We rely heavily on our thoughts. And this is understandable because they tell us about our life and how we should live it. They tell us how we are, and how we should be, what we should do, and what we should avoid.
And yet thoughts are nothing but words, because we use words not only when we speak, listen or write, but also inside us when we think. Words like these in this article we call “text”; spoken words we call “speech”; and words inside our head we call “thoughts.”
Thoughts are meaning-making tools called “words”
Words are our most important means of communication because they form a complex system of symbols, i.e., something that stands for something or refers to something else. They are tools for meaning-making: if you know what a word refers to, then you know its meaning and understand it.
And the same applies to the thoughts in our head: they are tools with which we can give meaning to everything we perceive, feel, observe, imagine or interact with: time, space, life, death, places, current events, and so on.
The close relationship between thoughts and words becomes apparent when you read a crime novel, for example. Once the words on the pages enter your mind, you can “see” or “hear” the characters and experience strong emotions. When these words describe a character in a dangerous situation, you react as if someone is really in danger: Your muscles tense up, your heartbeat quicken, your adrenaline levels rise.
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And yet, all you have in front of you are words, small black spots on a page.
We falsely think that our thoughts are the absolute truth we need to believe
Although thoughts are only words inside our heads, we often react to our thoughts as if they are the absolute truth or as if we must give them all our attention.
Like we react to words in a crime novel as if someone is about to be murdered, we react to words like “I’m useless” as if we actually are useless, and we react to words like “Nobody likes me” as if nobody actually likes us and we feel terrible.
If we let them, thoughts can become so powerful that it seems as if they are:
- Reality – what we think is actually happening here and now.
- The truth – we believe our thoughts completely.
- Important – we take our thoughts seriously and give them our full attention.
- Commands – we obey them automatically.
- Wise – we assume that they know best, and we follow their advice.
- Threats – some thoughts can be deeply disturbing or frightening, and we feel the need to get rid of them.
Are your thoughts helpful?
But the truth is that most of our thoughts are neither true nor false. Most of them are either stories about how we see life (our opinions, attitudes, judgments, beliefs, etc.) or what we want to do with it (our plans, wishes, strategies, goals, values, etc.).
So instead of focusing on whether your thoughts are true or false, it’s better to focus on whether your thoughts are useful. That is, if you pay attention to this thought, will it help you create the life you desire?
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For example, imagine you make a mistake at work, and the thought “I’m such an idiot” pops up in your mind. Now, is that thought helpful or demoralizing? Does it help you to improve the situation, or does it result in you putting yourself down and resigning yourself in frustration?
If this thought motivates you to take effective action, fair enough, then it’s useful. But all too often, that kind of negative thoughts aren’t beneficial; all they do is make us feel guilty, frustrated, or anxious.
Detach yourself from your thoughts
If the question “Is this thought helpful or not?” is a more useful approach, why don’t we do it? Because it’s tough when you’re too entangled in your thoughts and when they have the power to push you around.
So what you have to do is recognize your thoughts as nothing more than words in your head by detaching yourself from them. You have to create a little space between you and your thought, that allows you to notice your thoughts and then to decide if it’s useful or not.
And here is a very simple technique to help you do this.
“I’m having the thought that…” or “I notice that I’m having the thought that…”
Remember a disturbing negative thought that takes the form of “I am X.” For example: “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a fraud.” Pick a thought that comes back often, and that usually bothers and annoys you. Now focus on this thought for about ten seconds.
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Next, take this thought and insert one of these phrases in front of it: “I have the thought that…” or “I notice that I’m having the thought that…” Play this thought again, but this time with the sentence attached. Think of yourself: “I have the thought that I am X” or “I notice that I’m having the thought that I am X.” Notice what happens.
This simple phrase gives you a little space to your thoughts
You have probably noticed that by inserting these phrases, you have immediately gained a certain distance from the actual thought, as if you were stepping back from it.
Susan David puts it this way in her excellent book Emotional Agility – Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in World and Life: “No longer are you entangled and looking out at the world from the perspective of the negative thought. Rather, you’re looking at it. You’ve created space between the thinker and the thought. You’ve turned your telescope.”
You can use this technique with any unpleasant thoughts during the day or at night when you can’t sleep. For example, if your mind says, “Tomorrow is going to be terrible if I don’t sleep now,” then simply acknowledge “I’m having the thought that tomorrow is going to be terrible if I don’t sleep now.”
You realize that thoughts are no real threats to you
If you use these phrases, the effect of such unpleasant thoughts is immediately reduced, and you are less likely to be beaten or pushed around by your thoughts. Instead, you can let go of these thoughts and see them for what they are: nothing more than words passing through your head.
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These thoughts come and go. Whether they are true or not, if they are not helpful, you do not need to pay much attention to them or follow their advice. And most importantly, you realize that thoughts are not real threats. Even the most painful or disturbing thoughts are no threat to you.
A much smarter approach than challenging your thoughts
Also, notice that you haven’t challenged the thought at all. You have not tried to get rid of it, debated whether it is true or false, or tried to replace it with a positive thought. You have done something wiser, while the thought is still there, you have detached yourself from it.
This simple trick helps to end your inner struggle with your thoughts and signals to your brain that you are safe so that your mind can calm down – a much better long-term strategy than constantly trying to challenge your thoughts, which only increases your restlessness and anxiety.