Think about what that actually means.
We’ve all been taught, culturally and through experience, versions of ‘I think, therefore I am’. We all associate ourselves with what is in our mind. After all, if you’re really not your thoughts, if the thoughts you have are the same old ones everyone has, then what makes you, you? Where is your individuality? We’re taught our whole lives to think. Sharing our thoughts contributes a lot to whether other human beings become close to us or avoid us. If your thoughts are negative, then that puts you in the horrible position of assuming that your true self is negative (or weak, or mean, or whatever spin your thoughts can have).
But what if you’re not your thoughts, but rather a unique being based on your values, and the way you express them? This concept is one which is central to ACT, the most recently developed therapeutic approach in treatment of mental health conditions by Psychologists. Instead of saying that the thoughts you’re having are ‘yours’, you assess them as simply tools, things which are helpful or not only in the context as to whether they help us live more of our values, or less.
The reason we hold onto particular thoughts despite their destructive qualities is because we see them as who we are – otherwise, we wouldn’t be so inclined to hold onto destructive thinking. It’s like having a really nasty pet that bites all the time. If that was a wild animal or someone else’s dog, you’d run away from it! But if it’s your pet, then you keep persisting with it, even if it’s not contributing anything to your family life and costing you a lot of money.
The way through this mess is to no longer assume your thoughts represent who you are, but instead to see them as a conveyor belt of passing ideas that you can pick and choose from. If you really tune in and watch your thoughts, then you’ll know that the range and depth of thoughts that enter your mind is huge. And everyone has had, at one point or another, a thought like ‘I want to kill them!’ when really frustrated. But you don’t kill them. Because you know that it’s just a thought, not a true representation of what’s happening for you. With extreme thoughts like that, it’s easy to recognise that they’re not the truth, and you dismiss them easily. You don’t pick them up from the conveyor belt or if you do, you put them back down pretty quickly (engage in a small fantasy, then get over it).
Thoughts that feel more like ‘you’ however, you pick up and stuff in your pockets. Things you really believe you pick up, grab tightly, and hold up in front of your face so they obscure all the other thoughts going past you on that conveyor belt. If the thoughts you cling to bring you closer to what you want, then that’s okay. But if those thoughts stop you from doing what you’d like, or being the person you’d ideally prefer to be, then they need to go back on the conveyor belt. Let them go!
How to Do this
Increase Your Awareness
Firstly, you need to become more aware of what thoughts you have. Some people are naturally observant and analytical and will already know what their thoughts are, for other people it’s more of a challenge. If you’re not used to watching your thoughts, you need to practise. A simple way to practise is to sit down with a blank bit of paper and write for one minute. You can write whatever you want. Whatever you write = your thoughts. Repeat this throughout the day, for several days, until you can tune into your thoughts without needing to have a pen and paper to do so.
Experiment with different thoughts
Practise telling yourself different things about a situation. When you find yourself waiting for something, see what you’re thinking about the situation. Then, change it. Deliberately tell yourself the opposite of what you have been thinking. See how much you can get yourself to really believe in the opposite. You can also try for a trilogy approach: what would a grateful person, an angry person, or an anxious person be telling themselves in this situation? This exercise trains your brain to look for other thoughts that exist on that conveyor belt. It’s also training you how to put back thoughts onto the conveyor belt: how to change your thoughts to something else that will be more useful to you living your values and reaching your goals.
Ask ‘Is this helpful?’
Once you’re used to experimenting and changing your thoughts according to your intention, you can start to ask yourself ‘Is this helpful?’ At first, it’s easiest to do this by sticking a note on the fridge, setting an alarm on your phone, or getting used to asking and being asked this question by a trusted friend. When considering how helpful a thought is, consider if it’s making you feel better or worse, or bringing you closer or further to your goal, or closer or further away from the kind of person you want to be. This is the end goal: being able to discard or hold onto thoughts according to how useful they are to you in creating the life you want. If a thought isn’t helpful, feel free to put it back. Let It GO! And adopt a thought which fits better with what you’re aiming for.
Want to know more about how to use this concept in your life? Contact me for a personal development session today.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.