walking on custard

Who Thinks My Thoughts?!

26 May 2015

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

One day at school we had one of those special days when we abandoned normal lessons and had someone else take over.

I guess the justification was to broaden our minds, but, looking back, it was probably a handy excuse for our regular teachers to catch up on marking and planning while we were handed over to some other sucker.

Anyway. One thing always stuck out to me from this day in particular. We were asked to answer the question “What is a thought?”

At first, it sounds like a trivially obvious question. We all think (well, most of us do!) near-constantly. Thoughts are one of our most primary experiences. Surely it must be easy to explain what they are.

But it’s very difficult to answer the question without entering some circular definition. Thoughts are so fundamental that we find it hard to explain them in any other terms but themselves.

Younger-Neil’s answer was “an instruction to the body”. (I remember scrawling this in a slight panic when I hadn’t come up with anything by the time we had to present our answers.)

My answer had some truth in, but of course it’s woefully incomplete; not all thoughts are instructions, or related to the body. Just some thoughts.

I didn’t mind being wrong. After all, finding out you’re wrong gives you the opportunity to learn the real answer! And so I waited for the teacher to reveal the truth, interested in the solution to this puzzle we’d been set.

But I was left disappointed as the day ended without any grand revelation. Instead, we were told that not everything has a simple answer.

For a curiosity-driven child, this was infuriating.

Luckily, my disappointment didn’t last long as I got distracted by something else. And for most of the next twenty years I had the normal relationship we all have with our thoughts: near-total ignorance. Occasionally I’d remember this day at school, and briefly ponder what a thought might be. But then I’d forget again.

My thoughts themselves are generally invisible to me. They’re so normal that they fade into the background.

If I referred to them at all, it was as if they were an extension of myself: “I think this…”

Occasionally I’d hear the idea that “you are not your thoughts”… but this sounded like slightly bizarre hippy nonsense, and I would disregard it as such.

(though… who, exactly, made me think “this is nonsense, you should disregard it”?! That’s right: my thoughts!)

But, finally, I learned that it can often be helpful to think of our thoughts as separate from ourselves.

This is because our thoughts have a massive effect on our emotional state. I might see somebody smiling on the street, and how I feel afterwards depends entirely on the thought I have about it:

  • “Oh, they’re happy, that’s nice” – If I think this, I’ll probably smile to myself and continue along my way.
  • “Ugh, they’re happy. I wish I had what they have. I suck.” – If I think this, I’ll feel awful.

After the exact same experience, we can feel very differently depending on the thoughts we have about it.

This doesn’t mean we can “think ourself” out of anxiety or other problems. As we all know, it’s not so easy to control your thoughts.

(This makes sense: the way we control our thoughts is via our thoughts! It’s like trying to put out a fire with more fire.)

Inner critic: You’re saying “thoughts” a lot. People will pick up on that and probably hate you for it. Be better at this.

I highlight my inner critic so often as a reminder that I don’t have to listen to all of my thoughts. And to show that these negative, critical thoughts arise for all of us, one way or another.

It’s so easy to fall into the habit of unquestioningly believing everything that pops into my head as if it’s the truth: Everytime I feel a random pain, I have cancer; or everytime I see someone happy, I beat myself up for not having whatever they have; or I imagine everything that could go wrong as if it were actually happening.

Learning how to relate to our thoughts is therefore a crucial skill in being less anxious and more happy.

And the only way we can learn to relate to something is if we no longer identify with it.

If I think my thoughts ARE me, then I don’t have a choice: I have to listen to them.

But if I can find another way to look at it, perhaps I can gain a little more control.

This is why “You are not your thoughts” is such a commonly quoted ‘wise saying’ – because accepting it is a powerful step towards developing a more stable emotional state.

Alternative Viewpoints

At first, the idea that my thoughts are separate from myself feels very strange.

If I am not my thoughts, then what am I?

More confusingly… If I am not my thoughts, then what are they?!

Thinking about this gets very confusing, very quickly!

We’re going to spend a few posts exploring these ideas and finding some helpful ways to look at it.

As a preview, we’re first going to establish our identity as something separate from our thoughts (this is obvious, when you think about it: If I never consciously had another thought, my life would still have value and I would still exist).

After that, we can figure out techniques for relating to and managing our thoughts.

My favourite way to view them is as a mere tool offered by my body.

Just as my kidneys offer a handy function (keeping my insides clean and healthy), my brain offers a useful ongoing commentary on what is happening. It isn’t automatically correct. I don’t have to believe it. It’s just a commentary that I can tune into or out of.

I don’t believe that many of us consciously identify with our kidneys, so if we can apply the same distancing to our brains we develop the ability to choose whether we want to listen to our thoughts on a case-by-case basis.

So, we’re going to spend the next few posts exploring this.

Next time: our identity.

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

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