We are not our thoughts ...

Posted: Wednesday 4th November 2020

I was recently talking with a friend and she began to tell me about how the stresses of the Covid 19 pandemic and its impacts on society, freedoms, pleasures and relationships were taking their toll on her. She said that she had started to feel low, unhappy and hopeless. She had even started to think that she was not loveable, not wanted, not valuable, really no good at all. My friend had had these difficult thoughts, thoughts that had arisen in the context of a stressful time, and she had identified with them. In other words, she had started to believe that her thoughts were her and she was her thoughts. ‘That’s me!’ she had accepted without really noticing herself doing it. Without really noticing that she had any choice in the matter at all.

Many psychotherapeutic models remind us that although our minds think (after all, that’s what minds do), we are not our thoughts. There is a very helpful little practice in this regard. Notice a thought that troubles you and say it aloud. Perhaps the thought is ‘I am alone’ or ‘No-one loves me’. How does it feel emotionally when you say the thought aloud? What seems possible and impossible when you say the thought aloud? Now do it again, but this time, add a small simple preface before the thought: ‘I am having the thought that….’. What difference does it make to say instead ‘I am having the thought that I am alone’? or ‘I am having the thought that no-one loves me’? Such a small shift and yet a world of difference. Making this shift, we transform ourselves from being the thought, to being the host of the thought.

This is a shift that we at MyST sometimes encourage young people and the adults who care for them to try. It can take a lot of courage to try this in earnest because we can become so accustomed to assuming that we are our thoughts that to re-position thoughts as simply something that pass through us can feel radically different and unsettlingly unfamiliar. And on top of that, this shift poses another issue: If I am not my thoughts, then who am I? A big question indeed, and one that we might feel is too big to tackle, although perhaps it might feel intriguing too. Suffice to say that realising that we are not our thoughts can be tricky and we might sometimes be reluctant to entertain it.

The prize on offer for making this shift however is to achieve some precious and sometimes life-saving freedom from the tyranny of having to deal with being whoever our thoughts invite us to think we are. And for the young people that we work with at MyST, a number of familiar themes crop up amongst the thoughts they share with us: I am a failure, unloveable, shameful, bad, different, a hopeless case, worthless, unwanted, never going to be happy… to name a few. With thoughts like these defining who young people think they are, it is surely worth considering whether our thoughts may be just thoughts, thoughts which arose in the context of a stressful time, and not who we are at all?

Jen & Jael

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