- Dina Cohen
Don't Believe Everything You Think
I don't remember when I first heard this line, but I do remember being blown away by its wisdom. It sounds counterintuitive - why shouldn't you believe your own thoughts? - but once you know a little more about how thoughts work, it becomes easier to understand why this concept is so useful.
Your brain thinks thoughts all day because that's its job. Just as a healthy pancreas produces insulin, a brain produces thoughts. Some of the thoughts are important, and some are spam. Some thoughts are thoughts we like, and some are thoughts that make us uncomfortable. Some thoughts are true - and some aren't! Just because a thought originated from your brain doesn't mean you need to take it seriously.
Why all the fuss about thoughts? Because thoughts affect our emotions and behaviors. For example, if I think birthday cake is bad for me, I may experience fear associated with cake and avoid opportunites where cake is served. If I think everyone is judging me, I will feel shame and may stay home alone instead of hanging out with people. It starts from the top, so if we want to change dysfunctional behaviors, we have to identify the thoughts that are driving them.
How does our brain decide which thoughts to think? Thoughts can be formed from things we encounter in our current environment, such as reading the news or conversations with others, or they can originate from way in the past. They may be ideas we came up with to help explain how the world works, and they can be completely accurate or complete nonsense. If you have a nonsense thought that is not interfering with your life, you don't necessarily need to address it. But if you are living life based on a harmful lie, then we need to pay attention to that. Most of my clients have engaged in very limiting or harmful behaviors because of old ideas that were completely untrue.
Here are some common problematic thoughts that lead to dysfunctional eating behaviors:
I need to look a certain way to be valued
Everyone else's needs always come before my own
I don't deserve other people's care
I am inadequate
My body is all wrong
I need to exercise to deserve food
My worth is dependent on how I eat
Needing food is something to be ashamed of
I can prevent bad things from happening by eating perfectly
People are judging me
I don't measure up
I'm not sick enough to deserve treatment
Maybe other people can recover but it won't happen for me
Of course, there are many more. But maybe you can relate to some of the problematic thoughts above, and maybe you engage in the behaviors they can cause, such as undereating, eating in the absence of hunger, self-critcism, overexercising, obsessing about food, obsessing about your body, and avoiding social interactions.
It can be painful to accept that your brain, well-intentioned as it may have been, led you down the wrong path. But the good news is that you don't have to let these thoughts dictate your behaviors any longer. If you formed certain beliefs growing up, you don't have to hold onto them anymore. You are an adult and can think new thoughts. You may not be able to stop your brain from sending you "pop-ups", but you don't have to agree with them. You don't have to believe everything you think.
A core principle of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is being able to have a thought in your head that says one thing and act according to your values instead of the unhelpful thought. For example, your brain might send you a message saying, "If you skip the gym today it means you are lazy," but you can choose to ignore it because you value attending your child's school performance more than going to the gym. I know it's hard to ignore something that originates in your own head, but the truth is that having the thought in your head doesn't have to mean anything at all. You can think, "I'm a bad mother if I use these five minutes to eat breakfast instead of making my daughter the fancy hairdo she really wants" and eat breakfast anyway because you are working on taking better care of yourself?
What if you are having a really hard time with the thoughts? What if you really do believe that you are inadequate, selfish, ugly, beyond hope, or whatever other negativity your brain is sending you? You may benefit from some good therapy to help uncover where these thoughts came from and how to work through them, but you might also want to try affirmations. I know, I know, affirmations might sound like cotton candy, but it seems there is research showing that affirmations can help even if you don't believe them. I never understood this until I heard my wonderful mentor Jessica Setnick say that affirmations can help remind you that there is another way to look at things. Your brain might be telling you you're ugly, but when you practice saying the affirmation, "I am beautiful", it reminds you that there's another way to look at the situation. Maybe someone else thinks you're beautiful. Maybe one day you too will see yourself as beautiful. Other possibilities exist outside the one in your own brain!
You can find lists of recovery affirmations online (here is a sample from a client) but it is very powerful to make your own personalized affirmations. You can flip an old negative belief or come up with a new one that reflects your values. If you struggle with feelings of unworthiness, practice saying, "I have unconditional value" - even if you don't yet believe it! If you have poor body image but want to be taking better care of yourself, try saying, "I can show myself respect even when I don't like my body."
This is hard work, but it really is life-changing. Remember, your brain is just an organ doing what it does best - producing thoughts. But it works for you! YOU are the boss! Choose to act on the thoughts that reflect your values, the ones that are coming from a place of healing and not from fear. This is a critical step in your recovery.