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Thinking about thinking (from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)

Posted 15th of January, 2019 at 7:12am by Sharyn Kennedy

Thoughts.

What are they? What am I supposed to do with them? Which ones should I listen to? Which ones do I need to let go? Why do particular ones keep happening? Will I ever be free of them? Will they always hold me back?

What are they?

You can think of them as ideas — the natural output from a brain that is constantly trying to think through problems and come up with answers. Many thousands of years ago, you needed a brain like this to keep you safe, to ensure that you had enough to eat and to help you get on with other people.

So, left to itself (when it is not working constructively or solving real-life problems), your mind is a non-stop generator of reasons, possible solutions and creative suggestions and explanations for your or someone else’s behaviours. It will continually, in an effort to keep you safe, judge you for what you do and for what you didn’t do, and for who you are.

What do I do with them?

Your mind would like you to believe these ideas, to pay attention to every possible solution and suggestion, to consider, rethink and analyse these ideas and then to finally behave in some way to make you feel better — often in a way that does not give you what you want or need in the long term.

Another way to manage these thinking processes (so you can move forward in life) is to see them for what they are: distractions, judgments, evaluations and even stories that can take you away from what is really important to you. If you see them this way, you are less likely to want to analyse them, engage with them and do what they say.

Which ones do I need to let go?

Rather than ask yourself if your thinking is right, or whether you should pay attention to it, you may need to ask yourself a different question. Instead, ask yourself, “Does this thought work for me? Will it take me to where I want to go? Will it help me get through problems and setbacks? Is it a helpful thought or one that holds me back?”

Watch your thinking about your thinking — rather than argue with yourself about thoughts being right or wrong, true or false, or acceptable or unacceptable, skip past these ideas and simply ask, “Is this thinking going to work for me and help me do what I want in life?’

Use your thinking to take you to where you want to go in life: productive time at work, enjoyable times with family, a sense of achievement and peace of mind when you have a break. Let go of the thoughts that stop you from achieving these things.

Why do some specific thoughts keep happening?

What is your story? What is your mind telling you? When your mind makes sense of what it thinks is happening (or has happened) it links many ideas, feelings and images together into a story. The story will contain lots of evaluations (e.g., things are good, bad, unfair, unbearable) since your mind is trying to keep you safe. Some of these will ‘hook’ you. Thoughts that ‘hook’ you are linked to powerful emotions — they will keep returning again and again and your mind will keep analysing them, working through them and trying to make sense of them.

Over time the story becomes powerful, and thoughts about the story keep surfacing in your brain. Stories about yourself may be: “I am a kind and thoughtful person,” “I am someone who is bad at sports,” “I am someone who always messes up at exams,” “I am hopeless when it comes to giving presentations” or “I am in a relationship that will not work.”

Will I ever be free of them?

Thoughts are pervasive and unending. Your mind is constantly sorting through and evaluating events, analysing the past and predicting the future, and assessing your (and others’) actions.

Just try to stop thinking.

If you’ve tried this, you had to tell your mind “I’m going to stop thinking right now,” which is a thought itself. Then you needed to check that you were not thinking, and you used your thinking to do that!

The process of thinking is not a problem in itself, just as long as you don’t ‘buy into‘ or believe your thoughts. Being free from your thinking may happen when you learn to distance yourself from your thinking rather than trying to get rid of the thoughts.

Will they always hold me back?

When you become entangled in your story (your thoughts), then your thinking might hold you back.

You are not your story — neither are you your thoughts, emotions and memories.

When you are scared (or sad, or lonely) notice who is noticing it.

The ‘noticing’ part of you is in a safe place.

The thought ‘holding you back’ is just a thought — and it will pass.

The thought ‘holding you back’ is just a thought — it’s an evaluation that can make you feel bad.

The thought ‘holding you back’ is just a thought — it is part of your story.

The thought ‘holding you back’ is just a thought — let it go.

What you can do:

  • Write a page or two about the story of your life — write about your problems, worries, regrets, hurts, disappointments and concerns.
  • Then write another story using the same timeline and the same events, but this time write about what has happened with a positive, upbeat and optimistic approach.
  • Which story will you choose to keep in your head?

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About Sharyn Kennedy, PhD.

I help my patients in many ways…one of them is to encourage small, positive actions. Investing in yourself (be it time, therapy … or this book) is an excellent first step. There’s no risk (I have a money-back guarantee) to you so you’re assured a positive outcome. I look forward to hearing your story of transformation! Read more about Dr. Sharyn

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