Learning to become more aware of our thoughts and how our mind works is an important step we all must take on our personal development journey.
We asked a selected group of experts to explain why it’s best not to believe everything you think, and how becoming more aware of your thought patterns can have a positive impact on your life.
Here’s what they said.
What Has Happened In The Past Influences Your Thinking In The Present
Stuart Doughty, Personal Development Mentor Consultant with The Proctor Gallagher Institute
What were you thinking?! Where did those thoughts even come from?
If you think you know, think again. Most of our thoughts are automatic, and many of our beliefs are not our own.
They are often borrowed or inherited from someone else, and can lead us astray.
Have you ever really examined the source of your thoughts, or like many people do you blindly accept whatever thoughts arise in your mind? Because if you do, you really should think again.
The mind is actually an activity, a constant stream of thought-energy that we are not in control of because we do not possess the level of concentration needed to pay such close attention.
Let’s start from the beginning. When you wake in the morning are you already thinking, and if so who is actually doing the thinking?
It can’t be you because seconds earlier you were asleep. Did you consciously choose those thoughts you woke up with – the ones that make you sigh at the start of another working week, or recalling the unfinished business from yesterday?
If you wake up with the same dreaded feelings every Monday, that’s a habit not a conscious awareness of reality. Your thoughts are not real and are not to be believed.
Why would you choose to feel bad? How does that help you? Your thoughts don’t tell the whole story, they are a reflection of your perception of what’s happening. And your perception is distorted by your concept and interpretation of life.
Basically, your memory of your experiences and everything you believe about what has happened in the past influence your thinking in the present.
People often are not thinking logically, or intelligently with fresh eyes, they are reacting to events from past conditioning.
Atul Gawande, Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, has said that 80 percent of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex don’t come from the retina in the eye, they come from regions of the brain that control memory functions.
Your mind is ‘remembering’ what to think, and passing it into your conscious awareness to consider. They are not the ‘truth’, they are an option, a choice, and you should be asking yourself if they are a good option.
If your thoughts about a problem do not solve it or support you, then they are not worth believing. Thinking and believing the worst is never a smart idea.
A simple exercise to make this point real, is to imagine something that you do not want to happen.
Getting audited by the IRS and having to pay more tax; falling over and breaking an ankle while hiking in a remote forest; being stricken by Covid-19. These thoughts can trigger strong emotional feelings that make you believe it might happen.
Those feelings then feed you more thoughts until you are trapped in a mental loop of doubt, anxiety and even fear.
These thoughts are not true. They are one imagined reality of what might happen. But they feel real.
You certainly should not believe what you think might happen. Better to believe what you hope will happen.
But which strand of thinking is true and to be believed? The one that fits. If you need to change those dominant thoughts to ones that better serve you, your goals or vision, then your solution is perception.
The mental faculty of perception allows you to change your mood, by changing your thoughts.
When you change the way you look at something, the thing you look at changes, as Wayne Dyer liked to say.
If you can change your thoughts by changing your point of view; by looking for the good in a challenging situation instead of the problem, then which thought is really true? What should you believe?
Our Brains Are Biased To See And Remember The Negative
Our brains, while amazing and helpful in so many ways, are simply organs that generate thoughts – much in the same way our hearts are organs that pump blood and our lungs are organs that breathe air.
And when we think of our brain in this way, it creates a bit of space for us to consider the possibility that our thought generating organ might be generating thoughts that aren’t actually true.
There is a saying that is very common in the life coach community, “our thoughts create our reality.”
It sounds life-coachey or new-agey, and to be perfectly honest, I had no idea what it meant until I accepted that truth about my brain just being another organ that creates thoughts and many of those thoughts aren’t actually true.
Here’s an example to illustrate the concept that our thoughts create our reality.
I tend to run late. It’s not my favorite thing about myself, but it’s true. And when I am running late I am usually thinking all sorts of thoughts like, “this is just like you. You always do this. When are you going to learn?” etc. etc.
Now imagine that I’m running late AND I get stopped at a red light. I might think something like, “Well, this is the worst possible thing that could happen. Now this red light is going to make me even later. This is terrible.” etc.
