A Useful Way to Think About Thoughts
Here's a guest post by Bracha Halberstadt, who is a social work student, recovery advocate, and overall lovely person! Check out what she has to say on this critical topic.
We all have tens of thousands of thoughts going through our head each day.
“I am so done with social distancing.”
“I mess up everything I do.”
“It’s so sunny today.”
“Eating (insert specific food here) is a bad idea.”
Where do our thoughts come from?
A million places, really.
Our thoughts are created through a combination of:
The facts we perceive through our senses (like what we see or hear).
The emotions that we feel and the mood that we’re in.
Our likes and dislikes.
The beliefs we have about the world around us (which are created through our personal life experiences).
Other peoples’ thoughts and words and behaviors.
The messages that society feeds us.
Here's the thing: our thoughts aren’t always rooted in fact. (Facts are only one of the causes of thought on the above list).
Maybe you’ve noticed how your thoughts and opinions can shift without much warning.
You can be certain that you will do great in college, and then start thinking that you’re bound to fail your first test.
One minute, you’re thinking that you look good in what you’re wearing, the next minute, you’re having thoughts of intense dislike towards your body.
Noticing how our thoughts often don’t remain consistent serves as a reminder that our thoughts are not always a representation of reality.
And sometimes, acting on our thoughts takes us to pretty unfortunate places.
Acting on the thought “I’m going to mess up” means becoming too scared to brave uncertainty, to take important risks.
Acting on “I’m not good enough,” means throwing away recovery and moving towards self destruction in an effort to ‘fix ourselves.’
Acting on “No one will ever truly like me” means losing out on the chance of real and meaningful relationships.
But with tens of thousands of thoughts going through our head all day, how do we differentiate between what is helpful and what is not?
And what exactly do we do with all those super unhelpful thoughts that our brains just insist on generating?
Don’t Get onto that Train!
I like to give the analogy of a railroad system.
Our minds are like train tracks, open and accepting to the different thoughts that will come along.
Our thoughts are the train cars. They come; they go. Sometimes they are quite fleeting, sometimes they come back for round two.
The trouble starts when we jump onto the train cars. We get caught up in rumination; we take our thoughts too seriously. We race into this endless thought cycle, getting caught up in the exhaustion and dizziness. And too often, we make poor decisions or fall into unhealthy behaviors, mistaking the thought trains for reality.
What helps is learning to be mindful of our thoughts.
Mindfulness of thought means standing on the platform, watching our thoughts go by. We label the trains as thoughts, notice the information they are giving us, remember that the trains are our perceptions of the objective truth.
Being mindful of our thoughts means remembering that we aren’t the train.
It means remembering that we don’t have to jump onto the train.
It means we can simply learn to watch the train.
And once we notice these thought trains, we can ask ourselves some important questions:
How much of this thought is actual hard-core fact?
Is acting on this thought in line with my values?
Will acting on this thought match my overall goals?
It’s OK to Live with Nonsense in your Brain
That might sound weird, or even make you uncomfortable.
But the truth is, even if we decide not to act on specific thoughts, it’s okay if they remain in our brain.
Thoughts are just that… thoughts.
They don’t define us.
Because we aren’t our thoughts.
We are wise and courageous humans, and we get to make the decisions about what we want to do.
And incidentally, the less concerned we are with the unhelpful thoughts’ existence, the more our neuropathways learn to stop feeding us those thoughts.
Sometimes it may be helpful to imagine unhelpful thoughts as oddly dressed cabooses, chugging along belting out interesting tunes.
‘Dressing up’ our thoughts in our minds gives us that important distance between ourselves and our thoughts.
Our thoughts can move along, often giving us helpful information about how we are relating to the world around us, what our needs are, what is going on in our lives.
But ultimately, we are the ones who make the decisions in our lives.
So remember: don’t get onto that train!