Have you ever thought about what you think about?
Bit trippy, isn’t it? At first it’s an odd thing to consider. Thoughts drift and swarm and dart and pound around in our minds often non-stop through our waking hours. But rarely do we take the time to observe them – What are they about? What are they telling us? Where do they come from?
Before I started studying psychology and practicing mindfulness, I used to think that our thoughts were a rational and objective report of our external world. I thought we took in the world through our senses, and our thoughts – sensibly and without bias – explained that world back to us.
When I saw a therapist for the first time, in the midst of a thorny life patch in my not-too-distant past, I remember her asking me…
“What if your thoughts aren’t explaining the world as it is?”
“What if your thoughts are putting “spin” on your external world? Much like a journalist can spin an article to bias you in a certain way.”
I was shook. It was like that feeling when you grow up from being a kid and realise that grown-up’s don’t know everything and don’t always tell you the complete truth.
From that day, I started a practice to monitor my thoughts, and I made an effort to start taking note of any unhelpful ones. Now this idea of a thought being “helpful” or “unhelpful” was quite groundbreaking to me. Initially, I thought a thought was either “true” or “not true” according to my objective reality. I never thought you could consider the worth of a thought by how much it might help you.
So I gave it a try – I took note of my unhelpful thoughts (like you might make a note every time you see a yellow car). I wrote them down, alongside another thought which reframed the same scenario in a more helpful way…
Unhelpful thought #1:
My friend hasn’t texted me back in a few days. Therefore, she must not want to talk to me because I am annoying and clingy.
RE-FRAMED TO: Perhaps, she might be busy or just has forgotten to respond (like I have done many times). I can follow up with her to check in.
Unhelpful thought #2:
All my Facebook friends are getting married, buying houses and having babies & I am living with my parents and working a dead-end job. Therefore, I’m failing at life and what’s the point in trying?
RE-FRAMED TO: Perhaps, this might be a life-speed bump. Most people have them at some point. There will be plenty of opportunities for me to achieve things which are important to me – I don’t need to judge myself against other people’s timelines.
Unhelpful thought #3:
I’ve skipped the gym for two weeks now and have been eating so much junk food. Therefore, I’m lazy and don’t have the self-discipline to ever achieve anything.
RE-FRAMED TO: Perhaps, I’ve been busy and overwhelmed these last few weeks. Maybe I can make an effort to attend the gym at least once next week, buy some healthy groceries and not be so hard on myself.
On each occasion, my situation hadn’t changed, but a new, kinder perspective on it was offered as possible. At first it took a while for me to even entertain the second, more compassionate and helpful thought. It felt saccharine and almost condescendingly nice. But I kept at the practice, and over time I was able to dislodge the unhelpful thoughts from their regular poll position.
Now, if you’re anything like me and you tend to entertain unhelpful thoughts automatically, it’s going to take some work to consistently challenge those unhelpful thoughts and reframe them.