You don’t have to believe what’s going through your head.
If you think things like,
“I’m never gonna figure this out” or
“Oh my God! I’m such a f***ing loser!” or
“I’m the worst piece of s*** in the world”
you don’t have to believe them!
I’ll explain why in a minute. But first…
Your thoughts guide your life.
This is true whether you’re aware of those thoughts or not. This is a problem because many of our subconscious thoughts are negative. Typically, these subconscious thoughts are ones we’ve internalized from elsewhere. They’re not thoughts we’re actively choosing to think.
Keep in mind:
- thoughts outside your awareness can be brought into your awareness
- you don’t have to believe your thoughts!
- you can change thoughts you’re not choosing to ones you are purposely choosing
- awareness is where the change process begins
This article will cover all these areas with a couple of examples from my own life, as well as the four ways you can take to change all this. Let me start with the big revelation for me:
Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true.
I didn’t understand that until I got into 12 step recovery six years ago. This is despite being an incredibly introspective person, 35+ years of therapy and a ton of self-help work. I didn’t realize that I don’t have to believe my thoughts. Wow! Game-changer!
As I started unearthing my subconscious thought patterns in recovery, I couldn’t believe how negative they were. I’m an eternal optimist who has pretty high self-esteem, so it was shocking!
When I first started to realize that I didn’t have to believe my thoughts, it was only regarding thoughts about myself. For example, I realized that my “I’m too much” thoughts were not true.
In time, I came to realize that my thoughts about others and the world were also not necessarily true. For example, it became clear that one of my subconscious thoughts was, “There shouldn’t be traffic on the highway when I’m driving.” Even though highways were built for traffic! I also thought things like, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about” about someone I’d never met. How would *I* know what she did or didn’t know?!
The traffic thought was one of the more subterranean thoughts I had. But the “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about” pattern was a little closer to my awareness. What both of these thought patterns have in common is that I believed them! Now I understand that just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true. That is, there’s a difference between a thought and a belief.
As Brooke Castillo says, “A belief is just a thought you’ve thought so often that you come to believe it’s true.” I now understand what she means! Another game-changer for me!
Living well means thinking your thoughts on purpose.
You can’t have a well-lived life by accident, it needs to be purposeful. And you can’t live your life on purpose if it’s ruled by subconscious thought patterns. To live well, you need to pay attention to what’s going on in your head! It takes awareness, motivation to change and repetition. When the thoughts occur, challenge whether they’re true or not.
When I first got into recovery, one of the “tools” I used to challenge my thought patterns was this slogan:
“I’m not responsible for my first thought, but I am responsible
for my second thought and for what comes out of my mouth!”
That slogan reminded me that I’m going to have negative thoughts. I don’t have to believe them or act on them. They’re just part of the deal of being a human. This is especially true for those of us raised in dysfunction.
Until I started thoroughly examining what was going on in my head, I was only able to make tiny, incremental changes in my life. All those years of therapy, self-help books, retreats, spiritual programs, etc. weren’t resulting in deep, lasting behavior changes. That’s because I believed things that weren’t true — about me, the world and other people.
My thoughts about romantic partners were especially detrimental. I’d sort of make them “pay” for my thoughts about them, even though they weren’t true! (because I didn’t know that!). For example, I’d think “he doesn’t love me” based on something my partner did. Now, I can clearly see that these were often innocent behaviors that didn’t have anything to do with me. This has become more obvious to me now that I’m in a very healthy, loving, intimate relationship. I sometimes have these kinds of thoughts about my sweetheart and they’re complete bullshit! Now I know they’re complete bullshit!
A purposeful life starts with your thinking.
If you want to live your life on purpose — live the life you’ve imagined, it starts with your thinking. Everything starts with a thought. Your new thoughts can help you create new behavior patterns.
One way to improve your thought life — act your way into right thinking
Here’s an example of “acting your way into right thinking” from a friend in recovery. She stopped saying codependent things to her partner once she realized his behavior was none of her business. She still thought things like, “I wonder if he took his medication?” and “I can’t believe he’s putting that much salt on that!” But she stopped saying them aloud to him. Eventually, she stopped having the thoughts at all! She acted her way into right thinking! She changed her behavior (nagging him about his thoughts) and eventually her thoughts came along with her behavior!
