About Psychological Health: Observe Your Thoughts
This is the third of a six-part series on psychological health. Psychological health is all about how you can feel less stuck and live a more vital life. In previous articles I talked about the importance of being present to what’s going on around you and inside of you and being willing to have it. In this article I want to focus on thoughts, particularly how to relate to thoughts that can be challenging or problematic.
Thoughts are powerful and can keep you stuck.
We give a lot of power to our thoughts. There’s a good reason for this. Being able to think means being able to problem solve. Being able to problem solve means being able to survive and thrive in the world. Here’s an example:
I drop you off in an unfamiliar city, hand you $20, and tell you that you’ll have to take care of yourself with this money for the next 24 hours. Your mind will immediately get started with problem solving. You’ll start considering how you can stretch this money for food. You’ll go through various scenarios in your mind, eliminating ones that would blow your money too quickly. You’ll prioritize how to spend this money and plan out your day. All of this could happen pretty quickly and if you thought enough about it you’ll probably end up OK. Your thoughts allow you to test out different scenarios and would help you survive this situation.
Sometimes, however, our thoughts don’t help us. Let’s say you’re invited to a party. You’re really excited because this is a good friend who always cooks a lot of great food. You mind kicks into gear as you think about the party and who will be there and what kind of food they are going to have. But then you start having thoughts about how awkward you feel in social situations. You think about not having anything to talk about. Then you think about what might happen if you say the wrong thing and what people might think of you. As you chew on these thoughts, you decide not to go to the party. None of these things you fear have happened but they might as well have because you’re once again avoiding a social situation.
We get hooked in by thoughts.
Here are some other examples of thoughts that can be powerful and lead us away from living the lives we want:
What if I fail?
People will think less of me if I share my opinion.
I have never been good at this.
Why bother trying? These things never work out for me.
I won’t be able to handle this.
Maybe not all of these thoughts resonate with you, but perhaps some do. Thoughts often bring up emotional reactions and influence the behaviors that we engage in. We limit ourselves, avoid situations and our life gets smaller and narrower.
You can see how easy it is to get hooked in by a thought. Once we get hooked in it can be really hard to get unhooked. And once we’re hooked, we often stay stuck in a life we don’t want.
Imagine if you didn’t get hooked in by thoughts but saw them for what they were - just thoughts. How would your life be different?
Getting unhooked from thoughts
Getting unhooked from thoughts takes some practice, but it is possible. One place to start is by considering how powerful thoughts can be and noticing when they are happening. Practicing noticing thoughts give you a moment to realize that you can choose to get hooked in or not. Am I just having a thought or getting hooked in?
A really helpful way to do this is to label your thoughts as thoughts.
Here’s an example of a thought:
I am a complete failure.
And here’s the same thought but with a label added to it:
I’m having the thought that I am a complete failure.
Do you notice a difference in how these feel? When you say the first, it can bring up feelings of anxiety, shame, or disappointment. It can bring up memories of times you have failed. You might notice an urge to not move forward.
When you say the second, you might notice that the thought becomes a little less powerful, you see it for what it is, just a thought that you don’t have to get hooked on. You can then check in with yourself: what might you do if you don’t get hooked in by the thought?
Thoughts are powerful but with some practice you can start to notice how your mind works and begin to see thoughts for what they are - just thoughts. You don’t have to get hooked into them if they aren’t helping you live the life that you want.