Are Your Thoughts Helpful?

by Stephen Mills on November 24, 2009

negative thoughts

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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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenise Fryatt November 24, 2009 at 7:37 pm

For many years my mantra has been, “Choose the thoughts that serve you.” Whether you believe in objective reality or not, this really seems to be the wisest course. Thanks for the great guidelines!


Stephen Mills November 26, 2009 at 10:01 am

Hi Jenise! I believe in an objective reality, I’m just don’t think we see it 🙂


Positively Present November 24, 2009 at 9:19 pm

As someone who has many, many, MANY thoughts, I found this post brilliantly helpful! It’s great to have lots of thoughts, but not all of them are useful. I’m going to use your advice here to sort through mine!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..the benefits of having a grateful day =-.


Stephen Mills November 26, 2009 at 10:04 am

Hi Dani, thanks for stopping in to comment. I agree, you seem to have as many thoughts as anybody I’ve ever encountered. 🙂 I’m glad you found it useful.


Miche - Serenity Hacker November 25, 2009 at 1:09 am

Hi Stephen, great post, this is the sort of stuff I really like. The mind fascinates me… in it’s default mode it just keeps going, and going… like that crazy energizer bunny! Only when we train it otherwise does it begin to still and quiet. The lists you’ve set forth are really helpful and practical. One the one hand, it seems so simple, but when someone first discovers that they don’t have to travel down the road with every arising thought it’s sort of revolutionary. Though it was quite a while ago for me I still remember how completely liberated I felt just realizing that. Thanks for sharing this.

Miche 🙂
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..3 Keys to Emotional Serenity =-.


Stephen Mills November 26, 2009 at 10:11 am

Hi Miche, it sounds simple, but it’s not so easy to do. The more you practice the more automatic it becomes – a habit. Thanks for commenting.


Derrick November 25, 2009 at 9:36 am

Exactly Stephen!….be honest with “yourself” about your thoughts, in an efficient and attentative manner. It’s an intelligent way to live in my way of thinking. Thanks….another great post.



Stephen Mills November 26, 2009 at 10:14 am

Hi Derrick, thanks for your continued support. Thinking about our thoughts is indeed an intelligent way to live!


Vin - NaturalBias November 25, 2009 at 3:50 pm

As always, great stuff! We may not be able to fully control the thoughts that randomly pop into our heads, but we can certainly change how we perceive them and influence what other thoughts they lead to. This is why I’m a big fan of reframing negative thoughts into positive ones before they snowball into a miserable mood or even unfavorable actions.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..The Insanity of Black Friday =-.


Stephen Mills November 26, 2009 at 10:22 am

Right Vin, reframing or reappraisal may be our most powerful weapon against thoughts or circumstances. Thanks for your thoughts 🙂


Karlil November 25, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Great article as always Stephen. Like many others, I have always realize that negative thoughts are pointless to have, so I make the effort to stop dwelling on it. These days, whenever I have them, it doesn’t affect me much as I often cut it off before it can do me any harm. But of course there are times when I am overwhelmed by it. When that happens, I take some time off to recharge myself.
.-= Karlil´s last blog ..41 Reasons Why Life Is Awesome =-.


Stephen Mills November 26, 2009 at 10:25 am

Hi Nik. I like that you brought up recharging. Most people don’t realize that our brains use massive amounts of our body’s fuel and that our glucose and neurotransmitters need time to recharge.


Steven November 25, 2009 at 11:46 pm

Wonderful post Stephen, straightforward and useful.

What you said in your post is absolutely right, some negative thoughts might be true, but it doesn’t have to hold us back, it could be a motivation for us to be better.

That is what I think afterwards everytime I have a negative thought, I just ask myself a better question such as” Now how can I make this situation better” or “How could I improve myself on that aspect”. I believe that the questions we ask for ourselves are very important, it majorly determines which direction of focus we will have.

Many people will always ask themselves “Why do I think like this?” or “why does this happen to me?”, therefore their mind is constantly focused on self-pity.

Ultimately what you said is short and true, “A negative thought about yourself may actually be true, but if it is not helpful you shouldn’t pay attention to it. ”

Thanks for this Stephen.

.-= Steven´s last blog ..The 5 Senses You Should Appreciate =-.


Stephen Mills November 26, 2009 at 10:28 am

Hello Steven, you bring up a good point. People who think about their negative thoughts in a way that focuses on them is exactly what you should not be doing. Spend your time on the useful things and let the rest of it go. Thanks for your insightful comments 🙂


Armen Shirvanian November 27, 2009 at 1:34 am

Hi Stephen.

I have thought about this topic quite a few times. You hit on some of the right things we need to think when we have a thought that seems to be negative for us.

Your self-question “Does this thought help me build relationships?” is one that we can use often. A bunch of our thoughts fail with respect to connecting with others. Those thoughts are usually self-centered or lack thoughtfulness.

Interesting point there about stomping the ANTs. They are like ants in a way. Any time I have quickly focused elsewhere when useless thoughts come into play, I have quickly gotten to a good state with better action.

Some might say this is too much focus on thoughts, but we know thoughts become actions, which become all the buildings and creations and genius around us.
.-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Where You Are Is Where You Succeed =-.


Fatibony November 27, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Great post and the only times our thoughts rest if I may say is when we sleep and then we dream for those of us that dream. But then we wake up to our thoughts again. Your tips on how to diffuse unhelpful thoughts are wonderful of which has to be learnt and incorporated into our daily lives. I quite like …..”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”. I suppose here the interpretation we attach to our thoughts influence how we feel. Gtp post 🙂
.-= Fatibony´s last blog ..Joy, Happiness and Hope in one’s life Condt… =-.


Dragos Roua December 2, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Always useful. I didn’t know about this thought control therapy. I used to go for the GTD principle: you don’t have to have the same thought twice, unless you like that thought 🙂
.-= Dragos Roua´s last blog ..100 Ways To Screw Up Your Life =-.


Lana-DreamFollowers Blog December 2, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Great article Stephen for people to learn to be more aware and conscious of their thoughts. This is something I think everyone one of us needs.
Thank you!
.-= Lana-DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..Finding Your Life Purpose: Do You Know What You Stand For? =-.


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