4 more ways to improve your thoughts and your life.
In my early 30s I realized I had a lot of negative self-talk because of a book I read. The author wrote out some of the negative thoughts her clients had about themselves. When I read those words on the page I thought, “Oh my God! I say that shit to myself too!” I didn’t even realize it until I saw the words on the page. I then learned a process for how to change that went like this:
Step 1). Notice your thoughts.
Step 2). Stop the negativity.
Step 3). Replace those thoughts.
Step 4). Notice what you might be avoiding.
Step 1: Notice your thoughts.
First, you have to notice that you’re having negative thoughts. I first noticed them by seeing them written out on a page. I prompt my clients to notice their thoughts by committing to write them down for 2–3 days. It’s amazing what comes up for them! If you commit to do that for yourself for a day or two, you’ll start to notice what’s really going on in your head. Then, it will become hard to deny the thoughts.
Steps 2 and 3: Stop the negativity and replace those thoughts.
Then (obviously) you need to stop the negative talk! Replace the thoughts with something else that’s at least neutral, if not positive. I cleaned up much of my negative self-talk using this process back then. But when I got into 12-step recovery a few years ago, I learned there was much more to go!
It seems like some of my negativity went “underground.” I think of it as subterranean — like in the basement of my subconscious. Whatever the case, it’s clear to me that there were some things that were much more deeply subconscious than others.
Recovery helped me see that I had so much more negativity than I’d thought (recall that I’m an optimist who has pretty good self-esteem!). It was like an audio file looping in the background of my mind. It showed in that I wasn’t living the life of someone who has good, healthy thoughts about themselves and the world (thus, the need for recovery)!
Step 4: What might you be avoiding?
You might want to look at what’s going on around you when those thoughts pop up. It could be that these thoughts are a way for you to distract yourself from something that you don’t want to deal with. Paying attention to what’s going on when the thoughts arise will give you clues about why you might be beating yourself up right then. For example, if you’re sad because your close friend is moving, you might be avoiding the sadness by beating yourself up. If that’s the case, then deal with the thing that’s actually the root of the problem. Beating yourself up is a distraction.
You’re not choosing your thoughts!
When it came to my negative thoughts about other people and the world, at first I didn’t realize they weren’t thoughts that I was not choosing. A good example has to do with my romantic partners. The healthy, loving relationship I’m in now has helped me to see how I used to think and operate. I’ll occasionally have thoughts about my sweetheart but now, I realize they’re not based in reality. They have absolutely nothing to do with him or anything that he’s ever done. In the past when I had negative thoughts about partners, I assumed they were true and operated accordingly.
Something I learned in one of my recovery programs helps me with all this. Perhaps it will help you too. It’s a way of distancing your thoughts from yourself.
It has to do with one of the ways we talk about the disease of addiction in that program. We say, “My disease wants me dead. If it can’t have me dead, it will settle for me being miserable, because that will make me relapse.”
We also say things like, “My disease is in the backyard doing pushups.” In other words, it’s in great condition for battle. The second I let my guard down, my disease is ready (and fit) to hit the ground running because it’s been working out. It’s in great shape and ready to rumble with no notice as soon as I stop doing the work of recovery. Personally, I find this way of thinking helpful. It places some distance between “me” and the source of those negative thoughts.
Some people might prefer to say that it’s their ego or an inner critic rather than their “disease” creating these thoughts. I don’t think it matters what you call it, as long as you understand that those are not thoughts you’re actively choosing. You’re the one experiencing the thoughts for sure, but not the one creating the thoughts! The good news is, you can learn to create your thoughts!
One of the ways “my disease” (my negative thinking) tries to make me miserable is that it tries to make me feel separate from other people. It gives me thoughts that make me feel like I’m disconnected from others, like blaming them for things they didn’t even do! My disease doesn’t want me to be close to others so it tells me stories about other people. Let me give an example.
An example of “diseased” thinking.
One night I was sleeping at my sweetheart’s house. I woke up in the middle of the night and the pillow I put between my legs wasn’t there. My first thought was, “That fucker stole my pillow!” Yet the pillow was on the floor on my side of the bed.
