It doesn’t matter so much whether your thoughts are true or not; what matters is are they are helpful? A negative thought about yourself may actually be true, but if it is not helpful you shouldn’t pay attention to it. So dealing with your thoughts really comes down to paying attention to helpful thoughts and not paying attention to unhelpful thoughts.
After trying to stomp the ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts), I’ve found it is only partially successful. Studies show that our mind chatter is approximately 80% negative. I think I’ve finally got my ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) together on my negative thoughts. ACT tell us to pay attention to helpful thoughts and to diffuse unhelpful thoughts.
How to Think About Thoughts
I love this list of the things you should consider about your thoughts. It comes directly from the wonderful book on ACT by Russ Harris The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living
- Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories, or bits of language.
- Thoughts may or may not be true; we don’t automatically believe them.
- Thoughts may or may not be important; we pay attention only if they are helpful.
- Thoughts are definitely not orders; we certainly don’t have to obey them.
- Thoughts may or may not be wise; we don’t automatically follow their advice.
- Thoughts are never threats; even the most painful or disturbing of thoughts does not represent a threat to us.
How to Determine if a Thought is Helpful
Ask yourself the following kinds of questions:
- Is this the same old thought I’ve had before?
- What would I gain from paying attention to or buying into this thought?
- Does this thought help me take actions that will improve my life?
- Does this thought help me be the person I want to be?
- Does this thought help me align my actions with my personal values?
- Does this thought help me built useful relationships?
How to Diffuse Unhelpful Thoughts
It is important to note at this point that you don’t repress or battle your unhelpful and negative thoughts. You accept that you are having them, but you don’t give them priority or attention. If your thoughts are not helpful, just let them float on by without engaging them. See them for what they are; just a string of words.
- Become an observer of your thoughts. Take a step back and notice them instead of participating in them. This is the mindful observer of Zen.
- Explicitly take note of your thoughts as in “I notice that I am having the thought…”, is an excellent way of stepping back and diffusing the impact of the thought.
- Name your stories. If you have a familiar I’m fat, I’m stupid, I’m negative, I can’t cope, I can’t get motivated, etc. story then simply name it. When you recognize the story is playing in your head then just say “There’s that ‘I can’t cope’ story again!”.
- Repeat your unhelpful thoughts in a silly cartoon voice. This helps you recognize that they are nothing more than words in your mind. No more real than the words coming out of Bart Simpson’s cartoon mouth.
- Take time to experience your your particularly intense unhelpful thoughts and emotions. Give them time to run their course and then let them go.
- Practice mindful meditation.
Some of this may seem silly, but I’ve tried it and it works wonderfully. There are other ways to diffuse your thoughts and you can experiment and find out what works for you. Like everything else, it takes practice, but the more you do it the more automatic it becomes.
What do you think? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
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