distorted or irrational thinking (e.g., catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, black-and-white thinking) and consciously replace those thoughts with more balanced, reality-based perspectives.

4. Practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with the same kindness, care, and understanding that you would offer to a close friend. Try exercises like writing yourself a compassionate letter or doing a self-compassion meditation.

5. Cultivate a growth mindset. Believe that your abilities and qualities are not fixed, but can be developed and improved through effort, practice, and perseverance. Reframe setbacks and challenges as opportunities for growth.

6. Cultivate positive emotional states. Engage in activities that naturally uplift you, such as spending time in nature, practicing gratitude, or connecting with loved ones. Use techniques like visualization, affirmations, or cognitive-behavioral exercises to intentionally shift your mindset and emotional experience.

7. Build emotional regulation skills. Ultimately, taking responsibility for our emotions is not about trying to eliminate or suppress them, but rather developing the skills to work with them. This might involve learning techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or cognitive reappraisal to help us respond to intense emotions in healthy, adaptive ways.

8. Move Your Body. Numerous studies have shown that exercise can have a profound impact on mental health, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety while boosting mood, cognitive function, and overall well-being. Even simple exercises like shaking can shift your mental and emotional state in a matter of seconds.

9. Prioritize sleep, nutrition, and other self-care practices. Taking care of your physical health lays the foundation for a healthy mental state. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night, a nutrient-rich diet, and other self-care habits that nourish your mind and body.

10. Seek support and community. Surround yourself with people who uplift and empower you. Consider joining a support group, working with a therapist, or building meaningful connections with others who share your values and aspirations.

11. Reflect and journal. Set aside time each day to engage in reflective practices like journaling, gratitude exercises, or visualization. This can help you gain clarity, process emotions, and cultivate a more intentional relationship with your inner world.

12. Embrace the process. Remember that cultivating a healthy, empowered mental state is an ongoing journey, not a destination. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate the ups and downs, and celebrate even small steps in the right direction.

Conclusion

In a world that often feels beyond our control, taking responsibility for our mental and emotional state can be a powerful act of personal empowerment and growth. By drawing on both the wisdom of the ancients and the insights of modern science, we can learn to shape our thoughts, emotions, and overall psychological well-being in ways that lead to greater fulfillment, resilience, and joy.

Remember, the key is not to strive for some idealized state of constant positivity but rather to cultivate the self-awareness, emotional regulation, and sense of agency that allows us to navigate the full spectrum of human experience with greater clarity, wisdom and intentionality.

As you cultivate a helpful mental and emotional state, the thoughts you want to think and the feelings you want to feel will become increasingly accessible. The more you make this your focus, the less you will have to focus on it because you will be creating a system that feeds itself, creating momentum toward everything you desire.

So, take the first step today. Commit to becoming the architect of your own mental state, and watch as the ripple effects of that choice transform your life in profound and meaningful ways.

Live Free. Love Life.

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References:

[1] Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80(1), 1-28.

[2] Niebuhr, R. (1951). The Serenity Prayer. Available at: https://www.wiseoldsayings.com/serenity-prayer/

[3] Epictetus. (2008). The Enchiridion. Translated by George Long. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[4] Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.

[5] Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.

[6] Beck, A. T. (2005). The current state of cognitive therapy: a 40-year retrospective. Archives of general psychiatry, 62(9), 953-959.

[7] Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and identity, 2(3), 223-250.

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