It was ridiculous to think he had anything to do with the “missing” pillow because
a) he was sleeping
b) he’s never done anything like that
c) why would he take my pillow when there are plenty of others??
d) it was right there on the floor beside the bed
But my go-to thought immediately upon awakening was, “That fucker stole my pillow!” This is a perfect illustration of how my “disease” wants me to blame other people. It wants to push other people away from me. It doesn’t want me close with others, because if I’m close and intimate with other people, my disease can’t wedge its way in there to get me to relapse.
I now recognize that when I have thoughts like,
“If only people did things my way, they’d work out better” or
“I could have done that so much better than she could” or
“They don’t know what they’re talking about”
that is my disease talking. Those aren’t thoughts I’m choosing to think. Before recovery, I didn’t understand that these weren’t thoughts I was choosing. I also didn’t realize that they weren’t true!
You don’t have to believe what’s going through your head.
If you think things like,
“I’m never gonna figure this out” or
“Oh my God! I’m such a fucking loser!” or
“What the hell is the matter with me?!”
you don’t have to believe them. They’re not really your thoughts!
I don’t care whether you think of it as your inner critic or your disease or your ego or anything else. Just realize that those are not your thoughts! Even if you’re hearing them in your voice, they’re not yours. That’s part of the insidiousness of our internal dialog. You don’t have to believe the thoughts that are going through your head just because you’re thinking them!
Consciously making choices.
Part of the process of healing from our negative patterns is learning to make choices. I think the most incredible freedom of recovery is the freedom to choose. For me, the greatest of those freedoms is the freedom to choose my thoughts on purpose.
How to turn a negative thought around.
One example of a thought I choose to think on purpose is, “I’m just the right amount of everything.” I came up with this thought to negate the thoughts I used to have about being “too much.” Even if you think you’re “not enough” this might be a good phrase for you to choose to think on purpose. The idea that you’re too much is just the other side of the coin from thinking you’re not enough. In both cases, the idea is that you’re not the right amount (of whatever).
If you have a very specific thought that runs through your mind over and over, determine what the opposite of that thought is. Then, consider creating a phrase based on its opposite and start saying that thing to yourself.
When I came up with the phrase, “I’m just the right amount of everything” I needed to say it on a very regular basis because the “too much” thoughts came up often. However, I don’t have to say it very often anymore because I don’t need to. I just say it once a day as an affirmation.
Sometimes, it wasn’t even thoughts that I was too much. It was more of a feeling. Like a feeling of wanting to shrink back or hide. When I really paid attention to what that feeling was about, I realized the underlying thought was, “I’m too much.”
The process goes more quickly than you might think.
My experience is that it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to de-program those negative thoughts as you might think. It took some time for me to get there, but it was a matter of months rather than years. I started recovery at 52, after 30+ years of those negative thoughts. My negative thoughts are much fewer and farther between than they ever were before recovery.
“True facts” don’t necessarily serve you.
Here’s another trick about not believing things just because you think them. I learned it from Brooke Castillo. There can be things that are factually true, but believing them may not serve you. A good example to illustrate this is when you want to do something for the first time. You might keep thinking over and over, “I’ve never done this before” which is factually true. But it’s not serving you to keep thinking that!
If you want to learn to dance the Salsa, telling yourself over and over again, “I’ve never danced the Salsa … I’ve never danced the Salsa … I’ve never danced the Salsa” isn’t going to help! If you really want to learn Salsa dancing, repeating to yourself that you’ve never done it won’t help! In a case like this, it doesn’t really matter that it’s true — you don’t need to keep saying it! You can choose thoughts that serve you.
You might try something like, “I’m going to learn how to dance the Salsa” or “I’m learning how to dance the Salsa.” Statements like these will serve you so much better than “I’ve never danced the Salsa.”
You CAN live your life on purpose!
Realizing that you don’t have to believe your thoughts can be a game-changer for your life! As a reminder, the process goes like this.
1). Notice your thoughts.
2). Stop the negativity.
3). Replace those thoughts.
4). Notice what you might be avoiding.
This article is based on the podcast episode, “You Don’t Have to Believe Your Thoughts” which you can listen to here.
If you like this article, you might be dealing with issues of self-hatred. If that’s you, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who deal with self-hatred.