It’s a new year, and as you settle back into your job and regular life, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit of the January blues. The holidays are over and reality has descended again. But that also means it’s a perfect time to learn a new set of skills that will help you feel less anxious, less stressed, and more calm and confident in 2017!
So starting today for the next few weeks I’m going to be doing a Back to Basics blog series. I’m going to teach you the difference between thoughts and feelings and how to distinguish between them. I’m going to teach you what creates your thoughts and what creates your feelings. And I’m going to teach you how to see the connections between your feelings and the actions you take, and the actions you take and the results in your life. (You may remember this post, as a version if it was published on my blog earlier this year – it’s still the best overview I have of how to learn to notice your thoguhts, but starting next week the content of the series will all be new).
Up first today: YOUR THOUGHTS.
What do I mean when I say a “thought”? It sounds obvious but people actually have different ideas about what thoughts are. For our purposes we don’t have to get metaphysical or scientific.
A thought is a sentence in your mind.
Any language that goes through your head is a thought. There are a lot of different metaphors you can use to imagine your thoughts.
Sometimes I like to think of mine as a ticker tape display, like the ones they have with news headlines in Times Square.
Sometimes I think of my thoughts as computer programs – at some point I or someone else entered some thoughts into my brain and hit “repeat” and now my brain has been generating those thoughts over and over again for years.
Another metaphor borrowed from Buddhist meditation is to imagine your thoughts as clouds in the sky.
Why are these metaphors useful? Because the first and most important skill you need to feel better is to practice making a distinction between (1) your thoughts and (2) the part of you that can observe your thoughts. In meditation it’s sometimes called “the watcher.” I just think of it as my consciousness.
However you decide to think of it, the important point is that you are not your thoughts. You can observe your thoughts, which means there is a part of your brain capable of meta-consciousness.
And that is everything because that is the part of your brain that can eventually learn how to change your thoughts.
If you find this challenging in the abstract, the best way to figure out what you are thinking is to write down your thoughts. Set a timer for five minutes. You can just write whatever comes into your head, or you can give yourself a prompt. This is especially effective if you have something in your life that is bothering you. Decide to write about wy you are upset about that thing.
Don’t stop writing no matter what, even if you’re just writing “I don’t know what to write” for a while. Eventually your thoughts will start to tumble out through your fingers or your pen. When the timer is up, stop writing. Look back at what you wrote. Those are your thoughts. That is the inner monologue that is going on in your mind all the time.
The crucial distinction here is that what you have written down is not an objective capture of reality. We are so used to the thoughts in our own heads that we just assume they are a reflection of reality. But actually the thoughts in our head are just thoughts. They are just a ticker tape, or clouds in the sky, or a computer program that is running without supervision. They are not reality and they are not our deepest selves. They are just sentences in our mind that we haven’t learned to notice or question. Until now.
This week, practice paying attention to the thoughts you are thinking. Remind yourself that they are just sentences in your mind. Doing a 5 minute free write like I described above is a great way to get into this habit. Practice observing your thoughts as the “watcher” – if you do this regularly, even without doing anything else, you’ll start to notice that you feel a little calmer and have a little more perspective on your life. (But don’t worry, I’m going to teach you a much more active way to engage with your thoughts later in the series.)
Up next week: How your thoughts create your feelings, and how to tell the difference between them!