HOWEVER, those are just thoughts. If I thought something like, “Thank goodness I caught this red light. This moment to calm myself is exactly what I need right now. I am feeling a little frazzled and I want to be calm when I arrive, especially since i am already running late. This red light is great.” my reality in that moment would be completely different.
The circumstances in these examples are exactly the same. I am running late. I am sitting at a red light.
But when my thoughts about those circumstances change, my reality in that moment changes as well. And when we consider how our brains tend to work, we realize that not believing all of our thoughts is even more important.
Our brains are biased to see and remember the negative. This was an important survival skill for early humans.
For example, while remembering which berries tasted the best wouldn’t ensure survival, remembering which berries were poisonous certainly would.
And because of this negativity bias, it only makes sense that many of our thoughts tend to be negative as in my red light example above.
Of course, the good news for people like me who run late and for any human who has a normal brain that thinks lots of negative thoughts is that we can learn to question our thoughts.
We can ask ourselves if those thoughts are true. We can even ask ourselves if the opposite of that thought might be true as I did when I encountered a red light while running late.
And when we begin to do that, we can actually create a very different reality simply by changing our thoughts.
It’s Crucial To Challenge Your Thoughts
Galit Cohen, Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Coach
From a coach’s perspective, it’s imperative you don’t believe everything you think.
Something I work on with all my clients is challenging self-limiting belief. A self-limiting belief is a perception or assumption you have about yourself that prevents you from reaching your full potential.
For example, “there are much smarter applicants, I shouldn’t even bother applying to that program because I won’t get it”.
One of the primary ways we form our beliefs is through direct experience. We act, something happens, and we draw conclusions.
For example, you touch a hot stove, you get burnt, you note that touching hot stoves is not a good idea. We’re built this way to keep us from harm.
However, without training, our brains can be irrational. While the conclusions we draw from our experiences can be helpful, they can also be very constraining.
We fear that if we go against them, we will be hurt (physically, mentally, or emotionally). Our thoughts can end up making false judgements on what is keeping us safe.
Take the first example about fearing applying to a program. Your brain is trying to keep you safe from the disappointed you’d feel from being rejected. But in reality, it’s not guaranteed you’re going to be rejected! In fact, you might have a very high chance of getting in.
In this example, the thought is there to avoid emotional pain. In actuality, however, it is holding you back from the possibility of feeling great joy.
This is why it is crucial to challenge your thoughts.
It’s Important To Challenge Your Automatic Negative Thoughts
Jason Drake, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
We all have automatic negative thoughts. They are often intrusive and we have little to no control over them popping into our minds.
A lot of what makes us who we are today are derived from experiences we had when we were growing up. A time when we didn’t have the ability to make rational sense of some of our experiences.
For example, as a child, our brains have not developed enough to be able to have analytical, evaluative reasoning.
When we experience something that is hurtful as a child, let’s say a divorce, we don’t have the words to accurately describe what is happening. We just know that either mom or dad is no longer living with us and it hurts deeply.
Without the analytical ability to understand the reasons why mom and dad got divorced, many children blame themselves. Many children believe that if only they were better behaved or could have been a better child, the divorce would not have occurred.
Because of our lack of ability to put analytical words to this experience, we can miss the impact that experience had on us emotionally.
As we grow older, we look back and may tell ourselves that the divorce wasn’t a big deal or I really wasn’t affected by it. But, for some reason, we may now have this feeling that things outside of our control are our fault.
We don’t know where this comes from because as an adult, it doesn’t make logical, rational sense. We simply continue to have these unwanted thoughts of I’m not good enough or I’m just going to mess this up pop into our minds.
Though we may not have had the analytical ability as children to put words to the experience, we still deeply felt the experience.
It’s this deeply felt experience, without words to create meaning, that sticks with us as we grow older.
Many of our intrusive, negative thoughts have their roots in experiences growing up. It’s important to find the evidence behind these thoughts vs. taking the thoughts on face value.
Is there factual evidence that I’m not good enough? Or, what evidence is there that points to being good enough?
It’s important to challenge these automatic negative thoughts with evidence and start believing where the evidence takes you.
Though the thoughts may FEEL accurate, the EVIDENCE may indicate otherwise. Trust the evidence.