Nearly our entire conscious life is filled up with thoughts. Mundane thoughts, embarrassing memories, hopes for the future, and judgments of ourselves and others are constantly filing through our brains in an unending lineup.
Do you ever stop to think about your thoughts? Do you ever question them?
Because our thoughts are so present in our lives and because we rely on them to make almost all of our decisions, we sometimes end up treating our thoughts like they’re facts.
In lots of circumstances, it’s beneficial for us to automatically react based on our thoughts. If you have the thought, “I don’t want to be mauled by the bear that’s standing 10 feet away”, then acting on that thought by slowly moving away and finding a safe place to hide is a good thing (if that’s how you’re supposed to react to bears. I’m not sure on that, that’s not what this blog is about).
Unfortunately, we have a lot of other thoughts that aren’t as helpful. This is especially true when our thoughts are judgements.
Thoughts are thoughts, not facts
If you think “I’m stupid” or “I’m not funny” and believe the thought is a fact, it can have a serious negative impact on your self worth. Acknowledging that these are just thoughts, that you are not your thoughts and that your thoughts aren’t facts, can help lessen the blow of having these thoughts.
Everyone has moments of self-doubt, and everyone has things about themselves they wish they could change, that’s part of being human. But fixating on these things and believing that your negative perceptions are absolutely true can intensify your negative feelings, making you feel even worse.
Some people recommend going to the root of where those thoughts come from and trying to unravel them to stop the thought from repeating, others suggest trying to change the thought. These methods often take time and are intensely difficult to accomplish.
I recently learned about a new method that proposes distancing yourself from your thoughts called “defusion”. Steven Hayes, cofounder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, realized in his studies that people experiencing emotional issues tended to be ‘fused’ to their thoughts and had difficulty separating themselves from the thoughts they had about themselves. So he came up with some techniques to help people de-fuse from their thoughts.
By creating space between themselves and their thoughts, Hayes found patients were better able to distance themselves from the emotional pain those thoughts caused them.
Like shadows, our thoughts are connected to us, but they aren't us. We can distance ourselves from them, we can sit back and observe them, and in doing so we can lessen the influence they have over us.
For instance, take a moment to think one of your self-doubting thoughts, one that you find pops up quite often in your life. Whatever it might be - “I’m boring,” or "I'm ugly." Intentionally think it and try to believe it.
How did that feel? Did you feel sad? Embarrassed? Lonely? Did you notice any changes in how you physically felt - blushing, your stomach dropping, or feeling a lump in your throat?
Now try thinking, “I had a thought that I was ______.” Did you feel differently when you phrased it that way?
In my experience, when I have a negative judgment of myself, I often take it pretty hard. I feel sad, my stomach churns, my shoulders slump forward, and I hang my head. The first time I did this exercise and acknowledged my judgment as a thought and not necessarily the truth, I still felt a little sad, but it was for a very different reason.
After doing the exercise, I felt sad that my brain was being so critical and harsh. It made me want to be kinder to myself, to be more understanding. So instead of feeling down after a negative thought, I ended up feeling inspired to be a more compassionate person.
The above exercise is an example of noticing a thought and choosing to look at rather than from it. The more you do this, the easier it will become to notice a thought for what it is, and then let it keep floating by you so that you can continue on with your day.
Breaking the cycle
Thoughts aren’t inherently bad or good, but if you find yourself getting locked into negative thought patterns that affect how you feel about yourself or prevent you from doing the things you want to, it’s worth distancing yourself from those thoughts so that you can consider them more objectively to determine if they're helping or hurting you.
For instance, if you’re trying to lose weight, maybe you believe that having the thought “I’m fat” will help motivate you to eat better and exercise more. Chances are, it’ll do the opposite. By believing such a thought is true, you’ll probably feel sad, anxious, or angry. These emotions may lead you to eat emotionally, feel too low energy to go to the gym, or start to spiral into other negative emotions and self judgments.
If instead that thought pops into your head and you acknowledge it as a thought rather than believing it, you may decide it isn’t worth holding onto. Then you can let it go and instead use your values and goals to motivate you.
Negative thoughts are always going to come up, but how you react to them is up to you. Try giving yourself the space to notice the thoughts you’re having and to remind yourself that they aren’t facts. And remember to be kind - to yourself and others.
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