Don't Believe Everything You Think
Our brains are thought-creating machines.
What should I make for dinner....
I wonder what happened to so and so from high school....
I need to get milk....
and then the inevitable, I forgot to get milk....
The scientific community varies widely here, with a projected daily thought count somewhere between 3,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day.
Importantly, we know our brains love to repeat themselves. Some research indicates up to 90% of our thoughts are repetitive.
So, basically science tells us that we have TONS of thoughts each day, and that a lot of them are the same.
Your primitive brain is largely responsible for these repetitive thoughts. It’s the part of your brain that thrives on habit and efficiency; it wants to continue doing (and thinking!) what it’s always done (and thought!).
I like to think of these repetitive thoughts as the Background Static.
Imagine a television that’s always on in the next room. You hear it in the periphery, but you sort of get used to it being on, so you don't always pay close attention to it.
When you do take notice, it's often the negativity that captures your attention... it's the anger, resentment, grief and jealousy. Those are the emotions that speak the loudest, and unfortunately, they are often the ones we listen to.
Our thoughts are like that.
Always running in the background. Popping in and out of your consciousness.
The negative ones speaking a little more loudly, a little bit more insistent.
Some studies suggest up to 80% of our thoughts are negative.
But because we are so used to them being there, we often don’t take much notice of them. They are just the Background Static. And we passively take in their content, begin to believe the thoughts are true, and then wonder why we feel bad all the time.
The more we repeat thoughts, the more ingrained they become; often, without us even realizing.
Take a look below at some common thoughts most of us have had (ie continue to have, ALL THE TIME....).
Check in with those that ring true.
* There isn’t enough time in the day to do the things I need to do.
* Money is hard to come by; you need to work long and hard to make it.
* I can’t put myself out there again, I’ve been hurt too many times.
* I’m not qualified… smart enough… educated enough to do something like that. We’ve all been here….
* I need at least an hour to exercise or I might as well not even bother. I held on tightly to this one for YEARS!
* I’m afraid of speaking in front of others… heights… spiders… taking risks… being wrong… being judged by others… letting others down… realizing my own potential.
* I’m an introvert / extrovert; it’s just who I am.
* If I’m not following a diet, I’ll just eat everything in sight and gain 20 lbs. Sound familiar?
* I don’t trust myself to make good decisions.
* Once the kids get a little older, I’ll have more time for myself, and I can focus on getting healthy… trying yoga… getting back to my artwork etc...
* I’m such a screw-up, I never get anything right.
* I can’t be a good wife, mother and friend, AND successful professionally all at the same time - something has to give. You working moms feel me on this I know!
* There is a strong history of addiction in my family, there’s nothing I can do to escape it.
* I’ll never be good enough.... smart enough.... pretty or thin enough.
* You shouldn’t eat carbs at lunch. A big one of mine for a long time, like what on earth??
* Strong women are perceived as rude, bossy, and over-confident; it’s best to play small. Nooooo!
Insert any persistent thoughts from your own highlight reel as well.
And then take a look back at these sentences.
Are they true?
Really think about it…. Question it.
What if none of these thoughts are actually true? Not a single one.
What if they are just sentences in your head that you've believed so deeply and for so long that they just feel like the truth?
Just because we’ve thought something for a long time doesn’t make it true.
I’ll repeat that because it’s so important.
Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true.
You can observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them.
And once there is awareness, there is possibility for growth and change.
BELIEVING THE STORY IS OPTIONAL
“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.” - Byron Katie
So what can we do when we have a story that isn’t serving us, but we’ve thought it and deeply believed it for so long?
First, recognize that it might take time to dismantle it’s power in your brain.
Not because it’s not possible, but because we just love to make things more difficult than necessary ;)
You’ve clung to this thought, practicing it over and over in your head, maybe even thousands of times. One breath of awareness is unlikely to completely erase it from your mind.
So we keep coming back. Over and over again.
And here’s the KEY - we come back with openness, curiosity and compassion.
Especially with those more insidious ones.
I’ll never be good enough…..
I’m too fat…. skinny… ugly… tall… short…. wrong…. young…. old… awkward… uneducated…..
I’ll never be as good… successful… pretty… happy as my sister… friend… random person on social media…..
Tell yourself, these thoughts are just sentences in your head.
You can observe these thoughts, without getting attached to them.
You are learning to be aware of and curious about them.
Awareness of your thoughts can be challenging.
It can be hard to be alone with your thoughts.
It's alright. Nothing has gone wrong.
You are a human being with a human brain.
But you’re making way for awareness and compassion now; and that’s where your real power lies.
OK, so now we know that:
A: We have lots of thoughts each day
B: A boat load of them are negative and/or repetitive
What can we do about it?
Try this practice to remind yourself that your thoughts are optional. You get to choose what to think. On purpose. With intention.
STEP 1: CALL TO MIND A DISTRESSING SITUATION
A thought about something that happened today, or something that has been on your mind for a while.
Doesn’t need to be your deepest most distressing thought; start with something a little less emotionally charged. You can work up to those more challenging thoughts with time.
STEP 2: WRITE IT OUT
Write your thoughts down about this situation on a piece of paper. Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure or spelling.
** PRO TIP! REALLY, write it down. This work is so much more powerful when you can get some distance from it and see it from a different perspective.
STEP 3: QUESTION WHAT YOU WROTE
Go through each sentence/phrase and ask yourself, “Is this really true”.
** PRO TIP! I like to ask myself if everyone in the world would agree with the statement. If no, chances are it’s not a fact/true. Hint, it's usually not ;)
STEP 4: THE ** KEY ** QUESTION
Isolate one or two thoughts that stick out as challenging or disruptive.
Write them down and then ask yourself...
“Who would I be without this thought?”
How would you Show up? Act? Feel? Be?
For some of us, it feels impossible that we wouldn't carry that thought around with us. Our identities are so wrapped up in it. It's part of our story, our truth.
The idea that you don't have to think it, is so liberating; it can free up a whole new way forward for you.
It doesn't matter if you've thought it in the past, if you've believed it and fought for it, if you've shared it with others or created rules for your life by it.
None of that means it has to stay. None of it means that it's true. You have the choice to go forward without it.
Consider this the next time you are stuck in your own story. Call it up when you have a thought that feels particularly painful. Use it as a way to create a different perspective and show yourself another way.
You are your own best teacher.
There is so much freedom, space and self-discovery available when we approach our thoughts with compassion and inquiry, rather than our habitual judgment and criticism.
** PRO TIP!! This question is borrowed from Byron Katie, and I think it’s just absolutely brilliant. Katie is a speaker and author who teaches a method of self inquiry called, The Work. Her website has detailed information and a printable worksheet to practice the full 4 questions she teaches.
I hope you find this helpful as we take on this year of deep introspection, awareness and forward motion together.